‘This Bankrupt Island’

María del Pilar Blanco

In Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a Christian missionary called Peter travels to a faraway planet called Oasis to spread the word of god to an earnest population of alien beings. While away, he receives emails from his wife, Bea, at home in the UK. As Peter feels increasingly settled in Oasis, Bea’s news from home takes a turn for the uncanny and ultimately terrifying. Britain and the Earth are in trouble: her messages lists a series of natural calamities across the globe, from freak weather to volcanic eruptions, to the complete disappearance of the Maldives into the Indian Ocean. ‘Stay where you are,’ Bea writes in her last message.

I was forcefully reminded of Faber’s novel by recent events in Mexico and the Caribbean. The images coming out of Puerto Rico, where I was born and where my mother still lives, show an island that, more often than not beset by drought, is now drowning and on its knees. I want to go back, but I can’t go back, not while flights are cancelled and there is an indefinite curfew in place. Puerto Ricans will be without electricity for many months, as the island’s outdated infrastructure has collapsed irreparably. In one of the few BBC TV reports from the island in the past few days, the reporter called Puerto Rico ‘this bankrupt island’.

To be both destroyed and bankrupt is a doubly desperate situation. Efforts to rebuild the island will depend on US federal aid and charity, which Puerto Ricans will need for years to come. The spectre of debt looms over the fragile landscape. On 30 June 2016, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) into law; the legislation aims to restructure Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt and ‘exercise federal oversight over the fiscal affairs of territories’. PROMESA is a response to bad financial management on the island, certainly, but that has been enabled by the colonial infrastructure in place since the US occupation in 1898.

Nearly a week after the catastrophe, the island is unravelling. Puerto Ricans are awaiting aid from the mainland, unable as they are to receive help from other nations. And, after days of silence, President Trump has tweeted that the island 'is in deep trouble', stressing the 'billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks' that 'must be dealt with'. To prioritise debt over emergency disaster relief is a sign of cruelty beyond bounds.


  • 27 September 2017 at 6:20pm
    rjmzapater says:
    Now and going forward these are hard times in Puerto Rico. The widespread disaster promises to become a human catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions while the "authorities" continue to play the game of political and economic upmanship. Cuba and Venezuela immediately shipped aid to find it stopped and ceased by the imperial overlords and their colonial hacks because accepting their aid incurred a violation of the Jones Act of 1917. It's an odd thought to know that Cuba was battered by Hurricane Irma for almost 78 hours, but the country was ready for business within one week and ready to succour Borinquen while Florida is still mired in the cyclonic doldrums. In Condado (a coastal district of San Juan), where powerfully wealthy denizens of the ruling class have homes, the flood waters rose four feet and the cadavers of dogs, cats, and rats floated for days. Massive epidemics are to be expected, if the local and federal bosses do not come to an articulated agreement on how to proceed for the benefit of the people most affected. Any and all private citizen aid initiatives have been squashed by the elites fearing that their grip on the populace will be cast asunder by community based actions. There's no communication of any sort among the Spanish-speaking citizens in the island colony while the commercial media broadcasts in the imperial metropolis makes way to spectacles of great concern to cover up the graft that passes for missions of rescue and recovery. The USA, as can be expected, has left Puerto Rico to its own devices except for thousands of troops and sundry military personnel that are occupying the island in order to safeguard the interests of the Empire from incipient depredations at the hands of a poor, restive, desperate population that knows too well that their elected representatives are looking exclusively for themselves. Next week Trump will be on his way down to assess the real estate that will become available for the vultures of high finance and speculation as he treads on the shambles left by forty years of local and federal negligence and malfeasance. For his kind of vermin a human catastrophe is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps a massive exodus of Puerto Ricans to the so-called mainland USA can serve as an antidote for the imperial Congress of Washington to assign recovery funds, suspend the Jones Act, and cancel the "foreign" debt of the island colony to Wall Street. Everything we were warned would happen in an independent, sovereign Borinquen, has come to pass under the aegis of the imperial flag. Perhaps our long sustained suffering can shake us from such a deep colonial lethargic subservience.

  • 30 September 2017 at 7:29am
    RobotBoy says:
    Around five million Puerto Ricans (and those of PR descent) live on the U.S. mainland - more than on the island. There are over 700,000 Puerto Ricans (or Nuyoricans) in New York City alone, and their culture has shaped the city in all kinds of ways.
    In 1917, full U.S. citizenship was granted to Puerto Ricans, largely to make them eligible for conscription in WWI (and full citizenship only applied to those who lived on the mainland). Various pushes for independence or full statehood have been crushed, most notably the 1950 'Utuado Uprising', in which a small number of nationalist rebels were overwhelmed by the PR National Guard using P-47 bombers and heavy artillery (after a group of rebels surrendered under a guarantee of humane treatment, they were summarily executed by the military).
    So the U.S. continues to mishandle its largest 'unincorporated territory' more than a century after full-bore imperialism went downhill. Puerto Rico's strange status makes it an enormously profitable venture for a group of large American corporations, with far less oversight of their operations there than would be required in the U.S.
    Stateside, the lack of media attention to the devastation is telling. If 3 1/2 million American citizens were on the verge of starvation and epidemic anywhere else in the world, you wouldn't stop hearing about it. An updated 'Modest Proposal' would be timely about now.

  • 3 October 2017 at 4:51pm
    eeffock says:
    The precedent is set by colonialism - compare Trump's inaction with Lord John Russell's behavior toward the Irish famine.

    a calculated atrocity in both instances.

  • 4 October 2017 at 5:06am
    tigran says:
    When did anyone imagine the US power elite were in the business of help and compassion? When was that myth created? English history is full of Kings impoverishing the people to fund a crusade or two, or in this case, pay off his insatiable aristocracy. It's only cruel if it's s departure. If the US had demonstrated, or frankly, any first world state, had really acted on the fantasy they have imagined for themselves, imagined themselves as fabulously wealthy Lord Crawleys saving the world at the drop of a hat, it would be cruelty. But this ain't Downton Abbey. Even Downton Isn't Downton. Why is Puerto Rico in debt? Who isn't? And US debt dwarfs Puerto Rico debt but bleating about Trump as if the US has ever done the Good Samaritan thing just makes you look stoopid.

    • 18 October 2017 at 9:36am
      John Cowan says: @ tigran
      It's not that Puerto Rico is in debt. It's that it can neither repudiate the debt nor go bankrupt. Its citizens are stuck paying it off to the uttermost farthing.