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Resisting Disaster Capitalists and Building Solidarity in Puerto Rico

March 2018

Over 40 members of the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) and their allies brought supplies, skills, and solidarity to Puerto Rico at the end of January. Three CJA-led Solidarity Brigades rebuilt farms and agroecology schools, attended community meetings, and witnessed Puerto Ricans’ ongoing resilience and resistance at the grassroots.

“It was a very important space for not only sharing struggles, but building solutions together,” said Jovanna Garcia Soto, Solidarity Program officer for Latin America at Grassroots International. Originally from the island, Jovanna joined the brigades of climate justice activists for one week.

Grassroots International has been a member of the Climate Justice Alliance for years. After last year’s devastating hurricane, we joined the leadership of the Our Power campaign for Puerto Rico. Together with the CJA, Grassroots International is supporting Puerto Ricans’ demands for a just recovery, an end to the colonial-era Jones Act, and a cancellation of Puerto Rico’s debt.

We have looked to the leadership of Puerto Ricans on the island. They have not simply suffered; they have also resisted. They have not just survived, but they have organized for the Puerto Rico they want and deserve.

“Resilience means to bounce back, as if back was ever normal, as if back was ever just,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, an activist from the Climate Justice Alliance and executive director of UPROSE. “So we don’t use the word resilience, we use the word resistance.”

“The communities on the ground are working on systemic alternatives,” Jovanna said. “They were the first responders and are the ones organizing for a just recovery and long-term rebuilding led by Puerto Ricans, led by the people in the communities. They want to decide their future.”

“Most of the groups in Puerto Rico, they didn’t just pop up with the hurricane to meet an immediate need,” she added. “The resistance has always existed in Puerto Rico and among Boricuas in the diaspora, and there are different fronts to it.”

Over the course of two weeks, U.S. activists witnessed two fronts of this resistance: its reconnections with the land, and its confrontations with disaster capitalism.

“There were other hurricanes before Maria: the debt, the privatization, and other issues connected with the root cause: colonialism,” Jovanna said.

“This political context, all the steps that brought us Puerto Ricans here, it’s hard to take in. But there’s another side to the story, a hope. That’s the resistance that’s being built,” she continued. “This other side is not alone. People in Puerto Rico are building long-term solidarity with groups in the U.S. that have some of the same struggles, even as they live in the United States.”

Rebuilding the Roots of Power

Land has always shaped the destiny of Puerto Rico. After the United States seized Puerto Rico from the Spanish crown, American sugar cane business seized fertile lands from small farmers. No longer able to own their own land, many Puerto Ricans were forced into low-wage agricultural work for cash crops.

Decades later in the mid-20th century, the U.S.’s Operation Bootstrap devastated agriculture and enticed U.S. corporations to “modernize” the island’s economy. Agriculture and fishing employment dropped by 70% from the 1940s to the 1970s, as manufacturing jobs increased by 135%. By 2015, Puerto Rico was importing more than 80% of its food.

“When the powerful want to privatize, colonize, grab power from people, breaking the connection with land is one of the methods they use,” Jovanna said. “One of the colonization strategies was to attack and destroy agriculture. They have been grabbing the land from the peasants and small farmers that want to produce healthy food for Puerto Ricans.”

Most recently, agribusiness has looked to Puerto Rican land as a genetic testing ground. In the Juana Díaz municipality for example, Monsanto controls 31% of the most fertile lands for its seed experiments.

Last year’s devastating hurricanes and their aftermath have raised the specter of even more land grabs. But Puerto Ricans are building resistance by rebuilding their roots.

Organización Boricuá, a member of La Via Campesina and a Grassroots International grantee, has maintained the Botijas Agro-ecological Community School. Set in the community of Orocovis where small-farming is resurging, the school helps teach farming techniques that are sustainable for both the land and the farmer.

CJA’s Food Sovereignty brigade helped rebuild some of the farms the hurricane destroyed. They worked on the agroecology school. They also built solidarity.

“It was powerful, this was solidarity in action and they were grateful for all the knowledge and love they got from all the farmers in Puerto Rico. They deepened their understanding of Puerto Ricans’ struggle,” Jovanna said. “These grassroots groups already work on just transition and climate justice in their own communities. They have expertise and a lot of experience in resisting and and building real solutions. They know the importance of supporting food sovereignty as a core for systematic change.”

The bonds of solidarity reached into the rest of the Caribbean as well. The Black Dirt Farm Collective, Soil Generation and other Black American agroecology collectives rebuilt farms on the Virgin Islands after spending time in Puerto Rico.

Confronting Disaster Capitalism

The vultures have been circling Puerto Rico for years. After a century of looting and corporate-catered development schemes, the United States cancelled its corporate tax breaks for the island in 1996. The federal government left the island’s economy devastated and vulnerable. Puerto Rico’s government took out loans to stay afloat as they welcomed the vultures with open arms.

Disaster capitalists like the hedge fund Baupost Group now own billions in the island’s debt, and they’ve demanded repayment off the backs of Puerto Ricans. The government has been happy to oblige. Through the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments have looted the island’s infrastructure funds.

But the Puerto Rican  resistance to these vulture capitalists has been building for years too. Students have launched strikes to prevent college fee hikes. Environmental justice activists have defended land from corporate developers. Labor and energy sovereignty organizers have asked for a fully-funded electrical grid. “Sovereignty” has become a watchword in the resistance, and that spirit of self-determination extends from food to feminism.

Since the hurricanes, both the vultures’ demands and the people’s resistance have stiffened. On the one hand, the government intends to close more than 300 schools. On the other hand, working-class Puerto Ricans have occupied such schools, cleaned them up, and used them as organizing hubs.

Similar mutual aid centers, Centros de Apoyo Mutuo, have spread to more than 20 different locations. Grassroots International is making grants to support these projects and to build long-term relationships with these communities.

Jovanna also met with another Grassroots International grantee on her trip: the Comedores sociales. These community kitchens, a project of Centro para el Desarrollo Político, Educativo y Cultural (CDPEC), have served both food and political education to residents. Inspired by the Black Panther Party’s Breakfast for Children programs, activists are meeting immediate needs and building up their communities’ power through cooperative self-management.

The CJA solidarity delegations bore witness to and built solidarity with much of this resistance. On January 26th, delegation members Elizabeth Yeampierre and Naomi Klein spoke on a panel of local activists and scholars at the University of Puerto Rico. The forum, titled “From the Disasters of Capitalism to Disaster Capitalism: Resistance and Alternatives,” brought out more than 1,500 people.

“Moments of great crisis and peril do not need to knock us backwards. They can also catapult us forward,” Klein said in her speech. Klein, who has authored books such as The Shock Doctrine and No Is Not Enough, has researched both disaster capitalism and examples of successful resistance to it.

“Doing this visionary work during this moment of crisis may feel impossible, and I know that it does,” she continued. “But if I have learned anything from my time in Puerto Rico, it is that Puerto Ricans do the impossible every single day.”

In the final days of her trip, Jovanna saw the power of Boricua resistance on full display. Over 60 Puerto Rican organizations assembled for a community meeting in Mariana, Humacao.

Teacher-activists, environmental defenders, student strikers, union members and healthcare advocates sat attentively in plastic lawn chairs as a microphone passed from speaker to speaker. Under a massive tent, this united movement planned how to confront the circling vultures and their disaster-capitalist agenda.

“There was representation from all the different fronts,” Jovanna said. “That space made me feel we are unstoppable.”

“When you just read about what is happening in Puerto Rico, when you see how the U.S. and our government  is treating Puerto Rico before, during and after a hurricane, you can fall into a hole of despair. You can lose hope. But when you are there, you see the passion, the commitment, the power, and the energy they have to face all of the challenges they need to face, even with the lack of resources they have,” she said.

“Now I feel so inspired that Grassroots International is continuing to support the frontline groups on the ground in the long-term. It means us Puerto Ricans can continue to gain the power and the autonomy we need to confront what is coming and achieve the self-determination we deserve.”

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