Residente & AOC Recap: Coronavirus, Corporations & Colonialism in Puerto Rico

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
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Residente hosted another political conversation on Instagram live last night, this time with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a consistent champion of his native Puerto Rico. The Nuyorican member of congress has repeatedly spoken out against the injustices on the island in regards to U.S. colonialism.

Just last week, in a forum organized by Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, she declared Trump’s hate for the island as “personal,” which she repeated again in conversation with the rapper.

Conducted in Spanish and English—both wanted the second-language practice, and agreed the duality would make the interview accessible to a greater audience—the interview included only a handful of questions. But the topics covered were relevant, and AOC’s answers especially revealing.

Federal law doesn’t allow Puerto Rico to close its airports—not without FAA permission, anyway. Concerns about visitors arriving from coronavirus hotbeds like NYC are rampant; Gov. Wanda Vázquez has even requested a stoppage of flights, but so far, no new regulations have been implemented. There are reports that some passengers have even taken medicine to lower fevers so as to pass the off-boarding temperature check handled by members of the National Guard.

AOC points out that coronavirus is “amplifying injustices that we already had,” noting that the pandemic has highlighted the existing healthcare disparities in the United States’ black and immigrant communities—in Chicago, for example, 70 percent of people who’ve died as a result of covid-19 are black, even though the city’s population is only 30 percent black.

In Puerto Rico, AOC says, coronavirus has “amplifed the injustices of the colonial status of the island.” If not for federal control, its government would have more control over its policies, including flight restrictions on non-essential travel.

Lockdowns plunged flight prices, and so tourists are heading to Puerto Rico for extra-cheap vacations. And some of those people are bringing the virus with them.

“It’s so reflective of colonial relationships,” AOC says. “One of the initial symptoms of colonization was the infection of indigenous peoples. . . It’s like a reflection of history.”

Residente ponders, “Should we lock down [the airport] ourselves?”

AOC didn’t explicitly condone such a move, but agreed that she’s “de acuerdo,” that the island should be able to control the flow of arrivals during the pandemic.

“When people come [to Puerto Rico] and they get sick, they later have to go to the hospital, and they’re taking away from Puerto Rico’s funds,” she adds.

Puerto Rico is treated differently in terms of medicaid funding, as pointed out by a question sent in from a viewer. Unlike other states that receive around 83 reimbursement, Puerto Rico is capped at 55 percent.

“There’s no real reasoning for it,” AOC says.

While it’s critical to remember that these detrimental policies—and that includes the passing of the PROMESA Act and the installation of the U.S.-appointed Federal Oversight Board, which severely limits Puerto Rico’s economic autonomy—were supported by democratic administrations, Trump’s attitude toward the island makes change all the more difficult.

“Trump has a hate for the island that is personal,” she says. “If it has the word Puerto Rico, he doesn’t want to pass it, he doesn’t want to help.”

AOC doesn’t put all the blame on Trump, though, but instead designates him “one of the largest symptoms of the deeper problems of structural inequality.”

Coronavirus testing shortages in Puerto Rico and the U.S.—and the issue of corporations like Roche and Thermo Fisher making the test kits—came via a Yale University doctor. He compared the different companies’ setups to name brand coffee pods: Each has its own custom kit and machine, and if you don’t have the right parts made by that specific company, the test cannot be run. “What kind of regulations do we need to prevent this from happening in the future?” he asked.

It’s all part of the for-profit healthcare system, AOC summarizes. And she believes certain “critical, essential testing equipment” should be made public. “We shouldn’t have name-brand coronavirus testing kits,” she says.

But Trump is hardly likely to push free, publicly available testing measures. Recently, through a German medical company, Trump sought an “exclusive deal” for a covid-19 vaccine—meaning the U.S. would have monopolistic control over its use and sale. The German health minister shut it down, saying that any vaccine developed would be “for the whole world.” 

The final question came via Manuel Natal, a progressive member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives. His concern was that government-allotted public funds might ultimately be used to subsidize layoffs. “In Puerto Rico, for example, the government. . . has approved multiple initiatives for private hospitals, but those hospitals are laying off hundreds of doctors and nurse,” Natal says.

Regulations of the recently passed emergency package include more restrictions on small businesses than the “Wall Street part of the bill,” AOC laments. There are provisions restricting layoffs for six months for some companies accepting the bailout, she notes, but “Trump administration can waive the rule whenever they want. . . which they will.”

An soon-to-be proposed package will include provisions against waiving those rules, she says.

Additionally, she notes, the $1,200 one-time payment isn’t enough. A recurring $2,000 monthly, plus $1,000 per child, until the pandemic clears up has been proposed by House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters, is another possibility—AOC adamantly supports this, but Trump is already pushing back.

“We have almost now 20 million people that have filed for unemployment….and we’re trying to tell these people they still need to pay their rent. If we don’t fix it, we are looking at mass displacement, where there are far more empty homes than people who have become homeless,” she says. “We have to make sure we’re protecting working families in all this.”

Before wrapping up the chat, Residente seemed to recall last summer’s #RickyRenuncia movement: We can’t take to the streets demanding change now, he says, but once the pandemic is over, we must.

“I hope that people after this pandemic change for good and understand that people , as human beings, [we] have to mobilize ourselves to change these things,” he says.