Naomi Klein’s latest book, The Battle For Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, examines recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria. It is the first time the acclaimed author and journalist has focused on Puerto Rico and is based on a reporting trip earlier in the year. Klein talks to the Guardian’s senior reporter Oliver Laughland about the book and the island’s future.
I was in Puerto Rico shortly after Maria hit and found it a particularly shocking assignment. It reminded me a little of covering the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and observing an entire population let down by infrastructure and government. What sort of personal impact did it have on you, being on the ground?
When I was in Puerto Rico, I met people from Detroit, Michigan, who were there to talk about the emergency management boards and the impacts on schools. People from New Orleans were there, sharing information about what had happened to their school system after Hurricane Katrina. I found that pretty moving and different – that these kinds of grassroots, community-to-community exchanges were happening so soon after the disaster.
Where you have overwhelmingly black and brown communities, an economic crisis or natural disaster becomes the pretext to just do away with any pretense of self-government, of democracy, and impose austerity measures. So-called “structural adjustment programs” are often done in the aftermath of a shock, to take advantage of people’s state of emergency; the fact is that it’s really hard to engage in any kind of political participation when you have to wait in line three hours for food and water. To just stay alive is a full-time job.
It’s an incredibly cynical political tactic, and even so, people do manage to resist it, under these extraordinary circumstances.
What I found really moving in Puerto Rico was seeing the capacity to organize under such impossible circumstances, and I think that speaks to the island’s deep, deep history of resistance to colonization, and the [activist] infrastructure that predated Maria, in terms of the resistance to what Puerto Ricans call La Junta, the fiscal control board.
I didn’t realize that the anti-austerity movement in Puerto Rico had really peaked just a few months before Maria, that May Day of last year was the second-largest mass demonstration in Puerto Rico, second only to the protests against the US navy base in Vieques.
They were able to reconstruct that infrastructure – not just resist, but come together and say: “What do we want instead?” And that I’ve never seen before. I’ve seen resistance to the shocks. “Don’t do it. We won’t pay for your crisis” – if you think about the huge movements of the squares in southern Europe.
But I don’t think I’ve ever seen what I saw in Puerto Rico, which is people coming together in communities like Mariana, without water, without electricity, to dream together, to say: “OK. Of course we don’t want our schools to be shut down, and we don’t want the electricity grid to be sold off, and we don’t want more austerity, but we also know that just rejecting that gets us nowhere we want to go, and the status quo is unacceptable. So what should our electricity system, in an ideal world, look like? How should our food system be transformed? How should our school system be transformed?”
That is what I found most moving.
The Battle for Paradise deals with a lot of themes you’ve considered in your prior writing – disaster capitalism, the battles against neocolonialism and entrenched discrimination – so I wonder if this was the first time you’d thought about Puerto Rico in the context of your broader work?
As I published The Shock Doctrine, I started getting these invitations to come to Puerto Rico, and critiques from Puerto Ricans for having ignored it in the book. The time it came out, in 2007, was a really pivotal period for Puerto Rico.
In 2006, [Puerto Ricans] experienced this very extreme shock when the tax rates that had been offered to US companies to build factories in Puerto Rico expired. That was the beginning of the current debt crisis.
So they were already in huge trouble, economically, when the global financial crisis came hot on the heels of all that, leaving Puerto Rico’s economy reeling. And that became the pretext for this really severe dose [of austerity]. Worse than Greece, worse than what happened in southern Europe.
But no, I hadn’t been to Puerto Rico. I was in conversation about going, and then I heard from this group of academics at the University of Puerto Rico, who formed an organization called PAReS, who’d invited me probably a month after Maria hit, saying: “You’ve got to come.”
One of the most defining images of the immediate aftermath was Donald Trump’s appearance in San Juan, where he threw paper towels into a crowd of people as the recovery effort stalled across the island. It was moment that enraged so many people – what do you think that image said about the current administration’s response to the disaster?
I think everything about his administration’s response has communicated a total disregard for Puerto Rican life, including that moment of tossing the paper towels, but also putting on that show with Governor Ricardo Rosselló about how lucky Puerto Ricans are that barely anyone died.
At that point, I think the number they were using was 16 deaths. It was up the next day to 64, which, itself, is telling, because Rosselló has been totally complicit with the Trump administration in covering up the numbers of deaths by actively not counting.
I think, more than the paper towel throwing, it was what he was saying on that visit: “Oh, you’re lucky. This wasn’t like Katrina.”
And now we know, from a recent Harvard study, in the New England Journal of Medicine, that probably the number of dead is as high as 5,000 or more.
I think everything about the response has been an insult and a cover-up.
Of course it’s difficult to talk in counterfactuals, but I wonder, given the island’s long history of exploitation, whether you think anything would’ve been different under a Democratic administration, other than just imagery?
That’s a good question, and I really don’t know if I can answer it. But I think that the cronyism of some of the contracts seems to be worse during Republican administrations. Some of these contracts were handed out and just treated as a piggy bank for politically connected, amazingly inept, almost zero experience contractors. This is a replay of some of the stuff we saw in Iraq, or in New Orleans after Katrina.
It’s very, very clear that the major cause of death was not the initial impact of the storm; it was the collapse of the infrastructure, and that collapse would not have happened had there not been more than a decade of strangulating economic austerity. That cannot just be put on Trump. It’s absolutely shared with the Democrats and Obama.