Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria swept the island, Puerto Ricans are elevating their voices and vision for a better future.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, it exposed the shocking realities of poverty and inequality that residents had lived with for far too long. It also revealed to the world something else: the vibrancy, resilience, and community spirit of the Puerto Rican people.
But Puerto Rico is now facing a new test—a political crisis that threatens to undermine its fragile process of recovery.
In recent weeks, two former Cabinet members of Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló were arrested on corruption charges. A stunning online group chat also surfaced involving Rosselló, his associates, and friends, including messages of discrimination, misogyny, as well as contempt for the poor and the victims of the hurricane—hinting as well at possible criminal actions.
All this has brought the people of Puerto Rico—and some of Oxfam’s partners—to the streets. With an estimated 500,000 people marching one day last week (roughly a sixth of the island’s total population), they are demanding the governor’s resignation, a larger say in how recovery funds are used, and expressing their indignation at this latest crisis.
And many now believe their voices alone can propel the island out of it.
Fighting for a better recovery
Since the hurricane, Oxfam America has been working with our partners in Puerto Rico to aid the most vulnerable and promote the island’s recovery. Our efforts began with assisting local humanitarian leaders to get the water running and the lights back on. Now we are focused on building lasting resilience as well as economic prosperity and equity.
But what does the current political crisis mean for hurricane recovery and everyday Puerto Ricans? The disbursement of federal hurricane recovery dollars to Puerto Rico has already been excruciatingly slow, in part due to the fact that all funds must go through a centralized agency that oversees their disbursement. The current political crisis may give cover to the Trump administration to further hold up recovery dollars, and for policymakers to further centralize their oversight through the Financial Oversight and Management Board. All this makes the possibility for a faster and more resilient recovery even slimmer.
Many of our partners are at the center of the conversation.
- The Center for Investigative Journalism, which promotes transparency in the island’s recovery process, exposed the online group chat. It is now investigating its contents and tracing its implications on whether federal funds were fraudulently awarded to well-connected contractors.
- Espacios Abiertos—which hosts disaster prevention and preparedness activities as well as maps the distribution and disbursement of recovery funds in the island—was a target in the chat. Its executive director, Cecille Blondet, says the chat is part of a pattern of intimidation, calling for a thorough investigation and “for civil society to take action to ensure an open, transparent and accountable government on democratic bases.”
- Proyecto Matria says the values reflected in the chat permeate current governmental leadership. They are calling for the governor to resign and for civil society to determine the changes in governance that are needed to change those values.
- Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico demands respect for the human rights of the poor, women, LGBTQ, and other vulnerable populations that were most affected by the hurricane. The organization is calling for the ouster of “all those who lie, rob, and assault” the Puerto Rican people.
- Kilómetro 0 and Professor María Dolores Fernós are uniting to demand respect for human rights and the resignation of the governor.
- FURIA, Inc—another community-based advocacy partner—states, “traditionally excluded communities are being held captive by avarice and corruption. For that reason, we respond to the call to unite with those that claim for the voice of the people to be heard and actions for true equity, the only solutions to poverty."
Their voices must be heard
Oxfam America, an organization that has offered aid in numerous natural disaster crises, has confirmed time and again that these types of corruption scandals and political turmoil hurt the most vulnerable disproportionately—especially the poor.
We insist that any initiative to promote transparency and accountability of federal funds should involve the direct participation of community stakeholders and civil society actors. From what we have been seeing and hearing from our partners and collaborators, the people of Puerto Rico are very much ready to undertake those important tasks.
But to achieve this, human principles of dignity, constitutional rights, and democratic tenets must be guaranteed and upheld. Groups that have been at the forefront of helping those most affected by the disaster have the capacity and knowledge to steer this recovery process in a more transparent and effective way. In this political crisis, we call for their rights to be protected, and their voices to be heard.
Dr. Adi Martínez-Roman, J.S.D., is the Senior Policy Analyst on Puerto Rico for Oxfam América. Before coming to Oxfam, she was the executive director of the Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia in Puerto Rico for two years as well as the Auxiliary Dean of Students of the University of Puerto Rico Law School for seven years, where she taught courses on the Legal Profession, Law and Poverty, and Law and Social Change.