January 12, 2020

Puerto Rico earthquakes are just the latest in a string of shocks for US island
First there was Hurricane Maria. Then, government upset. Now, Puerto Rico is facing the effects of devastating earthquakesA colourful and boisterous place in normal times, Guánica today presents a ghostly and deserted air, the sea breeze whistling through the ruins of the collapsed buildings that dot its streets.The signs of life are a few stray cats and dogs and a handful of families furtively piling their belongings into vehicles as they evacuate their homes.The town sits near the epicentre of the 6.4 earthquake that rocked Puerto Rico on Tuesday – the worse tremor to hit Puerto Rico in a century – which killed at least three people and left thousands homeless. Large-scale aftershocks, including one of 6.0 magnitude on Saturday morning, have rocked the island ever since.“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Edith Muñiz, 55, a lifelong resident of the town.“Many have fled their homes,” Muñiz said, standing in front of a Presbyterian church where emergency supplies were being collected. Across the street lay the ruins of a school whose three floors had pancaked flat on one another. (Luckily, the students were still off on winter break.) “We’re living here without water and without light.”The quakes are the latest in a string of shocks for this island of 3.2 million people – a commonwealth of the United States whose residents are US citizens but cannot vote in US presidential elections and have no voting representation in the US Congress. The island is still reeling from the impact of 2017’s Hurricane Maria – which devastated the island and killed at least 3,000 people – and processing protests last summer which forced then-governor Ricardo Rosselló from office.As after Maria, the response of the US government has appeared unfocused and disconnected. And – as after Maria – local officials have given varying and contradictory information about the island’s power grid. On Satuday, at least 20% of the island’s customers were still without power.After this latest tragedy, many in Puerto Rico wonder if the powers that lord over them – local or federal – have learned anything from recent history.“The root of the problem remains unchanged,” saids Manuel Natal Albelo, 33, a representative in the commonwealth’s House of Representatives who will be running for mayor of the capital San Juan this fall under the banner of the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC), an insurgent political party formed shortly before this past summer’s protests.“It is the corruption of a two-party system that responds exclusively to benefit particular financial interest groups,” Natal continued. “From the policies to the individuals in charge of their implementation, the old political establishment still sacrifices the vast majority of our people to protect the privileges of a few.”Rosselló eventually resigned after a series of profane chats were leaked in which he and close advisors mocked ordinary Puerto Ricans. His hand-picked successor, Pedro Pierluisi, lasted just five days before the island’s supreme court forced him out, citing questionable terms of succession.Pierluisi was succeeded by Wanda Vázquez, the island’s justice secretary. She claimed no political aspirations herself, but quickly warmed to the role, announcing last month that she would run for a full term in office, in the primaries of the ruling Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), which favours Puerto Rico becoming a US state.The PNP dominates the island’s bicameral legislature, while the opposition Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) – which favours a continuation of commonwealth status – maintains a slim majority of the mayor’s office. The parties have dominated Puerto Rico for decades.Vázquez has enacted as series of populist measures, including streamlining the process for owning firearms (a questionable initiative in an island with a dire rate of gun crime and femicide) and signing a bill that affirmed the legality of cockfighting, in defiance of a US ban.However, Vázquez has not substantially investigated alleged wrongdoing by some of the participants in the Rosselló chats, including a number of the ex-governor’s top aides. This month, Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice called for a special prosecutor to investigate those involved in the chat.Despite Vázquez’s populist touch – she spent a recent night among quake-affected residents of the battered Guánica and the island’s National Guard has established “tent cities” in five different towns – some now accuse her of continuing the same practices as her predecessor.“After the worst earthquake we have ever experienced in modern history, we were told that in 12 to 24 hours we would have our electricity back, only to be told later that it will take more than a year to fix,” said Mayra Vélez Serrano, a political science professor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico. “Vázquez inherited many of the same Rosselló cabinet members and secretaries of key agencies, all of whom showed themselves to be completely incapable of managing the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. There is very little trust in the government.”A stream of aid from local non-governmental organizations and ordinary Puerto Ricans has flowed south since Tuesday’s initial tremor.But, as the ground beneath the Puerto Ricans feet still shuddered, Donald Trump – who notoriously went golfing as Maria bore down on the island and then tossed paper towels at desperate islanders during a four-hour visit – has continued to withhold more than $18bn in federal funding earmarked by Congress. This was in defiance of a Congressionally-mandated September deadline to account for at least $8m of it. A controversial fiscal oversight board has controlled the island’s finances since 2016, as the bankrupt US commonwealth faces almost $18bn of general-obligation bonds and government-guaranteed debt.But the machinations of any local and federal politicians are a distant drama for those dealing with this latest challenge.As she and her family moved their belongings out of the Villa Del Caribe caserio (public housing project) in the southern city of Ponce, where frightening cracks crept up the buildings’ facades, Yetzabeth Vega López described the night the quake hit.“People were screaming, crying, everyone ran because the buildings were moving so violently. It was horrible,” she said. “We’re trying to find another place to live as this place is now not habitable. In reality, we haven’t seen much help from the government, not federal or local. A lot of people here are sleeping in their cars. This is very hard.”
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