Civil rights crisis in Puerto Rico after hurricanes alleged before OAS
SAN JUAN – Condemnations of the situation in Puerto Rico after the passage of hurricanes Irma and María were presented Thursday before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) by a group of local community leaders.
They attended the hearing with members of the Latin-American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (Cladem) to demand that the Washington, D.C.-based entity intercede with the federal and state governments to effectively address the human rights crisis they assure has taken over the island.
The visit coincides with the presentation of a 400-page report that details the situation in Puerto Rico and the alleged inaction of governments to meet the needs of the population.
Cladem Director Annette Martínez said residents are discriminated against by the local and federal governments, which has accentuated social differences on the island and has increased the number of people living under the levels of poverty and without access to basic services such as drinking water and healthcare.
“This is not a natural disaster. Puerto Rico has already been living under terrible levels of poverty and on top of that a fiscal control board has imposed on us that demands greater austerity measures in a country that is suffering from hunger. Hurricane Irma and then Maria, what they did was aggravate our situation, but we can no longer ignore what is happening in Puerto Rico,” a visibly indignant Martínez said.
“The Commission needs to act on the issue of Puerto Rico. We need you to come to the island and listen directly from the mouths of those affected in the mountains, in the islands of Vieques and Culebra, in the south where the contamination is palpable. We have a problem in Puerto Rico and it is one of discrimination since our colonial relationship with the United States, because we have not been given the true opportunity to exercise our right to self-determination and that should be clear,” she added during the hearing at OAS headquarters.
Although the U.S. government sent its representative, Kevin Sullivan, to answer questions from the commission, the government of Puerto Rico did not.
According to the human rights commission itself, the reason for its intervention is to listen to what the U.S. government is doing to help its territory and what is being done with the humanitarian aid that arrives on the island, among other issues.
Community leaders from several of the most affected sectors on the island gave an account of their experiences after both hurricanes, and agreed that the major weather events uncovered a reality that, they indicated, has worsened by political interests.
Bethsaida Bosa, a Peñuelas community leader and nurse, denounced the inaction of the local government to address the threat posed by the mountain of coal ash stored in the facilities of the AES plant in that municipality.
“The Government of Puerto Rico has ignored the claims and denunciations of our communities, who have had to do the work they don’t, protecting health, the environment and the life of their constituents. As a nurse, I am a witness that in our community there is a high incidence of respiratory diseases, cancer and skin diseases. In the wake of Hurricane María, the community asked the state to visit the AES coal plant and evaluate the facilities of the plant since the ash deposits of thousands of tons were uncovered,” Bosa complained.
“The government has refused to evaluate the state of the ash deposits after the hurricane and has failed to keep the communities informed about the risk to our health. What our community does know is that we find these ashes every day on our windows, on our balconies, on our tables and in our lungs. The genocidal attitude of the government to be an accomplice of AES and allowing us to continue to be poisoned for decades, beyond forcing us to get on our knees, what it has caused is a total indignation of our communities, who have taken to the streets to demand their most basic right, the right to life and to live in peace,” she added.
Also, Kiana Figueroa Guadalupe, granddaughter of Vieques activist Ismael Guadalupe, denounced the precarious conditions on the island-municipality and the vicissitudes they have had to face after the passage of the hurricanes in September.
“The physical destruction caused by María uncovered the abandonment that my people have suffered for decades. Seventy-five days after the hurricane, there is no electricity anywhere on the island, all the beaches are contaminated with sanitary waste, the debris has been deposited in clandestine landfills and the only hospital we have is closed,” said the 21-year-old, while highlighting the “disaster” that is the situation with the Maritime Transportation Authority vessels, the only accessible transport for the residents.
“Most of the 10,000 Viequenses who live on the island cannot afford air transportation, which is becoming scarcer and more expensive. Almost two weeks after the hurricane, Vieques remained completely isolated from the big island, without telecommunications and without transportation. Today, more than 70 days after the hurricane, the reservation system for transporting vehicles has not been resumed and the sale of individual tickets for residents is uncertain. Fuel does not arrive with the needed regularity. They also complicate the arrival of humanitarian aid,” he said.
Figueroa noted that, due to the isolation Vieques has experienced after the storms, his grandfather, a cancer patient, lost five chemotherapy sessions, likely resulting in metastasis of the condition of the well-known community activist.
The group also announced that a visit to the island is expected this weekend by a United Nations independent expert on extreme poverty who will make be doing a report on the matter.