Urban Wire How Hurricane Maria exposed Puerto Rico’s “colonial boom and bust”
Carlos Martín
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Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and its 3.4 million residents. Power and resources are still scarce on the island, and federal aid has been slow. In addition to this immediate crisis, the storm highlighted Puerto Rico’s existing infrastructure problems.

In the following conversation with Zaire Dinzey-Flores, associate professor of sociology and Latino and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University and author of Locked In, Locked Out: Gated Communities in a Puerto Rican City, we explore what led to Puerto Rico’s decline before Hurricane Maria and what’s next for the island.

What historical factors came into play for Puerto Rico’s development before the storm?

Dinzey-Flores: An injection of economic development in the 1950s made the island feel more like the US than its impoverished past. Operation Bootstrap began to modernize Puerto Rico at a whirlwind pace. It brought public schools, public housing, electricity, manufacturing, television, lit highways that cut straight lines, modern infrastructure, growing social services including public medical clinics, real estate booms, and petrochemical industries.  

Water and electricity, two of the most pressing issues three weeks after the storm, had at one time been symbols of Puerto Rico’s advantages. Massive investment in the electrical grid and industrialization efforts peaked in the 1970s with the construction of a grid that reached remote rural areas and provided massive production to industry, commerce, and residential areas. Potable water was also widespread and available.

During the middle of the 20th century, Puerto Rico had become a leading expert in urban planning, serving as the model society for global urban development work. Puerto Rico’s planning agency and its technocrats provided worldwide leadership in infrastructure development and city and regional planning.

That Puerto Rico seemed to be “ready” for hurricanes is nowhere more evident than its use of cement. By 2006, Puerto Rico was using 1.9 million tons of cement annually, almost double the world’s average annual per capita use. Experts have said the outsized use of cement was a direct result of the island being in a “hurricane prone” area.

What led to Puerto Rico’s problems before Hurricane Maria?

Dinzey-Flores: By the late 20th century, Puerto Rico had electricity, fast roads, cable TV, the largest mall in the Caribbean, and the highest square footage of commercial space in the world. In contrast to nearby islands like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico had fast-food companies, investors, and reliable electric power. Capital, too, flowed in Puerto Rico, and investors felt confident to invest in the government’s growing debt. Puerto Rico’s per capita GDP rose rapidly and consistently from $717.51 in 1960 to $28,703.75 in 2013. In contrast, the Dominican Republic rose more slowly from $204.13 in 1960 to $6,027.06 in 2013.

But the capacity to produce, buy, and use cement came from the long-standing political-economic colonial arrangement with the United States, including the Dormant Commerce clause, which puts the US Congress in direct control of all commercial activity in and out of Puerto Rico. Akin to the Jones Act, this historically contingent configuration seemed to make sense in the middle of the 20th century and seemed to put Puerto Rico ahead of its neighbors.

Puerto Rico citizens felt this deterioration before the hurricane, with increasing commonality of blackouts, decaying roads, undrinkable water, and growing inequality.

Starting in 1990, as places like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Cuba saw their fastest economic and infrastructural growth, boosted by international configurations of development, Puerto Rico became a stepchild to the US. As infrastructure support declined in the US, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and hurricane preparedness suffered. US infrastructure spending steadily declined between the late 1970s and mid-1990s, and this was true for Puerto Rico as well.

By the early 21st century, the publicly owned power and water companies, two of Puerto Rico’s most prominent infrastructure projects, were in trouble. In 2015, most of the tap water in Puerto Rico was declared unsafe to drink, a reflection of its failing infrastructure and growing debt. The political relationship with the US incapacitated the island from maintaining all that cement and infrastructure.

What factors shaped Puerto Rico’s ability to deal with an event like Maria?

Dinzey-Flores: A central theme of the 2016 US presidential election, like prior elections, was infrastructure. Puerto Ricans who live on the island can’t vote in US elections, nor do they have voting representatives in Congress. A voice-only single “resident commissioner” in Congress is the product of an earlier era of direct colonial rule. But the US electorate’s decisions have dire results for the island, and the political disinvestment from infrastructure gravely affects this territory of 3.5 million people.

Puerto Rico citizens felt this deterioration before the hurricane, with increasing commonality of blackouts, decaying roads, undrinkable water, and growing inequality. Attempts at fixing the shortfalls, including addressing a massive governmental debt, have come in the form of privatization proposals. Debating the appropriateness of public and private services takes a different tone when considering a colony. It is not only about whether private companies should be in charge of and derive profits from managing public services, but about whom—local or foreign entities—should reap the rewards.

The collapse has been slow but steady. With the end of tax exemptions that incentivized companies to the island, many industries left, and Puerto Rico’s economy shifted to a finance economy. Puerto Rico began its reconvergence with conditions known to be more authentically Caribbean and less typical of the US mainland: high unemployment, high levels of informal work, high public benefits enrollment, high sales taxes, tax-free incentives, increasing mercenary political class and corruption, and limitations on tourism. Decaying roads, blackouts, water rationing, and declining commerce contrasted the international multilaterally supported growth in other parts of the Caribbean.

Few events can fully expose the stitching of colonial boom and bust that Puerto Rico has experienced since 1898. Hurricane Maria did it. In the same way that Katrina exposed the land-use inequality in New Orleans, Maria has exposed the infrastructural collapse in the island that is a result of its unique political-economic configuration.

Where should Puerto Rico go from here?

Dinzey-Flores: Some have said, “It’s like a bomb went off,” and perhaps treating it more like a bomb site is more adequate. Starting anew requires careful attention to the planning enterprise again, to building and maintaining an island that is resilient in the long term. As immediate needs are addressed, it is paramount that Puerto Rico focuses on the long game. Planners, beyond techies and politicians, need to be part of the conversation. Planning in a socially, ecologically, and politically sustainable fashion is essential.

Today, a satellite aerial map of the Caribbean shows the island in near darkness, next to well-lit Dominican Republic and Cuba. Puerto Rico’s return into the light requires many things. First among them is the full federal aid of the US government to address the shortfall of infrastructure maintenance on the island. But most of all, Puerto Rico must rethink itself as an island that requires a unique way of seeing and building itself to face the storms—natural, social, and political—that will continue to come.


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Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Infrastructure
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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