In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has emerged as a real-life Wonder Woman, wading through flood waters to find her constituents, handing out solar lamps to heartbroken families, and passionately demanding help from a reluctant federal government. She’s one of many Puerto Rican women who’ve been key to its development in hard times. “Historically, women have carried movements but been silenced. In many ways, she’s more qualified to lead than the governor. I see her as tied to the modern Puerto Rican woman in terms of her education [and] business background, now taking the lead,” says Mirelsie Velazquez, a Puerto Rican woman herself and assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Oklahoma, of San Juan’s mayor.
But for all the incredible progress and strength Cruz represents as a new feminist icon, the worst is still ahead for Puerto Rican women in general, and not just because of the hurricane. “There was a short time period before the recession when different types of employment opportunities grew for women. However, what’s going to happen now is that the markets they’ve entered have been destroyed,” says Velazquez.
The U.S. lags behind most of the industrialized world when it comes to measures of gender and economic equality, and conditions have long been even worse in Puerto Rico. More than three weeks after the hurricane, ongoing reports of deaths related to a lack of adequate medical care access, basic infrastructure like electricity and clean water, and economic support continue to trickle in. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria still hasn’t been fully understood, and while many are rightfully focusing on Trump’s monstrously delayed response (not to mention racist in its basic tone), the truth is that even adequate disaster relief won’t stop inequities facing Puerto Rican women from growing.
“All the hurricane did was to heighten the everyday issues of life on the island,” says Velazquez. Even before Maria, a stunning 43.5 percent of Puerto Ricans were living in poverty, and the island’s median wage was $19,350. Despite the fact that women have higher college graduation rates than men (this is true in the U.S. as a whole but heightened in Puerto Rico), Puerto Rico still faces major gender inequality issues, including high incidences of violence against women (which normally increase after natural disasters and times of economic stress), a high number of female heads of households, and low representation of women in politics and government. Most experts attribute these disparities to overall poverty in Puerto Rico and to the way the U.S. has structured Puerto Rico’s economy, which has been hard on families and left women to bear the brunt.
“I almost laugh when I hear the word territory—it denotes some sense of equity or equality in how Puerto Rico has been treated since 1898. It wasn’t until 1948 that we were even allowed to elect our own governor,” says Velazquez. In addition to these political inequalities and the much-discussed Jones Act, which has been temporarily suspended but limited all imports to only those that came on U.S. ships, many other unfair policies made Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican women in particular especially vulnerable to Hurricane Maria. Most of these policies came on the heels of a 1928 San Felipe hurricane.
After Hurricane San Felipe Segundo literally flattened the island and the Great Depression flattened the small economy Puerto Rico had, it took 20 years for the U.S. and a new pro-U.S. Puerto Rican governor to restructure and industrialize the island’s economy (though recent citizens, at that point, Puerto Ricans had no federal representation of any kind). When middle- and high-paying jobs are scarce, as they were then, poverty rises, and men tend to leave households and families behind. This increases the number of female-headed households and the pressure on women to support themselves and others with less and less. (This trend is so common, in fact, that the international development community refers to it as “the feminization of poverty.”)
The U.S. plan for relieving Puerto Rico was called Operation Bootstrap. Yes, bootstrap, as in “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” (as in, they “want everything to be done for them”). Puerto Ricans did help themselves—many of them by leaving the island for brighter futures and economic opportunities elsewhere. They left in such large numbers that Puerto Ricans are known as the first air migrants, coining the nickname la guagua aérea, or “our aerial bus,” for the airplane, clarifies Velazquez. Puerto Ricans moved en masse from rural farms to cities and then out to find farming and other jobs across the U.S. and Caribbean. Today, there are more people in the diaspora than on the island.
The passage of Operation Bootstrap included tax breaks to encourage manufacturing, financial services, and tourism to move to Puerto Rico, but these breaks seldom trickled down to Puerto Rican families. “Big tax breaks for corporations under Section 936 of the tax code brought a lot of U.S. subsidiaries to the island, but they never contributed to the overall well-being and support of people (besides employing some people), because they never paid taxes,” says Laura Briggs, professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and expert on reproductive rights and Puerto Rican politics. The Jones Act magnified the economic plight of the island, and the costs of importing things to Puerto Rico were passed on to the consumer, such as food costs double Florida’s. (Food had to be imported, since Operation Bootstrap had weakened the agricultural economy.) As a result, islanders can barely afford food on median incomes lower than any U.S. state’s.
Meager economic advances starting in the 1970s allowed women to enter middle-class jobs in teaching, nursing, and business as well as jobs in the informal economy. But any modicum of advancement came to a halt when President Clinton closed a tax loophole that incentivized manufacturing and other business industries to operate tax free (part of the reason Puerto Rico has no tax base for social services). “When those companies left the island for good in 2006, … unemployment and debt loomed larger and larger,” comments Briggs.
The effects of this economic restructuring on everyday life were devastating. High-paying manufacturing jobs declined, and tourism became the only real industry in a mostly low-wage, seasonal economy, resulting in more out-migration, especially of young and higher-skilled islanders like doctors, nurses, and teachers, groups the island needed desperately after Maria. “Without jobs, households flounder, increasing the number of people entirely reliant on the informal economy,” comments Briggs.
The informal economy employs mostly women and puts them at an economic disadvantage, creating a vicious cycle. “Women are more likely than men to have care responsibilities that will keep them out of the formal labor force. They’re more likely to work in the flexible economy to accommodate care work. The problem with having a stingy public welfare system, if you’re trying to raise kids as a single mom or care for a relative with a disability and there’s little federal money, [is] you can’t take time off from working,” says Briggs. And because the informal sector isn’t bound by minimum wage requirements, women have to work long hours, especially during peak tourist season, to get by.
Because of Maria, tourist season is postponed indefinitely. “Now, the tourist economy—however exploitative that might have been—is likely to be shuttered for six months or a year,” says Briggs.
By the time the 2008 recession hit, the Puerto Rican economy, and viable economic opportunities for women, had already been decimated for years. The recession forced the Puerto Rican government to make massive cutbacks to education and the social safety net. On top of these problems, the hurricane coincides with massive expected cuts coming on the heels of debt restructuring that Puerto Rico has been undergoing since 2016. The Puerto Rican government is making decisions with its hands tied behind its back: It doesn’t have enough money for social services and needs to comply with the new PROMESA fiscal review board instituted by the U.S. federal government. It’s slashed budgets in education (early, K–12, and higher ed), health care services, care for the elderly, and nutrition, and more cuts are expected to come. As a result, women have lost even more good but sex-segregated jobs.
Briggs points out that though Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they receive public benefits that make mainland Americans look like spoiled Scandinavians: The island’s Aid to the Aged, Blind, or Disabled pays a mere $74 (as opposed to the upward of $700 Social Security Insurance pays in the U.S.); half the population of Puerto Rico is on Medicaid, which faces a cliff in 2018, after which an estimated half a million people there could lose access to benefits. Velazquez suspects that women, who do the bulk of caregiving on the island to compensate for these low benefits, will make up a large part of a new out-migration following Maria. This may be the best in a series of a bad options for women, but it isn’t best for the extended families and communities left behind who currently depend on their care.
The ongoing crisis of inequality in Puerto Rico won’t be solved by hurricane relief alone, though that might be an important source of job creation, at least in the short term. Often, however, responses to natural disasters include creating what are known as “shovel-ready” jobs, which mostly go to men. Any post-hurricane stimulus should include support for long-term medical and care positions, which women are more likely to get a fair share of.
Briggs says the other immediate need is debt relief. “Puerto Rico needs immediate debt forgiveness. The terms of their loans were outrageous from the outset. … Unless we want to see the island simply evacuated, the debt has to be forgiven so there is a chance of rebuilding the economy and infrastructure.” But forgiving the debt and fully committing to providing hurricane relief are only first steps. If we want to solve this rising inequality long term, we need to think about altering Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. Of course, many Puerto Ricans have been demanding independence for decades. But as long as Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory, real development and equality for Puerto Ricans will only come if the U.S. delivers on its responsibilities to the American citizens who live there.