Oct 4, 2022 - World

What Puerto Ricans want to see happen after Fiona

Photo of people waiting in line with jugs to fill up diesel at a gas station

People wait in line to buy fuel at a gas station in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 20. Photo: Jose Jimenez via Getty Images

More than two weeks after Hurricane Fiona swept across Puerto Rico and caused severe flooding, mudslides and loss of running water, Puerto Ricans are still picking up the pieces, and many are making clear what changes they want to see — starting with the local government.

State of play: President Biden announced Monday a new $60 million investment for flood protections on the island, where over 100,000 Puerto Ricans remain without power. But grassroots groups say they've had to fill in gaping holes in the government’s response and recovery effort.

The backdrop: Fiona triggered negative memories for Puerto Ricans who lived through Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that killed 4,645 people, and reignited concern about island leaders' ability to address damages.

  • "Imagine being without water and with [the recent] heat wave, it's torture — people buying water, people charging their phones at the mall and getting some AC ... waiting in two-hour lines, five-hour lines to get some gas," Sadellys Ayuso, a college student who works at a hotel and lives in San Juan, told Axios.
  • "It feels pretty close to what we've gone through through Maria — like PTSD."
  • Both Biden and La Junta, the island's U.S. Congress-established financial oversight board, have committed funds for recovery efforts, but many worry the money won't be enough — especially for an island with a history of corruption, delays in aid distribution and budgetary mismanagement, Axios' Marina E. Franco reports.

Driving the news: Fed up with what they see as long-held corruption, people have taken to the streets to protest Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) and LUMA, the energy company responsible for Puerto Rico's power distribution and a joint venture between American and Canadian companies.

  • "It's the same lies all over again from Maria, where we had to wait five months ... to get power," Ayuso added. "It infuriates people."

What they’re saying: Freelance writer and historian Israel Meléndez Ayala told Axios the problem isn't funding — it is "years and years" of neglect by the local government, even before Maria.

  • "The people are very, very frustrated, disappointed, angry, and many feel hopeless, because the money's there," said the San Juan-based Meléndez Ayala. "But we're misusing funds, taking loans to cover deficits and allowing corruption to keep going with impunity."

Damary Burgos, an art professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico who volunteers with the grassroots aid group Brigada Solidaria del Oeste, noted that "what we are struggling with is ... a political situation that has aggravated and created extreme vulnerability in people."

  • "So namely, we're talking about colonialism, which is a structure that inherently is exploitative," said Burgos, who is based in Hormigueros. "And at the end of the day, we have extreme dependency on the United States."

Zoom in: Brigada Solidaria del Oeste has worked to fix people's roofs, offer hot meals and set up relief centers where families can access basic supplies. But Burgos said some organizations including the Red Cross and the local government's social services have referred families to her.

  • "That's not how things should work," she told Axios.
  • Both Burgos and Meléndez Ayala agree that one immediate way to address issues with infrastructure amid mismanagement is to invest in solar energy.
  • Something concrete the U.S. government can do "would be to allocate a certain amount of money from the reconstruction funds to put emergency solar panel systems on people's homes, at least the ones that could hold it," Burgos said.

Worth noting: Puerto Ricans remain divided on whether statehood is a solution. Ayuso says it would unlock access to more funding and resources and give Puerto Ricans an actual voice in U.S. government.

  • Burgos, however, says it wouldn’t solve long-term issues or address the U.S.’s decades-old colonial impacts.
  • She believes independence is the island’s future, noting that Puerto Rico and America have separate cultures, languages and traditions.
  • Meléndez Ayala also pointed out that statehood won't matter if corruption remains a part of governance.

What to watch: Some people are ready to oust the governor and LUMA.

  • "If we don't tackle and reform and change those behaviors, we are condemned to repeat the same thing," Meléndez Ayala said.
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