Hurricane Maria, 2 Years Later: ‘We Want Another Puerto Rico’

SAN JUAN, P.R. — The giant protests are gone now from the streets of Puerto Rico, much like the old governor they ousted in what came to be known as “la revolución de verano,” the summer revolution.

What remains, besides flag murals and graffiti slogans, are more modest gatherings asking a more complicated question: What do Puerto Ricans want their future to look like?

“We want another Puerto Rico,” said Jennifer Mota Castillo, 33, one of about 120 people who attended a recent “people’s assembly” at a public square in San Juan, the capital. “And we don’t want this to fall again into the hands of the government, which has failed us year after year.”

Their hopes are as diverse as this island of 3.2 million people: finding adequate housing for tens of thousands of Hurricane Maria survivors still living under leaky tarps; protecting neighborhoods from new zoning that would allow big commercial developers to come in; and supporting local growers to reduce the reliance on imported food, which became scarce after the storm.

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.

“One has to dream,” said Prixda Santos, 66, who is working to turn an abandoned school into a community center in the municipality of Cidra. “If we don’t dream, we are badly off.”

ImagePrixda Santos, center, during a people’s assembly in Cidra, P.R.
CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Few in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, might have imagined two years ago that from the ruins of the Sept. 20, 2017, storm that wrecked almost every corner of the island would rise a grass-roots movement mighty enough to unseat a governor and inspire a new wave of civic activism.

Former Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló stepped down in August following a feverish popular uprising that lasted 15 days. Puerto Ricans still taking stock of the momentous power shift point to the deadly aftermath of Maria and the government’s inability to provide for its citizens afterward as the driving forces behind the summer’s unrest — along with continuing anger over widespread corruption.

“What Maria did was very important in political terms: It showed that the government of Puerto Rico was the equivalent of a failed state,” said Emilio Pantojas García, a sociology professor at the University of Puerto Rico. “We survived Hurricane Maria because of solidarity among churches, community organizations, neighbors. The government never arrived.”

The leak of hundreds of mean and offensive private text messages among Mr. Rosselló and members of his inner circle became the catalyst for political unrest once people had lost faith in their leaders, Dr. Pantojas García said: “Now there’s a crisis of legitimacy for the governorship and the traditional parties that have alternated power in recent decades.”

The new governor, Wanda Vázquez, who used to be the secretary of justice, has managed to stay in office in spite of early signals from her own party that ambitious leaders with an eye on next year’s elections might try to push her out.

CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Ms. Vázquez, who has said she will not be a candidate in 2020, has approached the job cautiously. She has not nominated a secretary of state to serve as her lieutenant governor, a decision that could trigger internal machinations within the ruling New Progressive Party, which supports statehood for Puerto Rico. The governor told local news outlets this week that she intends to pick a party outsider who can focus on managing federal aid funds.

On Tuesday, when Ms. Vázquez handed the keys to a new home to an older couple who lost their house in the hurricane, she conceded that the post-Maria assistance “has not been enough.”

With Puerto Rico still in the throes of a debt crisis and hurting from a 12-year economic recession, there is no money set aside for a study to identify the estimated 2,975 people who died as a result of the hurricane, Ms. Vázquez told local reporters. Federal funds have yet to come in for a single permanent road reconstruction project, reported El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper. The island municipality of Vieques still does not have a hospital. Up to 30,000 homes remain covered by blue roof tarps that were supposed to be temporary — about half the number of houses under tarps at the time of the one-year anniversary a year ago.

“It’s a sense of abandonment,” said Leticia Del Valle Durán, 37, an artisan and single mother of two on the outskirts of San Juan whose frayed tarp started to give way this summer. Her bathrooms are so damaged that she now showers in the garage, under a meager trickle of water from a plastic jug with a spigot.

The second floor, where her sister used to live, is uninhabitable, musty with mold. “We are always sick,” Ms. Del Valle said.

She brought her children to the recent people’s assembly in San Juan’s Hato Rey neighborhood and joined a committee focused on housing.

CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

“We should not depend on the government for anything,” Ms. Del Valle said at her home a few days later. “When this happened, we really got no help.”

Manuel Rivera Rodríguez, a legal aid attorney, said his clients were still scrambling for property title documents and appealing to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reconstruction help.

“For many people, it’s as if the hurricane had come through last month,” he said.

Some mutual aid centers that opened in communities across the island to organize food donations and hot meals immediately after the storm have stayed open, transitioning into places that offer art workshops for children, mental health sessions and documentary film nights.

In rural Las Marías, one such center operates out of six classrooms in an old public school that was abandoned some 16 years ago, said Víctor Vega Rodríguez, president of the center’s board. Hundreds of public schools have closed in recent years because of budget cuts and the migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland.

“If my community empowers itself, and learns to be independent and not be dependent on the government, we could change many things,” Mr. Vega, 30, said. “It’s something people are learning little by little.”

Young agronomists want to teach more people how to plant fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, after fresh food was scarce in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. A beekeeping organization in Vieques, eight miles from the big island, brought people together twice a week to plant an orchard after the storm, said Erica Boulogne, 40, one of the volunteers. That spawned interest in health clinics and other wellness activities.

“The government has been pretty absent,” said Ian Pagán-Roig, 30, who runs a farm in the municipality of Toa Alta. “The first helping hand was from the ‘self-managed’ community.”

CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

What no one can say with any certainty is what, if anything, the new populist efforts might amount to in the long run. Angry protesters ready to get rid of more public officials? Increased participation in local elections?

“Here, everything is basically at a standstill,” said Félix Córdova Iturregui, a retired literature professor from the University of Puerto Rico who has tried in public talks recently to draw a line from the debt crisis to the hurricane to the recent political unrest.

“We are living a sort of structural economic catastrophe related to the loss of jobs and the politics of austerity from both political parties,” Dr. Córdova said, referring to the pro-statehood party and its counterpart, which supports keeping Puerto Rico a United States commonwealth. “It has combined with a natural catastrophe and a political catastrophe. But nothing has really changed.”

“We don’t know how long that stillness will last,” he added. “Because the underlying discomfort is still there.”

Puerto Rico After Maria

Leave a Reply