By Antonio Carmona Báez
This summer, the Netherlands and the world came to know Puerto Rico through the all-time most popular music video Despacito, which received over 3 billion hits on YouTube. But Puerto Rico has never been mentioned in Dutch news as much as it had throughout the last three weeks. First with Hurricane Irma which - besides depopulating smaller islands - nearly destroyed the Dutch and French territory of neighboring Sint Maarten, bringing 600 refugees to Puerto Rican hospitals and shelters. Another thousand refugees arrived from the Virgin Islands. However, this was only a precursor to a deadlier category 4/5 storm system ravaging the smallest island of the Greater Antilles.
Hurricane Maria pounded the US territory of Puerto Rico, leaving over 3 million people without electricity and clean running water. The hurricanes came and left, but the height of misery is yet to be experienced. Electricity workers claim that 80 percent of the island’s electric cables are in salvable, and hospitals are now totally dependent on diesel generators. While thirteen people have been declared dead to date, the death toll is surely to rise, as 70 percent of the island is incommunicado.
In a sense, the tropical weather systems have brought us, Puerto Ricans in the Caribbean and in the diaspora, closer to realize what we have in common with other islands: our delicate modernity and dependent vulnerability. Through Irma, we have become more aware of our neighboring Sint Maarten. The similarities of our territorial status in relation to the metropolises have also become more apparent. Sint Maarten’s territorial status within the Kingdom is very similar to Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States; both territories, just like Curaçao, have a Fiscal Control Board (College financieel toezicht) running local public expenditures from The Hague and from New York. In Puerto Rico and Sint Maarten, it is now the military at the airports, running rescue and reconstruction. But the most striking similarities are those found in how our people back home are presented in the media: helpless, thirsty and prone to ‘looting’, ever more so dependent on the greatness of those governments under which they have been subordinate for a long time.
While we are happy to see newspapers, radio and digital platforms inform the Dutch public about the situation at home, it is time to open up a space for the voices of the Puerto Rican and Caribbean diaspora in Europe. What do we have to say about what is going on in Puerto Rico? And, what are we people of the Caribbean in the Netherlands doing while waiting to hear from their loved ones?
With Dutch citizens in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the Netherlands, there is a plethora of networks that should be exploited for the spreading of information on what is really going on in the Caribbean - not just for news sake, but also to set the agenda for rescue and eventual reconstruction. In other words, while we wield gofundme initiatives and collect food, water and medicines to send back home, the shock of this post-disaster moment should not hone us to think about bringing our islands back to what they were, but to reconstituting our societies in harmony with our surrounding region and with nature. It is time that Caribbean people get to know each other by means different from those offered by the metropolis.
The geopolitics of The Hague and Washington D.C. should not bar us from accepting help from countries who know how to handle natural disasters, like Cuba and Venezuela - the first countries to deliver aid to our neighboring islands. The Jones Act, the law that inhibits Puerto Rico from trading and receiving imports on vessels other than American, has to be abolished.
Finally, the Caribbean needs its own voice on matters concerning climate change. Any governance over our islands not prioritizing climate change and its impact cannot be taken seriously. The hurricanes, like drought, will always return. To re-imagine our islands is to re-imagine our self-determination and modernity; it is to reimagine what we have to contribute to the world. What we had in the past is all gone now, it did not work. What we need in the Caribbean is a concerted effort to reconstitute ourselves sustainably and democratically. Our diaspora and our friends in Europe can certainly be a part of it, as long we do not reproduce our dependency on those governing from afar. While self-determination does not necessarily translate into independence, we do need independence in judgement, in the media and in governance.
Antonio Carmona Báez is a Puerto Rican political scientist and diplomatic consultant currently residing in the Netherlands. He has taught International Relations and Development at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.