SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico ― Tristán Queriot Rodríguez Vélez grew up as the paradise around him collapsed.
When he was 3, this island slipped into recession. He turned 13 the year Puerto Rico defaulted on its debt and the federal government imposed an unelected board to control its finances. He entered high school as austerity cuts closed hundreds of schools across the island and a catastrophic storm laid waste to aging infrastructure, plunging Puerto Rico into the world’s second-longest blackout in history.
Now 16, Rodríguez Vélez might consider following the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island in search of better lives on the U.S. mainland. But he’s of la generación del yo no me dejo ― the “I don’t leave generation.”
On Friday, exactly two years after Hurricane María made landfall, he’s standing with another cohort: Generation Green New Deal.
He’s leading Puerto Rico’s biggest climate strike, joining a global movement of teens like Greta Thunberg, Jamie Margolin and Alexandria Villaseñor (who this week coined the hashtag #GenGND) marching to protest world leaders’ failure to curb planet-heating emissions. He’s expecting between 500 and 700 strikers.
The strike “serves as a double meaning,” Rodríguez Vélez said on a hot afternoon last month. “It marks the beginning of a movement against this crisis and as a reminder of what this crisis has done to us.”
It’s also a recruitment opportunity.
In late August, Rodríguez Vélez took charge of the Puerto Rico chapter of Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate-justice nonprofit. Best known for staging the protests that popularized the Green New Deal, Sunrise Movement has emerged over the past year as one of the most potent forces on the American left, campaigning for progressive candidates and helping spur the debate on climate policy among Democratic presidential contenders.
A month after historic protests ousted Puerto Rico’s scandal-ridden governor, Rodríguez Vélez is hoping he can direct his small Sunrise Movement chapter to influence what’s expected to be a heated 2020 election on the island. More broadly, he wants to turn the fight for a Green New Deal into a tool to fortify Puerto Rico against climate change and deliver the island from 511 years of, in essence, colonial rule.
“We’re an island in the middle of the Caribbean,” he said. “We’re right in the path of hurricanes and tropical storms. We’re surrounded by water. Most of our municipalities are coastal. So beach erosion, storm surge, tropical storms ― it all affects us.”
Puerto Rico is, in many ways, a microcosm of the political fights playing out across the developed world as decades of pro-business economic policies enrich the richest and leave the poor vulnerable to climate catastrophe. It’s smothered by dubiously legal debt and badly in need of investment. Its roads are clogged with cars and its lone train operates on a mere 10.7 miles of rail at a moment when vehicle emissions are heating the planet. It’s sun-soaked and its legislators passed a law this year mandating 100% renewable electricity by 2050, but conservatives in Washington, D.C., and San Juan are pushing to make Puerto Rico the natural gas hub of the Caribbean.
“Colonialism is exacerbating the climate crisis here. So any movement that advocates for climate justice has to also advocate against colonialism and for self determination across the world, not just in Puerto Rico.”
The turmoil traces back well before Hurricane Maria made it the poster child for climate vulnerability.
After nearly 400 years as a Spanish colony, the U.S. took control of the island in 1898, just weeks after pro-democracy revolutionaries established a parliament, and imposed military rule. Facing a fierce nationalist insurgency, the U.S. ramped up efforts to industrialize its territorial possession after World War II, enticing American manufacturers to the island with generous tax breaks and the promise of American-educated workers without the burden of labor protections like a federal minimum wage.
But 1994′s North American Free Trade Agreement shifted manufacturing to Mexico. Then, in 1996, the Clinton administration started phasing out tax breaks on the island as part of a deal with Republicans. Companies left, taking middle-class jobs with them. Some Puerto Ricans took government jobs, but more still left the island seeking work on the mainland. The tax base shrunk, and the Puerto Rican government, backed at least in theory by its imperial owner’s creditworthiness, started issuing bonds to pay for roads, police and teachers.
By 2015, Puerto Rico had racked up $129 billion in unfunded retiree pensions and debt. In 2016, the island defaulted and Congress passed a bill called PROMESA ― the Spanish word for promise ― that installed an unelected oversight board of financiers, only two of whom were even from Puerto Rico. Austerity began the next year, followed months later by the devastating high-end Category 4 hurricane. The disaster response proved an utter failure. President Donald Trump infamously tossed paper towels to a handpicked crowd at a church during his brief visit to the island; ultimately, more than 3,000 deaths were tied to the storm, mostly due to lack of medicine or clean water.
The Green New Deal that Rodríguez Vélez is committed to is broadly a movement for a sweeping industrial policy to end fossil fuel use, overhaul farming, improve roads and seawalls and provide millions of good-paying jobs that stem from these efforts. On an island where roughly half the population lives in poverty and nearly 30,000 homes still use blue tarps federal authorities gave out after Hurricane María as roofs, a massive federal investment offers promise.
Rodríguez Vélez said he plans in the months ahead to hold assemblies, workshops and forums in poor, mostly-Black communities like Loiza, a municipality east of San Juan, and on the islands of Vieques and Culebra, where decades of military munitions testing left behind toxic pollution and high cancer rates.
“Their input is essential to any type of climate justice,” he said. “Because you’re not going to get any type of climate justice if you don’t get any firsthand input from the communities most affected by the climate crisis.”
So far, he said, he’s frustrated by how little Democratic presidential candidates talk about Puerto Rico, though Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vowed to extend the benefits of his Green New Deal plan to territory and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro made one of his first campaign stops there.
Rodríguez Vélez said he also was disappointed that Democrats continue to focus on statehood rather than independence for Puerto Rico.
A Green New Deal for the island, he said, should include “a clause or some sort of section in which it champions decolonization.”
“Colonialism is exacerbating the climate crisis here,” he said. “So any movement that advocates for climate justice has to also advocate against colonialism and for self-determination across the world, not just in Puerto Rico.”
Although he declined to endorse Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, an upstart political party working to gather the 22,000 signatures it still needs to make it onto the 2020 ballot, he sees promise in it. The party, known as MVC, calls for auditing or canceling Puerto Rico’s debt, ending austerity and holding a vote on whether to become a state or declare independence in some form. It’s also made the climate crisis a key fixture in its campaign materials.
“If we’re going to remain a possession of the U.S.,” Rodríguez Vélez said, “the very least the Americans can do is include us.”