Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, knocking out the electric grid, leaving thousands without shelter and, directly or indirectly, causing the deaths of thousands of people. Recovery has been slow, complicated by infrastructure problems that ultimately were the result of years of neglect and austerity. But recovery has also been complicated by the reluctance of the federal government and the Trump administration to give the disaster the attention it deserves.
In fact, the disaster seems to have been seen as more of an opportunity to steer profits to Trump cronies and others and to reshape Puerto Rico, whose economy has been structured to make profits for U.S. companies since the early 20th century, to meet corporate needs in the 21st century.
Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” details the ways that corporations and governments take advantage of disasters to implement neoliberal economic structuring around the globe. As Klein puts it, Puerto Rico is experiencing the “Shock-After-Shock-After-Shock Doctrine,” including selling off public assets and turning over public schools to private corporations as charter schools. After Hurricane Maria, FEMA had an explicit policy of encouraging hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to leave for the mainland; a similar policy after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans created a permanent demographic shift in New Orleans’ population. Moving people to the mainland both acts as a political safety valve for the government and “conveniently helps create the ‘blank canvas’ that the governor has bragged about to would-be investors.”
As the title imples, this slim volume is about the alternatives Puerto Ricans must confront after the hurricane. One alternative involves exploiting Puerto Rico’s existing status as a domestic U.S. corporate tax haven; corporations there pay only 4 percent on profits. Similarly, U.S. citizens who relocate to Puerto Rico — but not the Puerto Ricans who already live there — can become exempt from paying income tax entirely. Increasingly, Puerto Rico has become a place for companies and employees not tied to specific workplaces to relocate, particularly ones who do most of their business on the web.
Klein reports on a convention on the island at which entrepreneurs schemed to make Puerto Rico a center for blockchain and cryptocurrency generation and the associated server farms. Server farms are a major sink for electricity, which has been in short supply in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. More conventionally, investors are looking at converting the devastated waterfronts into high-rise hotel and condo developments, creating gated enclaves that exclude most Puerto Ricans.
But the other alternative, one that is embodied in the “islands” of solar development and agroecology that already exist there, involves redeveloping Puerto Rico in a way that makes it less dependent on centralized energy sources and food imports, and more capable of providing a decent life for its 3 million inhabitants. As Klein describes one of these developments, “Visiting Casa Pueblo was ... a bit like stepping through a portal into another world — a parallel Puerto Rico where everything worked and the mood brimmed with optimism.” Community-based solar developments were among the few places on the island that still had power after the hurricane; they became centers for self-recovery projects, as well as places where people could go to recharge cell phones or plug in medical equipment.
Puerto Rico currently imports 85 percent of its food, even as its economy is mostly oriented to export agriculture. The hurricane devastated the cash crops, further hurting the economy. However, many of the traditional crops on the island, which are now mostly grown on organic farms, survived, partly because they’re adapted to the climate and partly because many are root vegetables that weren’t seriously hurt by the high winds. Klein points out that food sovereignty is not only crucial for reducing Puerto Rico’s dependence on the world economy, but also for insulating it against the worst effects of climate chaos.
As Klein puts it, “Puerto Rico finds itself locked in a battle of utopias. The Puertopians dream of a radical withdrawal from society into their privatized enclaves.” On the other side, community groups “dream of a society with far deeper commitments and engagement — with each other, within communities and with the natural systems, whose health is a prerequisite for any kind of safe future.”
“The Battle for Paradise” poses an alternative that the whole world will eventually face; will we reorient our industry and our economy to allow for local adaptation to the worsening climate? Or will we further centralize our infrastructure to make it easier for corporations to profit, even as that makes disruption from disasters, natural or man-made, more likely?
One unfortunate thing about the book is that it’s actually more of an extended article and only gives a taste of the alternatives and the context in which the battle is unfolding. One can hope that Klein will revisit the subject and flesh out this choice between “sovereignty for the many versus secession for the few.”
Book Review: 'No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need'
The resistance doctrine: Naomi Klein tells us how to resist the ‘Trump show’
Check out the full Sept. 12 - Sept. 18 issue.
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