Relief, Recovery or Change?
Giovanni Roberto from Comedores Sociales Cocina Rebelde during a Grassroots International solidarity delegation to Puerto Rico in 2019. Photo: Brooke Anderson, Movement Generation
Giovanni Roberto, from our partner in Puerto Rico the Comedores Sociales, writes about the response to Fiona on the archipelago. The contrast between the official government response and social movements’ responses could not be more clear. Just as clear is the importance of providing resources to real long-term solutions for Puerto Rico.
Once again, a hurricane passes through our archipelago leaving destruction, loss of life and enormous need. And once again the impact of this phenomenon is greater and more dramatic due to the botched and negligent preparation by our governments.
The immediate impact of Hurricane Fiona was quite unequal. There are areas where “not much happened”, while in entire neighborhoods many claim that “it was worse than Maria.” This time the winds weren’t that strong, although the rains were. The main problem has been LUMA Energy and its poor job at restoring the electrical service.
But the definitive, central and recurring factor of the problem is the enormous inability of our governments to promote an adequate recovery over the past 5 years — one that at the same time, was an opportunity to change how things would be done in the future.
RECOVERY BY THE GOVERNMENT VS. RECOVERY BY THE PEOPLE
After a disaster, a general three-stage scheme is usually followed: the relief stage or emergency (the so-called relief), immediately after the hurricane, where the priority is saving lives and securing water and food; the recovery stage, of indeterminate time in which services must be restored, houses rebuilt, and the economy re-established; and the stage of change and improvement, which should start with recovery and be focused on avoiding future setbacks, doing things better so as not to go back.
But where exactly are we? What stage were we at a week ago, before Fiona? The government will say that we were still in “recovery,” because well, the earthquakes came in 2020 and then COVID and well, no more could be done. But we know that’s a lie. They are sloppy and negligent, and that’s what’s up.
They had 5 years and did nothing. Time was wasted, lost in the usual corruption and in solutions that do not solve anything. They say that for the electric energy problem we need to privatize, for the lack of food we need more federal funds, and for the economic problem we need incentives for the Act 22 millionaires.
We [Comedores Sociales] had exactly the same 5 years to prepare, and seeing what I see, we did better. Without those millions of dollars, without the power of governments, we have made the best use of the resources that we could so as to be prepared and not go backwards in terms of the “recovery.” Our Mutual Aid Center in Caguas runs on solar energy and we have water cisterns. Our kitchen has nothing to envy a school cafeteria, in terms of equipment and production capacity. And our warehouse is taking the shape of a community supermarket.
The difference between the government’s shoddy work and our recovery efforts, it seems to me, are remarkable, and they start with a difference in attitude. The government of Puerto Rico lives and scrapes by on federal funds, and benefits directly from emergency and recovery money.
But that money stays or is lost in government spheres or in private businesses. It does not become an agent for real change against this regression that we are experiencing today.
THE EMERGENCY REVEALS THE REAL WORK TO BE DONE
We, on the other hand, do not like the relief (I hope no one does!). We do it, of course, because our priority is the people, the well-being of the people, and when you have to act, you have to act. But what are the thousands of bottles of water, the plates of food or the generators good for, if nothing changes after the emergency? What good are they if in two or three years we return to the same conditions? It is necessary to insist that a good part of this emergency could have been avoided if the needed changes had been made in time: building bridges and improving roads, creating and strengthening emergency community warehouses, and once and for all improving the electric power system.
That is why our work in this emergency does not seek to be part of the relief (although it is!), but to insist on recovery projects and strategies that have the potential to generate long-term changes. It is our main lesson since María: the emergency is only the stage at which, like the blindfold that falls from your eyes, reveals the real work that has to be done to make things change.
I can give an example. As a response to the COVID-19 emergency, Comedores Sociales created the nutritional support program Compras Solidarias to deliver free groceries to the families in need. At first the purchase and delivery process was difficult due to the long lines in supermarkets, because we had no relationship with suppliers or distributors, because we didn’t have enough money. It was more than 6 months of complete dedication, of both receiving and spending thousands of dollars on food and other provisions at the same time. We are glad we did it, but we didn’t want to stay there, in the complacency of the good response.
So we asked ourselves, what can we do now to avoid returning to a similar situation? And that’s how the idea of having our own food warehouse was born, which soon became the cooperative supermarket in formation, Súper Solidario Coop, which has already been operating for two years. More than twenty people have already joined this effort to create a community supermarket. And from that recovery project, from that experience of change, with those people of the community, today we are doing the support work in this emergency.
What’s up? Can’t the government do something similar with electricity, with bridges and roads, with water management? Is there no capacity to amend what is evidently wrong? No, of course not! They don’t want things to change because they live off our misfortune and they benefit from it, today more clearly than ever.
ONLY THE PEOPLE SAVE THE PEOPLE
Our commitment to people’s wellbeing is an essential part of who we are. And that is why we are once again asking ourselves: what can we do now during this emergency to avoid —as much as we can— again facing a similar situation in the future?
The answers start to emerge and they are not so complicated: 1) Insist on the recovery projects that generate changes towards the future, such as Súper Solidario Coop; 2) Consolidate the works of the Mutual Aid Center of Caguas, so that it’s possible to promote more community organization in Caguas and throughout the island; and 3) Face the underlying problem with all our might: insist on developing our own food policy in Puerto Rico that contemplates distributing land and developing our agriculture.
There are no excuses. After this emergency the government has an obligation to make structural changes and address the underlying problems. We are already working, and the Fiona emergency, instead of distracting us, reinforces the path for us. Today more than ever: Only the People Save the People!