A Boon to Disaster Capitalism: Puerto Rico’s Perpetual State of Emergency
On August 16, amid record numbers of new Covid-19 infections, Puerto Rican Governor Wanda Vázquez acknowledged her defeat in a chaotic primary election to former Puerto Rico congressional representative Pedro Pierluisi. The results come one week after delayed and missing ballots led to a disastrous primary that forced, with the intervention of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, a second round of voting.
The administration’s mishandling of the primary is the latest episode in a yearlong sequence of controversies and scandals. As Adrian Florido reports, earlier this summer, Puerto Rico's special independent prosecutor's office announced a criminal probe into Vázquez's handling of emergency supplies after a series of earthquakes devastated Puerto Rico’s southern coast in January. The probe came at the same time that Puerto Rico has been recording its highest-ever average of new coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic.
The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, much like the primary, has been marked by a lack of coordination, misinformation, governmental negligence, and a striking emphasis on individual responsibility. On July 11, Wanda Vázquez told the press that “the increase in Covid-19 cases is not the responsibility of the government, but rather, it is the responsibility of each citizen and business to comply with security protocols.”
On August 19, Governor Vázquez issued executive order OE-2020-62, rolling back the reopening of certain sectors of the economy and imposing additional changes to the existing emergency measures. The measures included maintaining the ongoing curfew from 10 PM to 5 AM, the prohibition of alcohol sales after 7 PM, closing beaches, bars, and malls, and limiting the capacity of restaurants to operate. By focusing on individual responsibility, the executive order implies that the state has done everything to protect public safety. From this point forward, citizens are responsible for their own wellbeing.
These declarations officialized what has already been clear for many Puerto Ricans since Hurricane María devastated the Island in 2017: The U.S. and Puerto Rican governments have officially resigned their responsibility to provide basic social protections and resources for the survival of Puerto Rico’s residents.
This is part of a pattern to deal with any crisis or disaster affecting Puerto Rico: the uses of the state of emergency, executive orders, and a militaristic rhetoric of safety. Between March 12 and August 19, Governor Vázquez issued 35 executive orders to address the Covid-19 pandemic. In the colonial-neoliberal imaginary, the state of emergency and executive orders have become the only tools to deal with any crisis affecting the Island.
The governmental management of the Covid-19 pandemic, as with previous disasters, has brought about a new set of state of emergency and executive orders, which have further eroded the Puerto Rican internal democracy and exacerbated previously existing forms of structural violence, inequality, and vulnerabilities. It has also led to cases of corruption and state-corporate crimes. As former government employee turned disaster capitalist, Juan Maldonado, mentioned in March 2020 after getting a $38 million contract with the Puerto Rican government to supply one million Covid-19 testing kits: “the virus was [and continues to be] productive.”
Covid-19, as many other disasters, is affecting mostly poor people of color, precarious workers, the elderly, migrants, queer communities, and the unhoused. However, colonized subjects, too often a forgotten category in this amalgam of oppression, have been enduring the Covid-19 pandemic and other disasters without the necessary support of the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments. It is worth looking at the experiences of Puerto Rican colonial subjects and their long trajectory of enduring disaster, exceptionality, and corruption.
Economic Crisis, Swarms of Earthquakes, and the State of Emergency
When the Covid-19 global pandemic arrived, Puerto Rico was in a more precarious position than any other U.S. state or territory. Puerto Rico was unprepared to face a $9.7 billion direct economic impact, the permanent loss of approximately 100,000 jobs, and its related socio-legal challenges. In 2018, 43 percent of residents and 57 percent of children in Puerto Rico were already living in poverty.
The Covid-19 global pandemic brings about a new episode in a series of waves of disaster affecting Puerto Rico since 2006, when the economic and financial crisis began. The waves of disaster continued in 2016 with the bankruptcy, austerity measures, and the U.S. imposition of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Stability Act (PROMESA) and the Fiscal Oversight and Control Board (FOMB).
In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and María devastated the archipelago, and in January and May 2020, a swarm of earthquakes destroyed the southern region of the Island. Under these precarious conditions, Puerto Ricans have been asked to be resilient, to withstand disasters without government support, and to be responsible for themselves and the local economy.
The normalization of the use of the state of emergency can be seen on December 31, 2019, when Governor Vázquez issued executive order OE-2019-66 to extend the emergency period declared under Law 5 of January 29, 2017.
Between January 7 and March 12, 2020, Governor Vázquez issued 18 executive orders to address the disaster resulting from the swarms of earthquakes. Altogether, these executive orders included: the activation of the Puerto Rico National Guard to work in the recovery and relief efforts, the authorization of physicians and engineers from other jurisdictions to work in the recovery efforts, the distribution of recovery funds among affected municipalities, the “freeing” of governmental resources to help in the recovery efforts, the deregulation of the process of contracting out private corporations during the emergency, and the establishment of some transparency measures and the delegation of powers.
As the earthquakes affected the Island, and Puerto Ricans endured the scarcity of basic materials to deal with the aftermath, a group of citizens discovered a warehouse with thousands of recovery and relief materials. This sparked a new wave of anticorruption mobilizations, as well as an investigation into Vázquez’s involvement in the hiding of relief materials. While these mobilizations implemented the same creative strategies developed during the Puerto Rican Summer of 2019, they did not manage to mobilize thousands of Puerto Ricans as during the previous summer. Vázquez’s negligent, reckless, and criminogenic administration remained in charge of managing the Covid-19 pandemic.
Covid-19, Corruption, and the State of Emergency
From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vázquez’s administration declared the state of emergency (OE-2020-20, March 12, 2020). This declaration has already been extended and modified in 14 instances since its initial invocation. While the state of emergency is in full force, Puerto Ricans have been facing exponential increases in unemployment rates, lack of access to testing and proper monitoring of people infected by Covid-19, a dramatic escalation of families facing food insecurity, and unequal federal emergency relief. A significant number of Puerto Ricans did not receive the economic support provided by the CARES Act or any other federal aid relief.
The different measures taken by Vázquez’s administration to deal with Covid-19 entail the systemic erosion of an already degraded internal democracy and the hyper-exacerbation of an authoritarian style of governing. The fact that the primary elections were chaotic is not the consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, but rather it is the result of a long process of neoliberal degradation of the internal democracy. This is also the result of over two decades of economic crisis, austerity, and corrupt practices.
The executive orders issued during these months can shed light on the normalization of the state of emergency, corruption, and abandonment of Puerto Ricans.
Executive orders OE-2020-22 and OE-2020-28 activated the National Guard, allowed the Department of Health to utilize medical resources from the National Guard, and further militarized public order and security. OE-2020-23 established a lockdown for 14 days, as well as a curfew from 9 PM to 5 AM. This executive order imposed the closure of governmental offices as well as private businesses and corporations. The order provided some exceptions for emergency and essential services to remain open, but otherwise, citizens were to remain at home 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Executive order OE-2020-24 deregulated procurement processes and the buying of essential materials, such as test-kits and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). It was in this context that the above-mentioned corruption case of Juan Maldonado and Apex corporation took place. At the same time, OE-2020-27 deregulated the process of hiring external experts to manage the crisis. It was under this deregulated scenario that, on May 21, the public found out that interim secretary of health, Dr. Lorenzo González (appointed on March 26), was making $21,000 per month in a contract that would last until June 30. In July, the bankrupt government renewed González’s contract and raised his salary to $29,750 per month.
The administration’s strategies to deal with the period of emergency show a clear and consistent pattern of militarization, deregulation, and opening the gates for “external experts” to perform their professions in Puerto Rico. Recent history shows that contracting and bringing external experts has meant opportunities for corruption.
Parallelly, OE-2020-26 created a Medical Task Force to advise the executive branch on how to battle Covid-19. In tune with disaster capitalist practices, members of the Medical Task Force have already been involved in cases of corruption regarding the purchase of test-kits and ventilators.
Executive order OE-2020-29 of March 30, 2020 expanded the lockdown for another 14 days, modified the curfew from 7 PM to 5 AM, and imposed additional limitations to “outdoors activities,” including limiting the circulation of cars on designated days based on their license plate. More restrictions came with OE-2020-32, which enforced the mandatory closure of essential services for the weekend of April 10 to April 12. These draconian measures spurred public outrage, created chaotic situations in local grocery stores, and subjected Puerto Ricans to dire situations, to the point that Vázquez’s administration had to retract the emergency measures.
Furthermore, Vázquez’s administration decided to grant legal immunity from malpractice lawsuits to “medical facilities and professionals” providing services to Covid-19 patients through executive order OE-2020-36. This provision upset Puerto Ricans, since it did not guarantee access to PPE, or better salaries and hazard pay for healthcare workers, but rather emphasized the guaranteeing of immunity to corporations administrating private hospitals.
Executive order OE-2020-41 of May 21 provided guidelines for the reopening of the economy while still maintaining the curfew. OE-2020-44 of June 12 amended the curfew from 10PM to 5AM and led the way to an almost complete reopening of the economy. The curfew was once again extended until July 22 by OE-2020-48. It has been one of the measures intensely criticized by Puerto Rican civil and human rights organizations.
As the executive branch has been issuing executive orders, engaged in negligent and corrupt practices, the local legislature approved Law 35 of April 5, 2020, imposing serious penalties to those who disobey an executive order. As a result, hundreds of Puerto Ricans have been arrested, fined, and even sent to prison for violating the curfew. All of this is taking place as people are enduring the effects of a quarantine without the necessary information, resources, and access to essential services.
On June 30, 2020, Vázquez’s administration issued OE-2020-50, which extended for the sixth time the state of fiscal emergency until December 31, 2020.
Puerto Rico lacks urgent and robust testing capacity, and the necessary ventilators and PPE to care for patients and health and frontline workers. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico is the home of and provided profitable tax exceptions to Abbott and Roche, two of the big pharma corporations producing Covid-19 test-kit and PPE in the world.
The reckless moves by Vázquez’s administration evidence a negligent and chaotic mis-management of the pandemic, which backfired in August, when the government had to walk back on reopening the economy given the accelerated escalation of new cases.
Internal democracy and constitutional and political structures have been waning for over a decade. The normalization of the state of emergency and the systematic use of executive orders have not served to provide relief and recovery for the people, but rather, have facilitated corruption, disinformation, and chaotic crisis management, and enabled disaster capitalism.
However, there are important experiences of resistance to these tendencies. As Puerto Rico is facing disasters and abandonment, Puerto Ricans have protested and engaged in different creative demonstrations to demand that its negligent government provide basic services and address peoples’ needs. We must remember the Puerto Rican Summer of 2019, and the extraordinary examples of resistant, radical democracy, and decolonial justice.
While Vázquez is no longer a contender in the November 2020 elections, she, her negligent administration, and Pedro Pierluisi must be held accountable politically and legally for their drastic management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the earthquakes, and the economic crisis. Perhaps, after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, they might face the same fate as Ricardo Rosselló in the aftermath of Hurricane María.
[Jose Atiles is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a former Visiting Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and faculty member at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. His research and publications focus on the implications of US colonialism in Puerto Rico.]