I’ve never been to Puerto Rico. This makes sense, given that a) it’s far away from anywhere I’ve ever lived and b) it doesn’t have the immediate name recognition of the Caribbean islands I have visited, but – and it’s a big but – Puerto Rico is exactly the kind of place I would have visited eventually, probably unhappily, had I continued in my weird previous job as a millionaire’s boyfriend.
Because, in that job that was almost as ill-paying as my current one, “Poet” (yes, I do now tell people that is my job lol), I did, of course, get the occasional material kickback, which included – way back in 2009 – a backpacking trip around Cuba and – in 2015, a Christmas spent arguing and griping around the gorgeous Dominican Republic. I remember once, while the millionaire was driving, a dog was in the road and they swerved the car to avoid it and skidded a full 540 degrees round and afterwards shouted at me for looking scared as it happened lol. But, anyway, that was a long time ago, in a different life. In that life, I never went to Puerto Rico: maybe I will one day, but not for a while. I don’t think – as this essay from Naomi Klein makes plain – it’s a very ethical place to be a tourist at the moment, especially not that kind of tourist.
The Battle for Paradise contains a long essay originally published on The Intercept (which I have latterly discovered has connections to some problematic figures), but here it’s a sweet little French-flapped paperback from Haymarket Books. It was pretty expensive, too, though I did buy it in a little indie bookstore here in Toronto, and the publisher is an explicitly left-leaning indie publisher so it’s probably good to support both, right? That gripe aside, what the book contains is a powerful, serious and engaging essay on the realities that Puerto Rico is currently fighting against as it tries to rebuild following the disastrous Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico, as you probably know, is a colony of the United States, and – as with all colonies – the advantages it receives from this relationship are vastly outweighed by the disadvantages. Puerto Rico, much like the Channel Islands just south of the UK, is used as a tax haven, but the loopholes seem to be even wider and even more aimed at the global rich. Also, trying to get millionaires and billionaires to technically relocate to gated communities in the Caribbean so they pay minimal taxes on huge earnings and still get to be in LA or New York most of the year is a much easier sell than trying to get them to live on Sark, innit?
Klein writes about how right-wing interests had already been applying “shock doctrine” to the island prior to the hurricane: state assets were being sold off, property prices were beginning to outprice locals, the farmers – who benefit from very fertile soil – were ordered to grow limited crops that were almost entirely exported, and the country relied – still relies – on electricity produced by oil and gas and coal imports. A richly fertile island which could easily (on a practical basis, if not rn on an economic one) rig self-sustaining solar energy to cover most of its energy needs had become a net importer. Puerto Rico made money for other people, Puerto Ricans grew/grow food for others, they burn coal they have to pay for from other places, they have cityboys flying in to buy up their land for tax avoidance yoga yurts and then, just as the opposition is beginning to properly get itself organised to try and slow this bullshit down, there’s a massive fucking hurricane and everything is, literally, torn to shreds.
It’s easier to apply “shock doctrine” – sudden, state shrinking – when there is an emergency. The UK did it following the financial crisis (and we’re now deeeeeeep in the fucking shit), as did other countries, less dramatically. It was happening to Puerto Rico before because it could, subtly, but it’s a lot easier to convince today’s newspapers that a government minister just had to sell this state asset at a tiny price to his golfing buddy because there was a hurricane yesterday, and it’s a lot easier to do more and more and more of this when people are distracted or – the opposite – overwhelmed by the pace of economic change.
Klein’s book – which I realise I’m paraphrasing a couple of weeks after reading rather than commenting upon in any detail – focuses on the organisations that are trying to make Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans more self-sustaining: less reliant on imports and less destructively attractive to people who want to have property there but have nothing to do with the island’s people and culture.
If you were a billionaire and had the opportunity to live in a beachfront mansion in Puerto Rico, paying no taxes, having no stress, you’d probably go for it, right? It’s an easy sell for politicians who don’t give a shit about normal people’s lives and are able to supplement their government salary either through back-handers or through relationships with the few institutions and businesses that do make money from the ultra rich. Golf courses. Scuba schools. Helicopter repair. Fancy fancy restaurants.
It’s an informative book, engaging, short and important. Worth a read.
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