Sunday, December 5, 2021

[COLUMN] Maria exposed the naked reality

By on October 5, 2017

The the eye of Hurricane Maria. (NASA via AP)

The noise of the hurricane wind is terrifying.

If you live in a concrete condominium, with good strong windows, as I do, you feel safe.

But the endless roar of the wind is awful.  You can feel it in your bones, the mindless, relentless violence of the hurricane. As you count the minutes, the hours, for the roar to begin to subside, you know that the winds is destroying everything outside.

In Maria, you knew it was destroying Puerto Rico.

But it must and it does come to an end – and there is silence.

For a small fraction of us in Puerto Rico, slowly life returns to something close to tolerable.  If your condominium has a good power plant, at least for now, you have your electric power and water.   The air conditioner cools the bedroom at night and you can sleep.

You prepared with lots of food and you know it won’t get spoiled because the refrigerator is working.  You have TV and see and hear the continuous local and U.S. news coverage of the disaster.  You have your iPhone and communicate with the family and friends that are so concerned about you, and you can do some work on your computer.

So you, in your condo in San Juan, for now are still in the 21st century, and you are not suffering physically.

But you are in an emotional, mental stupor because you know that outside, but for the relatively few fortunate ones like you, millions of Puerto Ricans are back in the 19th century, without electric power, running water, communications, a livable house, roads, schools, health care, medicines.  Because you know they are suffering.

And because something else has happened.

Maria has exposed the naked reality.

I wrote after Irma that hurricanes don’t kill hundreds and thousands here, as in Haiti and Bangladesh, because we are developed.  Of course, we are compared to these countries.

But I am sure that people in the U.S. and around the world seeing the heartbreaking images of the human misery throughout the island, are surprised to see how underdeveloped so much of Puerto Rico, this “U.S. territory,” is.

Take, for instance, in Sunday’s October 1st New York Times front page, the description of 61-year-old Jorge Diaz Rivera, in Corozal, climbing up a steep hill with empty Clorox bottles to fill them with water trickling down from a running spring.

Or the headline of Sunday’s Reuters’ story: “In PR acute shortages plunge the masses into survival struggle.”

Yes, Puerto Rico is not Haiti, but I was reminded of walking along the streets of Port-au-Prince when I walked in Condado and smelled putrid raw sewerage.

It was a major story throughout the world that Puerto Rico’s power system was so deteriorated that it will take months, not weeks, to restore power and water to millions.  Unbelievable in a “U.S. territory.”

Puerto Rico, as we know, is three times poorer than the U.S. Still I think in the U.S. the reaction has been: God, what happened to them is terrible.  But we didn’t know that Puerto Rico is so poor.

Maria has exposed how Puerto Rico has deceived itself.

Of course, we should have known how much we deceived ourselves when the governments, for decades, spending billions more than what it took in, drove itself into bankruptcy.  We should have known when Puerto Rico lost its credit, and when the U.S. Congress and President were forced to create the Fiscal Board to rescue the island from the economic mess we have made for ourselves.

Of course it was the result of incompetence, bad policies and bad politics. But self-delusion is the refusal to see the inevitable consequences of your decisions and actions.  It was what made Puerto Rico believe that it could overspend without the inevitable bankruptcy – that the power system would continue to deteriorate without the inevitable collapse.

And it’s the culture of self-delusion that creates the political status conflict that does so much damage to Puerto Rican politics and government. What could be more delusional than the present government, desperately trying to prevent the island’s economy from drowning in the horrendous fiscal and debt crisis, believing and assuring the people that we are on the verge of becoming a state?

What the debt crisis should have done, Maria did.

Reality always wins.

So can we believe what everyone here, and many around the world, are saying: that with the massive help of so many – of the U.S. government – Puerto Rico will modernize the essential infrastructure and a “better Puerto Rico” will emerge?

Of course, one must hope that it will. But Puerto Rico needs something more profound.

It needs a better culture.  It needs to stop deceiving itself.  It needs to face its realities –the reality of the overwhelming underdevelopment of so much of Puerto Rico. The reality that the government, the Puerto Rican himself, cannot continue to overspend.  The realities of Puerto Rico’s political and economic relation to the U.S.; the realities of political status.

But back to the noise of the hurricane wind.

In the 50’s, the big thing for us Puerto Ricans in New York was the great musical “West Side Story.”  I Ioved the love song: “The most beautiful sound I ever heard…Maria, Maria, Maria…..”

The song, the words, came to mind the morning of September 20th.   No, Maria was not the most beautiful sound – it was the awful, terrifying sound of Puerto Rico being destroyed.

But in the suffering and misery of a Puerto Rico “plunged…into survival struggle”, the hope is that the culture of self-deception is, yes, gone with the wind.

A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist for The San Juan Star, Executive Editor of El Mundo, Publisher and Editor of El Reportero.

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