Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Double-Edged Sword of Racist Environmental Catastrophe

Global warming and its resultant ecological disasters are merely collateral damage to the environmental disaster that is global capitalism. It’s interesting that for decades the mass messaging has been worried about so-called ecoterrorism. But terrorism is a political name of a distinct violence that functionally distracts from the heightened and broad violence that imperialist and capitalist destruction wrought to communities of color. And when it comes to the ecology, this violence is double-edged.

Because, first, the repercussions of ecological damage hit communities of color first, most, and the hardest. We see that in the warming of the Atlantic Ocean and the hurricanes that have devastated the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, rocking hardest the communities of color that have little protection and infrastructure as they are put in harms’ way. We see that in neighborhoods where garbage dumps and smoke stacks are piled and children of color face enhanced lung disease, such as Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, or Gary, IN, just across the border. In the placement of people of color near toxic dumps or vice versa. In the state of Michigan’s treatment of the water in Flint. People of color are sacrificed to the gods of efficiency because White Supremacy will not allow otherwise.

The second wave that eco-terrorism is wrought in communities of color is that they are then victimized for their survival even as their recovery is dramatically slowed. They are blamed for not leaving beforehand when they have fewer resources to do so. They are qualified as “looters” while white looting is overlooked or sympathized with. Recently, a White news reporter riding atop Houston in a helicopter bragged about calling the police on people of color requisitioning emergency supplies from a shuttered grocery store. We saw this in how Haitians were treated as children by aid agencies and yet, for all their hand-wringing and fund-raising after the earthquake, left to rot by multinational corporations and their NGO wings. Communities of color are given less sympathy and thus less resources with which to alleviate their immediate needs after disasters.

Puerto Rico perfectly encapsulates both ends of this manufactured dilemma. Long before Hurricane Maria came along, the island colony of the US was put in the line of debt and neoliberal privatization to such an effect that it was facing the largest bankruptcy in the history of the US public bond market at $123 billion[1] already back in May of this year, eight times larger than Detroit’s. As a result of this mounting debt and the pressure to pay it off, not only are its beaches being privatized (and thus denied to citizens) and its schools being closed (along with drastic cuts to teacher pay and shutting of other essential services), its infrastructure is sabotaged. The fact that the electrical grid collapsed under the weight of the storm is not due to the negligence of the Puerto Rican people, but to how debt is structured among people of color and the colonized. Haiti had no infrastructure to deal with natural disasters due to its economy being routed towards paying for debts as a two hundred-year punishment for its own Black rebellion against White empire.

By Eric Pancer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 

Racism is not only the reason communities of color like Puerto Rico are more susceptible to environmental disasters, but also the reason their recovery from these catastrophes is trashed. Unlike when the Wall St. banks and lenders were insured by the United States after they destroyed the housing market and countless lives, Puerto Rico, a protectorate of the US, is expected to pay debts it could not before the hurricanes. Its debt racked up under a Democratic president and it’s likely that a Democratic president wouldn’t have fundamentally altered or alleviate it. It just so happens that this openly White Supremacist and tactless president let the cat out of the bag by tweeting—while the island was under water and facing months without electrical power—that its first responsibility is to pay back Wall St.  Trump would not only blame the country for its own debt, but then, while failing to give the country the resources it needs for the people’s survival, called them lazy.

Haiti faced similar critiques and was criticized as too poor to prevent or treat the damage left by the earthquake in 2010, yet their blackness and abject poverty were tokenized for fundraising. Thus, even sympathetic aid organizations like Red Cross and the Clinton Foundation neglected or overthrew Haitian input while collecting hundreds of millions of dollars only to leave Haitians little better than before the quake. A Clinton donor, for instance, spent six billion dollars of raised money on building a handful of ‘hurricane-proof’ trailers that left homeless occupants sick from formaldehyde. Nine hundred Haitians died after Hurricane Matthew hit last year. Hillary Clinton, who claimed to be leading the response to the crisis, would as Secretary of State take the side of industrialists seeking to further exploit Haitian workers by working to deny pay increase demands and intervening in their elections. This after George W Bush assisted in a coup of democratically-elected President Aristide, following in his father’s coup of the same in the early 90’s.

We’ve yet to see how NGO’s will react in PR, but we know that banks were offering aid by merely compounding and prioritizing more debt to further consume the country and its public spaces. As a 100 year-old colony of the United States, however, Puerto Rico has very little agency in its own governance and largely relies on the US body politic, an engagement that they have no control over as the island has no representative vote.

To contrast, the neighboring socialist island nation of Cuba—undoubtedly also very poor—takes absolute, comprehensive precautions against these same tropical storms, thus facing significantly fewer lives lost than mainland US even as it takes the brunt end of these hurricanes. The country prioritizes prevention and protecting its most vulnerable people , whereas the capitalist nation state of the US undoubtedly prioritizes debt and economic growth, both at the expense of people of color. Cuba protects personal property, bodies, and affects while it’s clear that the corporations that run the US care only about their private property.

It’s about priorities, and global capitalism is perpetual war against communities of color.

 

[1] Nine times the size of Detroit, which then became another colony for the White ruling class to do with as they pleased.

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