AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto
Rico is facing a humanitarian disaster. 60% of residents are without water and all
of them are without electricity. Even before this crisis, Puerto Rico was already
in a state of emergency. A crippling debt crisis was already posing
a major threat to the island’s future. Héctor Figueroa is president of the Service
Employees International Union 32BJ and vice chair of the Working Families Party National
Committee. Héctor, welcome. HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: What do you understand is the
situation right now and the island’s biggest needs? HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: The situation continues
to be one of tremendous risk to the lives of the 3.5 million American citizens who live
in Puerto Rico. There is at least 40% of the population have
no running water. Over 80% of the population has no electricity. Those who have electricity, it’s not ongoing. It’s based on generators and other improvised
means of providing electricity. The whole power grid has been destroyed. Food is beginning to be very scarce. In fact, towns in parts of the island in the
mountain region have not been reached yet by the authorities, so the real damage of
this hurricane has not been completely assessed. AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about what I alluded
to: this crisis that Puerto Rico faces starting well before this hurricane hit, in terms of
the crippling debt and how that’s affected the infrastructure. There have been ongoing protests for a long
time against this Control Board that was appointed to run Puerto Rico’s affairs, to deal with
its $70 billion debt. Can you explain where all this stands right
now as Puerto Rico deals with this disaster? HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Well, you are right. Puerto Rico has been hit not just by two hurricanes
but by three, not just Irma and Maria but way before, the real hurricane that hit Puerto
Rico was an economic financial crisis that began many decades ago but became absolutely
acute with the unfolding of the financial recession that we all experienced in 2008-2009,
from which Puerto Rico has not recovered. As a result of changes in Congress, the Puerto
Ricans have no way of influencing. The U.S. changed the very way in which Puerto
Rico was allowed to attract industrial investments, and the island began to suffer a drain of
capital, a drain of jobs and the government went into borrowing and borrowing and borrowing
more to sustain the services for the population. That has really come to a point in which the
portion of the debt service is eating so much of the annual budget of the island that the
island is fundamentally insolvent. The Fiscal Oversight Board was created to
try to figure out what fiscal adjustments Puerto Rico could do to pay the debt and move
on with its economy, but the problem is austerity in the function of the IMF Bank doesn’t work
in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is actually contracting. The population can easily move to the mainland,
which has been happening in large numbers. What we see now is the decline of the economy,
a decline of the population, and now with these hurricanes, it’s quite apparent that
there is absolutely no way that Puerto Rico can service its debt and be able to be back
on its feet. Many of us are actually saying that the Fiscal
Oversight Board should recognize this situation, should be honest with the bondholders, Wall
Street hedge funds who have acquired the debt hoping that they will make enormous profits. They should cut their losses and we should
figure out a way to restart the economy of Puerto Rico. We’re going to have a lost generation in Puerto
Rico, but if we don’t start now, this is going to be even much worse. We have to find a means for the island to
be able to invest in education, on its roads. The electrical grid again has been destroyed. Its schools have been devastated. That should be the priority now. AARON MATÉ: Right. The fact that people were fleeing even before
this crisis unleashed by Hurricane Maria because of the dire economy, now people without water,
60% without water, everybody without power and especially the power issue could last
for months. What does that mean for the motives for people
to have to leave the island? What else can they do but try to leave? HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Yeah. We’re already getting pictures as flights
to Puerto Rico have begun to be resumed. We’re seeing pictures of people desperately
in the airports without even a ticket, just waiting to see if there is a plane that can
get in. The level of desperation is unbelievable. I want to make the point that it’s not just
Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts, the Virgin Islands, the whole region was impacted by Hurricane
Maria and Irma before that in such a devastating way that we now have disrupted the entire
fabric of that part of the Caribbean that we are responsible for. Americans need to realize that these are part
of the U.S. whether by choice or by the legacy of the Spanish-American War. These are U.S. citizens and they need our
support. They need to get the full benefit of the FEMA
aid and all the other means that the federal government has to assist the people. We need to avoid this collapse in Puerto Rico
and the Virgin Islands. This is really dangerous. Things are so bad. I myself have been in touch with my sister. I don’t know if my 92-year-old father, who
lives in a remote town near the mountains, which has been very difficult to establish
communication with him, I don’t know about half of my family. Like me, 3.8 million Puerto Ricans who live
in the States are anxious and hoping to find some way of helping our brothers and sisters. AARON MATÉ: Let’s compare that to how President
Trump has responded so far. He was silent on Puerto Rico for days, spending
his time attacking NFL players protesting police brutality and racism. Finally, he weighed in on Twitter yesterday
and this is what he said: He talked about much of the island was destroyed, and then
he says, “With billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks,” which he said,
“sadly must be dealt with.” His priority right now is that Puerto Rico,
in the midst of this disaster, still apparently make its debt payments to the Wall Street
banks that have preyed on it over these years because of this crisis. Your response to that, Héctor? HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: My response is that if he
begins to look at the pictures, listen to the reports on the ground, it would become
immediately apparent that that is not a sustainable position. Of course the banks are holding on. The banks want to be paid. They even filed, on the day of the hurricane,
many of the hedge funds, they filed to get priority in the bankruptcy proceedings but
they just need to abandon that illusion. Puerto Rico has been fundamentally decimated
from the point of view of an active economy. What we need to make sure now is that its
people are alive, that the economy can grow again, that agriculture can be reestablished,
that food begins to go to Puerto Rico and may eventually be grown again on the island. The tourist industry will be incredibly difficult
to attract tourists to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in this period of time, but
we should help that industry be reestablished. Then we need to guard, defend Puerto Rico
because what the last thing that we need is for people to lose their homes, to lose their
land, to lose their buildings, their hotels, their small businesses, to the people that
they owe to. We need relief from the debt that Puerto Ricans
have, that now the assets that was backing that debt has been destroyed and relief for
the government from the debt that it had to incur when the economic model was capriciously
changed in Congress. I think the president is wrong in thinking
that Wall Street is going to be able to get back its money. That’s not going to happen. The way we need to deal with this is the way
we dealt with AIG, the way we dealt with Lehman Brothers, the way we dealt with the big banks. Those banks were not forced to pay their debtors. We basically bailed them out. Puerto Rico needs the same thing. We need a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico the
same way we had a Marshall Plan for the European countries after World War Two. We didn’t ask them to pay the money they owed
to Washington or London. We basically said, “That money will be forgiven
and then Europeans, you can build your country. You can rebuild back again without that burden.” Puerto Rico needs nothing less than that. AARON MATÉ: Héctor, I’m just thinking we
should also perhaps bring the same level of criticism of economic management that we brought
to Venezuela, where we read so much about how they’ve mishandled their economy through
things like not having a faulty currency system. We should perhaps bring that to our own actions
in Puerto Rico. Aside from all these things you’ve mentioned,
isn’t it also just difficult to import basic goods into Puerto Rico right now? HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: It’s very difficult. There is something called the Jones Act that
fundamentally requires the shipping of goods to Puerto Rico to be done in ships that have
the U.S. flag. If you’re trying to sail to Puerto Rico bananas
made in the Dominican Republic, oil from Venezuela, cars from Germany, you have to first go to
a port in the U.S., get the merchandise and then move it from that boat to a boat that
then go to Puerto Rico because it’s in the U.S.’s own fleet, or you have to make that
change at sea, which is even more expensive. You have an economy that is artificially inflating
the cost to Puerto Rican consumers of goods. We have asked of the president to waive that
Jones Act requirement. It was done, is our understanding. The Washington Post reported on it that it
was waived for fuel imports in Texas and Florida. Why cannot we waive it for all the things
that Puerto Ricans need right now? AARON MATÉ: I just want to clarify that. Very close to Puerto Rico is the Dominican
Republic, for example. If they wanted to send something to Puerto
Rico, they’d first have to sail it to a U.S. port? HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Or to have a U.S. flagged
ship at harbor in the Dominican Republic to bring the merchandise. We cannot have goods, commodities coming into
Puerto Rico on a ship that has a foreign flag. That’s what the Jones Act requires. There may be some minor exceptions associated
with situations, delegations. Things like that do happen, but the bulk of
the commodities that go into Puerto Rico cannot be imported unless it’s a U.S. ship that has
a U.S. flag. If it doesn’t, it’s confiscated or high penalties
are applied if you try to do it otherwise. AARON MATÉ: Héctor Figueroa, president of
the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, vice chair of the Working Families Party
National Committee. Thank you. HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Thank you so much for having
us and caring about Puerto Rico. I hope your audience, the people who listen
to your show will sympathize and give all you can to help the people of Puerto Rico
at this time. AARON MATÉ: Héctor, quickly, any suggestions
for what people should give to any organizations that they can go to right now to help? HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Yes, certainly. Most Americans usually give to the Red Cross. The Red Cross has a very complex labyrinth
of eventually people receiving the aid. I would strongly recommend that people search
for organizations like the Center for Popular Democracy, which is working with groups in
the ground who are helping people who have lost their homes, people who are trying to
revitalize their communities. They already have the connections with grassroots
organizations. The Hispanic Federation also based in New
York has a very complex network, over 90 different groups in the U.S. If you give the funding, your contribution
to the Hispanic Federation, that’s another way that you can make sure it eventually gets
in the hands of Puerto Ricans. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, the Center
for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, if you Google
it, it has over 40 different links to organizations that you can give money that goes directly
to somebody who needs it. AARON MATÉ: Héctor, thank you, and thank
you for joining us on The Real News.