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Puerto Rico: ‘I Know There’s a Path’

Since unabashedly calling out President Donald Trump over his disastrous response to Puerto Rico's suffering after two massive hurricanes, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has pushed for a transformation that returns autonomy to the island’s people.

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Carmen Yulín Cruz visits one of the new Centers for Community Transformation in San Juan, Puerto Rico., Mcpo. de San Juan

The reality of climate change will require leaders like San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Hit with Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, Puerto Rico lost at least 2,975 lives and estimates that it will cost $139 billion to fully recover. Since ascending to a national platform for unabashedly calling out President Donald Trump over his disastrous response to this crisis, Cruz has pushed for a transformation of Puerto Rico that returns autonomy to the island’s people. This approach also clashes with that of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who in classic “Shock Doctrine” style is using the chaos of the aftermath to open the island up to private development for private gain. As she continues to triage a city still on the mend, Cruz took time out to speak with The Progressive about what climate justice can look like.


Q: How is Puerto Rico grappling with the idea of climate change as it recovers from devastation?

Carmen Yulín Cruz: Unfortunately, Maria and Irma opened up a new reality, which was there, but that people had refused to see. No longer is climate change something abstract, but it has concrete effects on the lives of the people of Puerto Rico. Words like “resilience” have also taken on a different meaning.

In San Juan, we have changed our perspective on public policy. Number one: Everything has to be energy efficient or solar powered. Number two: Everything has to have redundancy. We have to plan for the worst-case scenario. We construct resilience into everything that we build now.

Q: What is your climate-resilient vision for Puerto Rico?

Cruz: Right now we are continuing to fight the selling of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Now it’s a public monopoly, but [at least] the resources are in the hands of the Puerto Rican people. When disaster economics comes into play, we have to be very careful and conscious about how the decisions we make today could hinder our ability to provide for a more just and equitable society.

So one of the things we’ve done in San Juan is look for permanent solutions to a recurring problem. And seeing how we can develop, go around, rewrite, and transform all at the same time. We are building what we call Centers for Community Transformation for twenty-one communities that were the most impacted in San Juan by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. One is already complete, and another one is almost ready.

We take an empty building or a municipal building, and we make sure that we have enough solar power, water filtration plants, places for people to keep insulin, places for people to come and have respiratory therapy. We have direct lines to talk to our management information systems and our emergency management systems. The centers have everything needed to open the roads, chainsaws and so forth, and water pumps. We provide them with enough food so that they can have soup kitchens spring up in case of an earthquake, in case of a hurricane, in case of just a regular flood.

It’s available at all times and it’s community run. We empowered the community and trained them so they run it. It also becomes a focal point for community activism. We want to make sure that when I’m not mayor the community knows what their rights are, what their responsibilities are, and that they claim it for themselves. We want to make sure they don’t depend on the government and that the government serves as a structure, a stepping stone if you may, for the community to have their own agenda and not depend on what the mayor wants to do.

Q: Has it been a challenge to convince people that living this way is in their best interest?

Cruz: Not at all.We pick the communities that are hardest-hit. So people understand. They may not be able to use the word “resilient.” But they know what it means. They don’t want their roof to blow over when the next hurricane comes. We want to make sure that what is happening is community driven, and that there’s a transformation which includes the community. But there hasn’t been any pushback.

Q: Governor Rosselló’s vision for the island is in direct conflict with yours. He has described his post-disaster strategy of encouraging private development as “execution and getting results.” What do you think this means?

Cruz: Well, there’s an issue of deciding, who is Puerto Rico for? What is the role that communities are going to play in paving the path for a just, fair, equitable, and sustainable agenda? It’s a different ambition: Is Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans? Or is Puerto Rico for people to come from outside of Puerto Rico to have their own tropical playground? You know, to me, Puerto Rico is for anyone that decides to make Puerto Rico home. It’s first and foremost for the people who live in our communities. And, as a government, we have a responsibility to ensure that the disenfranchised, those that have limited earning capabilities, those that have limited education capabilities, have their capabilities expanded, and have an opportunity to craft their own path.

If we continue to allow strictly market-driven decisions, then we’re condemning our generation and future generations to the lack of upward mobility.

Q: We’ve just been through the midterm elections. What impact do you think Puerto Ricans who have relocated to the U.S. mainland have had or will have on U.S. politics?

Cruz: I think that as Puerto Ricans, we have to look at ourselves as part of the Latino population. There’s five million Puerto Ricans living in the States and about fifty million Mexicans living in the States. So we need to make sure that as Latinos we all have a shared agenda, a progressive agenda that ensures we are keeping the rights that we have and continuing to expand on those rights.

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Mcpo. de San Juan

San Juan, after Hurricane Maria, September 23, 2017.

Q:Was there ever a time that you were afraid to publicly call out the President for fear that aid would be withheld following the hurricane?

Cruz: No. No. There were people around me who were afraid that would happen. I was cautioned that could be one of the results. But what I was seeing was such a powerful fight of anguish and death and desolation and inhumane treatment to the people of Puerto Rico, that I could not be silenced. I have often said that in a humanitarian crisis, you have two choices: You either speak up, no matter what the consequences are, or you stand down and become an accomplice to a narrative that ends up killing people. You can kill people with neglect or you can kill them with a gun. We were killed with neglect. We were allowed to die. And I have to say that for the most part the political class in Puerto Rico, perhaps because they were scared, allowed President Trump to look the other way.

Q: What do you think is the future for Puerto Rico’s relationship with the States? Are you hopeful?

Cruz: I’ll continue to fight for the end of colonization. A new partnership, a bold partnership, a progressive partnership, could be the basis of a new relationship between the United States and the people of Puerto Rico.

Those who were supposed to help us did not help. But the American people, the Latino population, the Puerto Rican diaspora, opened their hearts to us. And I don’t have any regrets. I will continue to fight for the rest of my life for the eradication of poverty and ensuring a progressive agenda that creates an equal playing field for all is possible, and that includes Medicare-for-All, and that includes tuition-free college, and that includes Puerto Rico being freed from the shackles of the Jones Act.

Late at night when the bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of government, in all its reality, wear me down, I sit down and I read the postcards, the little pieces of paper, the letters that I got, and I know that there is an opportunity. I know that there’s a path. I don’t know what that path is, completely. But to paraphrase Cesar Chavez, this was never about the grapes, this was always about the people. This was never about politics to me, this was always about saving lives. And in that human solidarity, I saw the present and the present is one.

Alexandra Tempus is associate editor of The Progressive. Read more by Alexandra Tempus

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