By Maricela Perryman
It's been five months since the island of Puerto Rico, a US colony, has had full access to power and clean water. Last Sunday night, an electric explosion caused a blackout to occur that eliminated what power there was in the northern part of Puerto Rico. Over the past few weeks, the Puerto Rican government provided the only two televised addresses to the public since the hurricane: the first to declare the privatization of the electric company and the second, the announcement to bring in charter schools and vouchers or, essentially, the privatization of the public school system. Since the hurricane, Puerto Rico has seen a spike in suicides- over double when you compare the end of last year to 2016. To top it off, some wacko billionaires plan to take advantage of the tax incentives that are not provided to Puerto Ricans themselves and create their own crypto city. The list goes on with massive migration and displacement, shady contract deals, a rejected fiscal plan by a board who demands to cut workers’ rights to become economically efficient and whose director makes $625,000, and Craigslist ads of US aid workers posting for ‘private dances’ and massages.
I’m pointing this all out because it’s time for me to be more vocal about what’s happening in Puerto Rico and how we, as the SIPA community can support it. I believe we can do more as policy students to become allies to the island, but I am seeing my very own institution’s actions towards Puerto Rico promoting disaster capitalism and hindering actions we can take to advocate against it. For example, Columbia University has a special relationship with Santander Bank, who has helped drive the island into the severe debt it’s in, and actively promotes their services to students. Additionally, in contrast to over 50 schools across the country, Columbia University has delayed providing tuition assistance to students from Puerto Rico. SIPA specifically hasn’t been much help either. The SIPA administration denied any funding or support of the student-organized service trip to assist with immediate relief efforts. Our own student government allocated the newly formed Puerto Rico Initiative a whopping $300 to support the just and sustainable recovery for an island undergoing a humanitarian disaster. So why doesn’t SIPA fully support responsible and sustainable service and long-term engagement from their students? Are we to just pretend that a four-month-long capstone workshop working with one client, or an eight-week long unpaid internship in an office will teach us how to promote economic development or enact policy changes for a country we’ve possibly never lived in? How are we to become effective policymakers if we aren’t getting our hands dirty in unknown situations, getting angry at institutions, and working towards undoing adverse policies to communities in our own backyard? In Puerto Rico, I saw firsthand the lack of response from government institutions like FEMA, and the detrimental policies of the Puerto Rican government, who is implementing shock doctrine methods and helping private companies and investors capitalize on the disaster. The relief work that we did in Puerto Rico is by far the most rewarding thing I’ve done since I came to SIPA. Yes, a lot of it was manual labor, but it helped to connect the layers of who policy affects. This is invaluable because at the end of the day, policy changes ultimately affect the public interest or rather, people on the ground. I found that working with and learning from like-minded colleagues to plan the trip, making connections to grassroots organizations, and understanding what it means to avoid having the ‘voluntourist’ mentality and responsibly plan a service trip are skills that to me will be more useful than learning project management from a capstone.
I believe we made an impact in various ways when we were there by assisting with immediate relief efforts, like cleanup, supply distribution, and working on ecological farms. We will also continue to support a just recovery with fundraising, advocacy, and organizing efforts, and engaging SIPA in the ongoing issues, which are more than just news stories. However, I also know that Puerto Ricans will rise up with or without our support - I’ve witnessed their resilience, their fierceness, and their unending compassion for each other. But as graduate students who claim to care about the world and the injustices of the current administration and as Americans, the colonizers that continue to exert their power to reject people of basic rights - we have an obligation to Puerto Rico and to help undo the damage done by the United States and its regime.