‘This Bankrupt Island’
In Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a Christian missionary called Peter travels to a faraway planet called Oasis to spread the word of god to an earnest population of alien beings. While away, he receives emails from his wife, Bea, at home in the UK. As Peter feels increasingly settled in Oasis, Bea’s news from home takes a turn for the uncanny and ultimately terrifying. Britain and the Earth are in trouble: her messages lists a series of natural calamities across the globe, from freak weather to volcanic eruptions, to the complete disappearance of the Maldives into the Indian Ocean. ‘Stay where you are,’ Bea writes in her last message.
I was forcefully reminded of Faber’s novel by recent events in Mexico and the Caribbean. The images coming out of Puerto Rico, where I was born and where my mother still lives, show an island that, more often than not beset by drought, is now drowning and on its knees. I want to go back, but I can’t go back, not while flights are cancelled and there is an indefinite curfew in place. Puerto Ricans will be without electricity for many months, as the island’s outdated infrastructure has collapsed irreparably. In one of the few BBC TV reports from the island in the past few days, the reporter called Puerto Rico ‘this bankrupt island’.
To be both destroyed and bankrupt is a doubly desperate situation. Efforts to rebuild the island will depend on US federal aid and charity, which Puerto Ricans will need for years to come. The spectre of debt looms over the fragile landscape. On 30 June 2016, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) into law; the legislation aims to restructure Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt and ‘exercise federal oversight over the fiscal affairs of territories’. PROMESA is a response to bad financial management on the island, certainly, but that has been enabled by the colonial infrastructure in place since the US occupation in 1898.
Nearly a week after the catastrophe, the island is unravelling. Puerto Ricans are awaiting aid from the mainland, unable as they are to receive help from other nations. And, after days of silence, President Trump has tweeted that the island 'is in deep trouble', stressing the 'billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks' that 'must be dealt with'. To prioritise debt over emergency disaster relief is a sign of cruelty beyond bounds.