September 20, 2019; New York Times
Earlier this month, NPQ wrote on the emergence of popular assemblies as Puerto Ricans responded to a vastly changed political environment, one that forced the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló two months ago. In their coverage, Patricia Mazzei and Alejandra Rosa of the New York Times highlight the assemblies being held in the midst of the continuing crisis, one which still leaves up to 30,000 Hurricane Maria survivors living under leaky tarps.
The people’s assemblies are a new phenomenon that sprang up in the wake of this summer’s protests. Puerto Rico has a long history of activism, but hardly anyone can remember a time when people outside of labor unions, political parties and other organized groups gathered with tailgate chairs and clipboards to discuss what they call ‘auto-gestión,’ or self-management.”
Two years after the Category-4 hurricane hit, “federal funds have yet to come in for a single permanent road reconstruction project,” write Mazzei and Rosa. “The island municipality of Vieques still does not have a hospital.”
Other challenges abound. Emilio Pantojas García, a sociology professor at the University of Puerto Rico, tells the Times that, fundamentally, “what Maria did was very important in political terms: It showed that the government of Puerto Rico was the equivalent of a failed state. We survived Hurricane Maria because of solidarity among churches, community organizations, neighbors. The government never arrived.”
This self-help pattern continues. Examples Mazzei and Rosa raise include mutual aid centers which organized food donations in the immediate storm’s aftermath that now “offer art workshops for children, mental health sessions and documentary film nights,” and “a beekeeping organization in Vieques, eight miles from the big island, that brought people together twice a week to plant an orchard after the storm” and has now “spawned interest in health clinics and other wellness activities.”
With Rosselló gone, the governor is now Wanda Vázquez, formerly Puerto Rico’s justice secretary, but Vázquez has pledged not to run for election in 2020, placing her in a largely caretaker role.
Meanwhile, the assemblies envision a better Puerto Rican future. Mazzei and Rosa give a few details: adequate housing, neighborhoods protected “from new zoning that would allow big commercial developers to come in,” and support for “local growers to reduce the reliance on imported food.”
Last May, when NPQ hosted a webinar on Puerto Rico, participants identified many additional popular demands. Dr. Nelson Colón, who directs the Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico (Community Foundation of Puerto Rico), noted that, “We’re looking at worker-owned corporations that will drive the iteration of businesses and employment in communities.” Colón called for leveraging the island’s Afro-Caribbean cultural institutions in Loíza and extolled efforts to make the nearby island of Culebra the “first island in the Americas totally energized by solar.”
There are also, remarked Ruth Santiago of Centro Diálogo Ambiental (Center of Environmental Dialogue), efforts to promote 100-percent renewable energy production on Puerto Rico’s main island through a combination of energy literacy programs, demand-response rate variation, energy efficiency, and photovoltaic solar linked to battery energy storage systems. Deepak Lamba-Nieves of the Center for a New Economy called for using public procurement in rebuilding; presently, he estimates, 90 percent of Puerto Rican government contracts go to non-local firms.
For her part, Lyvia Rodriguez of the Martin Peña Community Land Trust suggested that Puerto Rico doesn’t just need to rebuild housing; it must also change its housing model to promote community land ownership. This requires engaging community members “around habitat and housing issues rather than dealing with individual families in an individual way, which will definitely continue to have families live under poverty conditions and disconnected from their communities and their social infrastructure.”
Ultimately, whoever is elected in 2020 will have to step up and respond to the vision emerging from the assemblies. As Lamba-Nieves noted back in May, “We can’t just expect citizen groups to basically take the recovery on their backs and move it forward. I think it’s unfair, and I don’t even think there’s a place in the world where that has happened.”
Nonetheless, the community work is hugely important. As Víctor Vega Rodríguez, who works at a mutual aid center in Las Marías, tells the Times, “If my community empowers itself, and learns to be independent and not be dependent on the government, we could change many things. It’s something people are learning little by little.”—Steve Dubb