'To Live, to Thrive, Not Only to Survive': San Juan Mayor Calls for Replacing Austerity With Green New Deal to Save Puerto Rico

BURLINGTON, VT. — The hope for a House Committee that would work to pass a Green New Deal—now supported by 15 representatives thanks to grassroots pressure—was the subject of much discussion at the Sanders Institute Gathering this weekend, and on Saturday the specifics of how the bold proposal for a new nationwide sustainable infrastructure would help some of the Americans most affected by austerity policies came into view.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz led a panel discussion with Political Economic Research Institute (PERI) co-director and University of Massachusetts professor Robert Pollin and community development advocate John Davis, about how a Green New Deal could radically change the daily lives of Puerto Ricans and the outlook for the island, more than a year after the two hurricanes which decimated the country—leaving some communities still in disrepair as federal funds slowly trickle in.

“We don’t want a Green New Deal for electricity or to take hot showers or to have air conditioning. We want it for children to go to school…for children to have access to nebulizers. That’s what we want it for. To live, to thrive, not only to survive.” —San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz

Along with the Trump administration’s woefully inadequate and callous response to the hurricanes, the state of the island—a “colony” of the United States government, Cruz said, rather than a “territory” as it’s commonly called—has been compounded by its long history of austerity, including reduced pensions, slashed sick leave and vacation pay for public employees, aid cuts across the island, and the establishment by the Obama administration of a board to oversee Puerto Rico’s debt.

“We are not a theoretical case,” Cruz said. “We are what happens when you have the perfect storm—an environmental crisis preceded by a financial crisis and then followed by a human crisis; an utter violation of civil rights and human rights.”

As Cruz and Pollin explained, the island is also at the mercy of the U.S. government regarding its fossil fuel consumption, importing the vast majority of its energy from the mainland and unable to purchase components of sustainable infrastructure, like solar panels, without approval from the Trump administration.

Under a Green New Deal, Pollin said, 1.5 percent of Puerto Rico’s $100 billion GDP would be invested in green energy, financed by a carbon tax as well as public investments and private incentives—allowing the island to shift to a 100 percent renewable energy economy by 2050.

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“It will dramatically reduce energy costs throughout Puerto Rico,” said the University of Massachusetts economics professor. “We will create through this somewhere in the range of 25,000 jobs in the early stages 80,000 jobs per year in the later stages. It will be good for business, it will create all kinds of business opportunities…You can create a domestically-created infrastructure that is maintained and owned by small businesses.”

Austerity, Pollin added, can not serve as a solution for Puerto Rico’s troubled economy, in which hedge funds—or “vulture funds”—have purchased billions of dollars of the island’s debt. The debt, which reached $73 billion before Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, was incurred due partially to a lack of tax revenue  brought on by Congress’s repeal of business tax breaks there. 

“Colonialism is a crime and financial domination is a crime,” Cruz said. “The right-wing people say, ‘You just want things done for you.’ No, we want what everybody wants.”

“We don’t want a Green New Deal for electricity or to take hot showers or to have air conditioning,” she added. “We want it for children to go to school…for children to have access to nebulizers. That’s what we want it for. To live, to thrive, not only to survive.”

Watch the panel discussion, which also included a discussion of how a community-owned land trust has empowered the residents of one area of San Juan along a polluted canal, below:

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