It's easy to imagine the lush splendor of Carlos Giovannetti's farm before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September. Giovannetti was a coffee and citrus fruit producer, but now his land is a chaotic tangle of cracked trunks and splintered plywood. He drove for 12 hours the first time he returned home after the historic storm, crossing treacherous roads still strewn with boulders and debris, only to find the property totally destroyed. Set about 100 miles southwest of San Juan (and a 45 minute drive from the main highway), the farm has no power and only spotty cell service. In the wake of the Trump administration's staggeringly ineffectual response to the territory's continuing humanitarian crisis, Giovannetti, like so many Puerto Ricans, is turning to an unfazed group of neighborhood volunteers to help him start all over again.
Puerto Rico is no stranger to tropical disasters. But if Maria made headlines as a generation-defining Category 4 storm, its aftermath has also revealed the turmoil that's been an everyday reality of Puerto Rican life for decades, dragging the unvarnished poverty and disenfranchisement rarely seen by the island's flocks of sun-seeking tourists into blistering focus. The territory, which lies about 1,100 miles from the tip of Florida, isn't a state, and though its residents are American citizens, they can only vote in local elections — not Presidential or Congressional ones — and its government must bend to Congress's ultimate authority. Plagued by an astonishing $74 billion of debt and $53 billion in unfunded pensions, the island has slipped into economic despair with few resources with which to advocate for its own financial or political interests. And though Puerto Rico has cultivated a bustling vacation industry, its ripple of luxe beachside resorts sit close to low-income neighborhoods where unemployment remains pervasive.
Of course, all of these issues only compound in the storm's aftermath and with Washington's sluggish emergency relief. President Trump responded to the island's urgent pleas for help by starting a Twitter argument with San Juan's exasperated mayor, and the United Nations has already criticized the striking difference between the aid efforts sent to hurricane-battered mainland states and Puerto Rico. For activists like Xiomara Caro of the Center for Popular Democracy, it's all emblematic of a larger trend: that the struggles of Puerto Rico are its own, borne under the indifferent gaze of the United States. "Since the hurricane, thousands of people in Puerto Rico have been assuming the responsibility of providing an immediate response to their neighbors and their families," she says. "Now it's just more visible for the world to see what Puerto Rico is, both in potential and capacities of solidarity, but also the stark inequality that people live every day."
Giovannetti, whose full story you can catch in the America Uprising: Puerto Rico episode above, isn't hitching the future of his farm or his income to Trump's negligence. Rallying together with grassroots organizations like Visit Rico and local volunteers from the rural Yauco region, Giovannetti has been forced to step in to care for his community as the government's efforts founder, delivering donated goods and beginning, slowly, to clear the devastation of his own farm. "This is not the first time that the territories are treated as less," he comments, echoing the U.N.'s disturbing report. "We are supposed to be a priority. At the same time, businesses are closing, there's no water, and no electricity. And people are starting to leave the island."
Still, even as the scrutiny of the world turns away from the island and Hurricane Maria recedes from primetime spotlights, Giovannetti continues to radiate optimism for the future of Puerto Rico. Above all, the Trump administration's disastrous handling of the crisis has given outspoken agitators like him a revitalized opportunity to start a conversation about the inequalities and stagnation that have been invisible to the wider world for so long. "The energy of the people is extremely powerful right now," he says. "We have always been warriors. We are getting stronger, we are getting wise in different ways, I think this situation will wake up the people about our strain in Puerto Rico, our president, our solidarity. We need to understand that we can do this. I'm pretty hopeful about the situation right now."
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