(CN) – More than a century of energy colonialism by the United States has exacerbated the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s pummeling of Puerto Rico, a new study argues.
About half of Puerto Ricans still have no electricity and tens of thousands are forced to drink water that may be contaminated with raw sewage, more than four months after the storm struck. Despite these struggles, the Trump administration has said the island is too wealthy to receive additional aid.
But in a paper published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Communication, Catalina de Onis argues the island’s troubles are the equally the result of natural disasters like Hurricanes Irma and Maria and “unnatural” disasters like outdated infrastructure, a $73-billion debt crisis and Puerto Rico’s colonial legacy.
She points to a handful of policies that have contributed greatly to the island’s current situation.
“Inspired by local grassroots organizing efforts, and angered by the ongoing exploitation of Puerto Rico as a US colony, I have spent four years studying how the territory has been exploited as a sacrifice zone for empire building and experimentation, corporate greed, and toxic energy projects,” said de Onis, an assistant professor at Willamette University.
According to de Onis, the lifting of the 1920 Jones Act – which requires all goods to enter Puerto Rico on U.S.-made ships staffed by Americans and sporting the American flag – for 10 days after Hurricane Maria struck did nothing for relief efforts, as supplies were not distributed or were sent back to their points of origin. She argues the temporary waiver failed to relieve the burdens engendered by the territory’s economic dependence on the United States. If anything, it demonstrates the effects of this colonial relationship.
De Onis also examines Operation Bootstrap, a 1940s program which continues to torment Puerto Rico. The industrialization-by-invitation initiative made the island a prime destination for wealthy investors and corporate polluters like the fossil-fuel industry, which served as modern-day masters.
The third central policy de Onis examines is the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). Enacted in 2016, the bill gave debt-crisis management power to an undemocratically elected control board that has instituted a sweeping austerity agenda. The paper argues that the debt crisis and Washington’s efforts to maintain Puerto Rico’s economic dependence on the U.S. have led to widespread unemployment and poverty.
However, de Onis also notes that at the community level, there are ongoing efforts for self-determination which aim to dismantle colonial structures. These tactics include implementing decentralized and citizen-designed and operated solar communities.
This movement is critical because transitioning to renewables and decarbonization are not the same as sovereignty and energy justice, de Onis argues.
“If shifting to solar and wind becomes a license for green capitalism, continued hyper-consumption and an outsider-knows-best mentality, then alternative energy sources only perpetuate the same unsustainable systems that created our current problems,” she said.
“As so many Puerto Ricans have argued, radical transformations and disruptions to colonial, neoliberal business-as-usual are urgent and they begin with local community control.”
The paper suggests that the island is, in many ways, a “canary in the coalmine” – a cautionary tale of the significance of understanding energy colonialism’s role as a barrier to justice.
As such, de Onis believes that energy colonialism should be the focus of conversations around everyday crises and extreme weather disasters in Puerto Rico, as it hinders the ongoing quest for energy democracy.