Puerto Rico’s Political Paradox
By Karrieann Soto Vega | March 23, 2020
When Puerto Rican scholars Yarimar Bonilla and Marisol LeBrón were editing Aftershocks of Disaster, a collection of writing related to the aftermath of Hurricane María, they were probably not thinking about the possibility of such a metaphor turning into reality. Yet, not long after their book was published, many have lived through a series of earthquakes along the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico’s big island and elsewhere (including my parents who felt them in the northwestern town of San Sebastián). The strongest quake resulted in widespread damage and a power outage for the entire territory in early January 2020.
Despite having women in prominent positions of leadership, the government in Puerto Rico has not been responsive to underlying gender issues that have been worsened by recent disasters.
Despite having women in prominent positions of leadership, the government in Puerto Rico has not been responsive to underlying gender issues that have been worsened by recent disasters, nor to the demands of women’s and feminist organizations. A common assumption might be that Puerto Rico’s current governor, Wanda Vázquez—a woman who has held other governmental positions regarding women’s well-being in the archipelago—would be focused on and responsive to the gender implications of disaster, from sexual violence in shelters to an increase in femicides. Unfortunately, this has not happened.
Besides the fact that current leadership held lawmaking positions before the initial earthquake shocks, inaction regarding gender inequities in Puerto Rico is also impacted by federal jurisdiction. “Aftershocks remind us that disasters are not singular events but ongoing processes,” Bonilla and LeBrón write. These “processes” have to do with economic and socio-political control rooted in the territory’s colonial status.
New Leaders, Familiar Disaster Response
Former governor Ricardo Roselló resigned after a mass movement of Puerto Ricans took the streets in the summer of 2019 to protest his inefficient response and brazen political opportunism in the aftermath of Hurricane María. Roselló’s New Progressive Party remains in control, however—the same party that has refused to attend to calls from feminist collectives to implement a gender perspective in schools and to declare a state of emergency regarding femicides in Puerto Rico.
The New Progressive Party remains in control—the same party that has refused to attend to calls from feminist collectives to implement a gender perspective in schools and to declare a state of emergency regarding femicides in Puerto Rico.
Today there are several Progressive Party women in political leadership. Governor Wanda Vázquez and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González hold the highest posts of representation in Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, respectively. Their responsibilities include advocating for resources that can ensure the well-being of those who have suffered most from constant conditions of crisis, especially children, the elderly, women, and queer and trans people.
After days of inaction in January, however, Governor Vázquez told Puerto Rican news media that she was satisfied with the tent city that had been created to house earthquake refugees in Guánica, the town closest to the epicenter of the strongest earthquake. Many of these refugees had resorted to sleeping outside, in public plazas and basketball courts, rather than risking their lives in unsound housing structures. González also defended her choice of labeling donations with her campaign slogans.
Outrage over the government’s response reached another tipping point with the discovery of a warehouse full of FEMA aid from the 2017 hurricane response—unopened loads of plastic bottles, food, diapers, medicine, and even beds that people could have been using in the aftermath of the earthquake. The result was a mass protest asking for Vázquez to step down from her position.
Exacerbating Underlying Conditions of Gender Violence
Feminist collectives have consistently pointed out the underlying conditions that contribute to femicide and gender violence in Puerto Rico. In September 2019, for example, Vázquez declared a gender emergency “alert”—not an emergency, as requested—after meeting with a combination of leaders from 40 groups who proposed strategies to address the multiple deaths of women, 23 of which had been recorded the previous year, though statistics don’t account for the many people who have not officially submitted complaints. Most recently, the mismanagement of a domestic violence case underscores what feminist groups have pointed to for years: that there is systematic negligence in addressing gender violence in Puerto Rico.
The fact that women and children were sleeping outside following the earthquakes exacerbates existing conditions for sexual violence.
The fact that women and children were sleeping outside following the earthquakes exacerbates existing conditions for sexual violence. Wanda Vázquez’s slow-drip response rate to both urgent and underlying issues of gender violence underscores the paradox of gender representation in Puerto Rico. But beyond gender representation, colonialism presents a larger set of limitations to Puerto Rico’s political paradox, especially in economic terms.
Layers of Control
Fully addressing the complex implications of gender oppression would require reassigning funding and policy priorities in education, health, and judicial branches of the government. Vázquez would have to bring pertinent policy proposals to the Fiscal Control Board instituted by Obama’s administration, which manages the ongoing multimillion-dollar debt crisis in the territory. A series of confrontations between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats over disaster assistance to Puerto Rico underlines Puerto Rico’s ambiguous position in U.S. policy. These tensions have resulted in poor distribution of aid for those most affected, like the family who received a total of $29 from FEMA after the earthquakes destroyed their house.
While the Control Board institutes an additional layer of decision-making, Puerto Rico’s position as a political volleyball in bipartisan bickering further prevents its people from receiving adequate disaster response. This kind of colonialist status quo means that U.S. federal policy is likely to have limited reach; therefore, local policy responses must fill this gap.
Turning to Self-Reliance
The impact of the interrelated nature of political inaction in both local and federal levels is often ultimately addressed by the very people affected. This autogestión—a kind of self-reliance, or self-management—has become most visible in the aftermath of Hurricane María and has been particularly led by queer and feminist grassroots collectives and organizations.
When Puerto Ricans consistently become refugees in their own homeland, it is evident that federal versus territorial power imbalance is rampant. And yet, just like in 2017, many of those whose living structures were not greatly affected by the 2020 earthquakes started funding campaigns, prioritizing the need for mental health care and supplies for those affected. Psychologists from the Carlos Albizu University have visited the areas most impacted. Caminando la Utopía has provided holistic relief, while a combination of the teachers’ union in Puerto Rico (Federación de Maestros) and cultural arts groups like Agitarte, Vueltabajo Teatro and Bemba PR have joined in efforts to establish schools that gather in open spaces as they contend with the damaged school infrastructures.
While autogestión has been significant for Puerto Ricans’ ability to survive ongoing crises, it is not a sustainable model, and it could reinforce the idea that the government does not need to take care of its people.
Because women’s leadership at the highest levels of government has not addressed the urgent problems of gender violence, coloniality, and disaster recovery, local groups – led in many cases by feminist collectives – wait for policy efforts to catch up to the collective response of grassroots activists.
Because women’s leadership at the highest levels of government has not addressed the urgent problems of gender violence, coloniality, and disaster recovery, local groups – led in many cases by feminist collectives – wait for policy efforts to catch up to the collective response of grassroots activists. To effectively move Puerto Rico toward greater gender equity, any future policy must be created in conversation with and in support of such groups; it is not enough to expect women leaders to address these issues on their own.
Karrieann Soto Vega is an Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies affiliated with Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky.
Photo: iStock.com/Tatiana Ilina