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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/23/18

"The Battle for Paradise": Naomi Klein on Disaster Capitalism & the Fight for Puerto Rico's Future

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Six months since Hurricane Maria battered the island of Puerto Rico, the island is the site of a pitched battle between wealthy investors -- particularly from the technology industry -- and everyday Puerto Ricans fighting for a place in their island's future. The Puerto Rican government has pushed for a series of privatization schemes, including privatizing PREPA, one of the largest public power providers in the United States, and increasing the number of privately run charter schools and private school vouchers.

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For more, we speak with best-selling author and journalist Naomi Klein, author of "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism." Her latest piece for The Intercept, where she is a senior correspondent, is "The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich 'Puertopians' Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle over How to Remake the Island."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÃ LEZ: It has been six months since Hurricane Maria battered the island of Puerto Rico. It was the most catastrophic storm to hit the island in over a century. As many as 200,000 people remain without power in what's considered the longest blackout in U.S. history. Energy officials say some areas won't have power restored until May.

On Tuesday, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yuln Cruz tweeted, "Six months after Maria things are not what they should be. Thousands still w/o electricity due to neglect and bureaucracy. Our lives matter!"

The devastating storm has reshaped Puerto Rico in countless ways. The official death toll remains at just 64, but independent counts put the total number of fatalities at over a thousand. According to a recent study by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans have fled to the U.S. mainland since the storm. Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rossellà is moving to privatize PREPA, one of the largest public power utilities in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The governor is also pushing for privately run charter schools and private school vouchers. On Monday, teachers across Puerto Rico held a one-day strike to protest the privatization plan. Meanwhile, displaced Puerto Ricans protested Tuesday in Washington, D.C., outside the headquarters of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Well, today we spend the hour looking at the future of Puerto Rico, which was already facing a massive economic crisis before the storm hit six months ago. We're joined by two guests. From Toronto, best-selling author and journalist Naomi Klein, author of many books, including The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.She has just published a major piece for The Intercept on the future of Puerto Rico; it's titled "The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich 'Puertopians' Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle over How to Remake the Island." And here in New York, Puerto Rican anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla, who teaches at Rutgers University. She is founder of the Puerto Rico Syllabus.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let's begin with Naomi. You've just returned. You've just written this epic piece. Explain what you found and what you mean by your title, "The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich 'Puertopians' Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle over How to Remake the Island."

NAOMI KLEIN: Good morning, Amy and Juan and Yarimar. It's great to be with you.

So, what I'm referring to is that in this moment, when so much attention is focused on the failures of FEMA, the failures of the entire relief and reconstruction project -- as it rightly should be, because this is an ongoing humanitarian emergency -- we're seeing the strategy that we've seen in many other disaster zones, that we've spoken about many times, which is exploiting that state of shock and distraction and emergency to push through a radical corporate agenda. You referred earlier to the plans to privatize PREPA, to open up Puerto Rico's school system to charter schools and vouchers, at the same time as radically downsizing and closing 300 schools, on the back of already having closed more than 340 schools by exploiting the economic crisis in the past decade. All in all, we'd be talking about the closing of half of Puerto Rico's public schools. So, a radical downsizing, deregulation and privatization of the state.

But that isn't the only thing that's going on in Puerto Rico. There is also a powerful resistance movement, that was really gaining ground before Maria hit, that was resisting this illegitimate debt, this previous shock doctrine strategy of exploiting the economic crisis to push these very same policies. But they aren't just saying no. They are also proposing a people's recovery process that would rebuild Puerto Rico in the interest of Puerto Ricans, a very, very different vision that's grounded in food sovereignty, in growing much more of the food Puerto Ricans eat in Puerto Rico, by small farmers using agroecological methods; not privatizing Puerto Rico's electricity system, but shifting to a decentralized, community-controlled model that is based on renewable energy -- all kinds of other deeply democratic changes. And so, there's this pitched struggle and a kind of race against time over whose vision for the island is going to triumph in this window.

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