In September 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged through the Caribbean Sea, wreaking havoc on many of its islands. It was recorded as the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in the Caribbean since 2004 and the most devastating one for Puerto Rico and the island of St. Croix, which forms part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are “unincorporated territories” of the United States, which means both rely on Washington economically. After the devastation of the 2017 Hurricane, we all saw how this reliance was nothing more than a colonial relationship. The U.S. plays the role of a parasite leeching off the value and wealth of the islands for the profit of wealthy investors in the mainland.
In the Virgin Islands, 90 percent of buildings were damaged or destroyed, including hospitals. In Puerto Rico, over 3,000 people lost their lives while thousands of homes were destroyed. Hospitals were pummeled and people suffered not only from a devastating natural disaster, but also from the mismanagement of the situation by the government. As time went on, it surfaced that millions of dollars of relief meant for Puerto Rico was laundered into the pockets of corrupt politicians while necessary aid like food and toiletries were hoarded and never distributed to the people.
As thousands died during the disaster and its aftermath, the U.S. began to rebuild what it considered the most important parts of its colonies: their tourism industries. Said industries made a rebound in 2019, thanks to U.S. investment, bringing in nearly $1 billion and recovering four times faster than New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina. While the colonizers rebuilt the tourist industry infrastructure, hospitals and schools remained destroyed, and over 200,000 Puerto Ricans (at least six percent of the population) left the country. In addition, roughly 30,000 people were still left without roofs on their houses as medical care and living expenses continued to increase.
Hurricane Maria exposed the relationship between the U.S. and its unincorporated territories for its ruthless and exploitative nature. Today, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the economic crises accompanying it, this horrific relationship is once again exposing itself. While many are finally recognizing how little the U.S. cares about people’s lives when profit is in danger, Puerto Ricans made this realization when the government intentionally lied about the death count and then failed to rebuild necessary infrastructure to aid those impacted by the disaster.
In June 2020, the U.S. Virgin Islands opened their doors and welcomed travelers in as they had seen relatively low coronavirus infection rates. Very quickly, many U.S. tourists were eager to go to the Islands as one of their first vacation spots, with traveling blogs being written such as, “Why I Chose the U.S. Virgin Islands As My First Destination After Coronavirus Restrictions Started to Lift.” In early June, there were 70 cases of coronavirus on the islands. Less than two months later, the number of cases has spiked to over 500. In fact, the Virgin Islands has seen one of the most dramatic spikes in cases throughout the United States.
The main hotspots for coronavirus in the U.S. have been the states of California, Texas, Arizona and Florida. In one month, the worst of these states, Florida, has seen a 543 percent increase in coronavirus infection cases. In comparison, the Virgin Islands, in one month, has seen an increase of 3,500 percent. Even though the absolute number of cases may seem low, it is proportionally high given the fact that they only have a population of around 100,000. The hardest hit island is the same island that was hardest hit by Hurricane Maria: St. Croix. There, many of those testing positive are workers, particularly those in the oil industry. The Islands, still in recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Maria and a privatized health program which costs the people thousands, now has to fight a global pandemic with limited resources and infrastructure.
Puerto Rico faces similar problems. The destruction of healthcare infrastructure after the Hurricane and subsequent earthquakes continues to plague the island to this day. The U.S. government, rather than funding and rebuilding social services to improve the local economy, has emphasized rebuilding tourism and outsourcing government insurance programs to private insurance companies. The restructuring of insurance left Puerto Ricans having to pay coronavirus medical bills of up to $65,000 and sometimes upwards of $100,000. In addition, hospitals lack necessary equipment to track and test patients, meaning that the actual number of those infected and deceased from the virus is unknown. Local restrictions have been implemented, such as curfews, but locals report seeing tourists regularly break such laws with little to no punishment. There is no doubt that there are many going to the island who refuse to practice even modest forms of sanitation, as one group of three tourist women destroyed $2,000 worth of goods at a high end store after being asked to wear masks.
Once again, we see the exposed nature of the colonialist relationship and mentality that most people in the U.S. have of the Caribbean. An independent Caribbean island nation could easily protect itself and its people from the worst of the pandemic. Cuba is a fantastic testament to what socialized medicine alongside a politically conscious populace can achieve to fight the virus, both domestically and internationally. Unfortunately, unlike Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are not free. Rather, they are shackled by the chains of 21st Century colonialism.
Their economies are both managed and driven by U.S. corporate interests. This is especially true of Puerto Rico, as the Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, known as PROMESA, still grants full oversight of the island’s economy to bankers and U.S. politicians. Very few of these bankers and politicians, if any, are native to Puerto Rico. The health industry is also privatized, making access to treatment, testing and medicines unaffordable for most people. This is happening as more potentially sick tourists are being encouraged to visit. While these tourists can receive top notch medical service in the U.S. or even in the islands because they can afford it, Puerto Ricans and those in the Virgin Islands are left with a debilitated system that will cost the lives of hundreds if not thousands.
Colonialism continues to be a literal plague on our nations, killing off our populations and destroying our lands.