Naomi Klein at her home in Toronto. Photograph: Anya Chibis for the Guardian
As I published The Shock Doctrine, I started getting these invitations to come to Puerto Rico, and critiques from Puerto Ricans for having ignored it in the book. The time it came out, in 2007, was a really pivotal period for Puerto Rico.
In 2006, [Puerto Ricans] experienced this very extreme shock when the tax rates that had been offered to US companies to build factories in Puerto Rico expired. That was the beginning of the current debt crisis.
So they were already in huge trouble, economically, when the global financial crisis came hot on the heels of all that, leaving Puerto Rico’s economy reeling. And that became the pretext for this really severe dose [of austerity]. Worse than Greece, worse than what happened in southern Europe.
But no, I hadn’t been to Puerto Rico. I was in conversation about going, and then I heard from this group of academics at the University of Puerto Rico, who formed an organization called PAReS, who’d invited me probably a month after Maria hit, saying: “You’ve got to come.”
One of the most defining images of the immediate aftermath was Donald Trump’s appearance in San Juan, where he threw paper towels into a crowd of people as the recovery effort stalled across the island. It was moment that enraged so many people – what do you think that image said about the current administration’s response to the disaster?
I think everything about his administration’s response has communicated a total disregard for Puerto Rican life, including that moment of tossing the paper towels, but also putting on that show with Governor Ricardo Rosselló about how lucky Puerto Ricans are that barely anyone died.
At that point, I think the number they were using was 16 deaths. It was up the next day to 64, which, itself, is telling, because Rosselló has been totally complicit with the Trump administration in covering up the numbers of deaths by actively not counting.
I think, more than the paper towel throwing, it was what he was saying on that visit: “Oh, you’re lucky. This wasn’t like Katrina.”
I think everything about the response has been an insult and a cover-up.
Of course it’s difficult to talk in counterfactuals, but I wonder, given the island’s long history of exploitation, whether you think anything would’ve been different under a Democratic administration, other than just imagery?
That’s a good question, and I really don’t know if I can answer it. But I think that the cronyism of some of the contracts seems to be worse during Republican administrations. Some of these contracts were handed out and just treated as a piggy bank for politically connected, amazingly inept, almost zero experience contractors. This is a replay of some of the stuff we saw in Iraq, or in New Orleans after Katrina.
It’s very, very clear that the major cause of death was not the initial impact of the storm; it was the collapse of the infrastructure, and that collapse would not have happened had there not been more than a decade of strangulating economic austerity. That cannot just be put on Trump. It’s absolutely shared with the Democrats and Obama.
With the midterms looming and hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island for the States, many heading to the swing state of Florida, do you expect Puerto Rico’s treatment to feature heavily in the election cycle?
I sure hope so. The Republicans have pissed off a lot of people in Florida, because there’s also a very large Haitian community in Florida, and the Trump administration has stripped TPS, temporary protected status, for tens of thousands of Haitians. That doesn’t just affect those people, who weren’t able to vote anyway because they weren’t citizens. They’re part of networks, they’re part of communities, and many Haitians can vote.
I think that a lot of the Puerto Ricans who live in Florida already, and are now being joined by relatives who will, if registered, be able to vote, are also pretty pissed off.
It’s a very profitable approach to try to partially de-populate Puerto Rico, and it creates more opportunities for land grabs and tourism development, but it does change the voter makeup in a fairly significant way, in an incredibly important swing state. So I think there’s some major political repercussions that may come out of this.
The central dichotomy in Puerto Rico at the moment is between this grassroots movement seeking radical and innovative forms of recovery and the current administration, with its agenda of austerity and privatization. As Manuel Laboy Rivera, the Puerto Rican commerce secretary, told you, political decisions over the next year or so will determine the island’s future for the next 50 years. Which side of the dichotomy do you think will “win”? Are you hopeful for what happens next?
I’m hopeful about a new political formation in Puerto Rico represented by JunteGente
, a coalition that emerged post-Maria that has been holding meetings across the archipelago to come up with a really coherent people’s platform.
I think that Mayor [Carmen Yulín] Cruz is an important political voice in Puerto Rico who is lifting up, in many ways, these voices, and standing up to the forces that are trying to privatize the island. But it is really, really hard.
, the head of the Puerto Rico Teachers Federation, says: “Capitalists never sleep.” She says that a lot, because when [labor unions and progressive groups] win, they have to re-fight the same fights over and over and over again. They [the union] won, several times, [and were able to halt] attempts to close down these same schools, but it just never stops.
I never describe myself as an optimist, but I’m not fatalistic either. I’m not fatalistic because [I see these] people’s movements that are learning from other movements and trying to figure out how they can do things better, and evolve, and come together in new political formations, and engage in electoral politics. And I see that in Puerto Rico, to an extent that I’ve never seen it in a post-disaster situation before.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.