THE WASHINGTON POST – YARIMAR BONILA
How tax breaks and a quasi-colonial status make the island vulnerable to disasters.
Among those I interviewed this summer about Puerto Rico’s economic crisis was a local wealth manager who was extremely upbeat about the economic climate. Anticipating government default, she had redirected her clients’ assets toward U.S. stocks. Investments in the wake of President Trump’s election had been doing very well, she said, adding, “The only thing we need now is a hurricane.” She was referring to how such natural disasters bring in federal money for rebuilding and often become a boon to the construction industry. As I left her office, she encouraged me to buy stock in Home Depot.
After Hurricane Irma swiped Puerto Rico in early September, and with Maria dealing another devastating blow this past week, I’ve thought back repeatedly to this conversation. What conditions would lead someone to view a natural disaster as a boost for the economy? Who benefits from the vulnerability and precarity of those exposed to storms?
One particularity of this year’s hurricane season is that many of the societies that have been hit are not sovereign nations but rather places with diverse and shifting arrangements with their colonial centers. They include Guadeloupe and St. Martin — where residents are French citizens with European passports and representatives in the French National Assembly — as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where residents are American citizens but can neither vote in national elections nor have voting representation in Congress. They also encompass places like Anguilla — technically a self-governing state, but one whose defense and economic policy is determined by the British government and whose residents are “overseas citizens” of the United Kingdom.