Earthquakes have sent shockwaves across Puerto Rico this week, causing significant damages in the South and countless frayed nerves in the North. Early on Tuesday morning, as one of the stronger quakes shook buildings across the island, I lay in my San Juan bedroom, pillow over my head, praying and humming to find some sort of stability in this radically unfamiliar experience.
For those who live in earthquake-prone areas of the world and experience this kind of thing on a regular basis, perhaps it is not as scary. But for those of us who have never experienced this before, and never believed that the Earth beneath us could shift and shake, it brings on a feeling of profound insecurity. For me at least, the insecurity during the quakes was physical— the world stirs in sharp and big strokes from under you, and you are unsure of where to go, what to do, how to react. The even greater terror— the tsunami warning that follows these quakes— runs so deep that you can barely say it aloud.
Fortunately, immensely fortunately, the quakes and tremors seem to be calming down. Those of us who are residents of the northeast capital of San Juan have relatively little to recover from. The main concern for most of us here in the North is the anxiety that this has provoked— feelings of insecurity that are layered upon the still-active feelings of instability which were brought on in the aftermath of Hurricane María in 2017. But this unsettled-ness, while of course directly linked to the physical shifting of the Earth, does not have to do only with tectonic plates. It has to do, perhaps more directly, with the suspicion that when the ground shakes beneath us, or the skies rage above us, the government will do little to make it better.
Insecurity can be physical; it can be emotional; it can be social; and it can be political. As this week comes to a close, politics is what is on my mind the most. Socially, we have once again demonstrated a capacity for solidarity and kindness to one another, and that is a source of strength. Emotionally, we are overwrought, but we are coming up with ways to lessen the stress for each other— through actions as small as words of encouragement on social media, and as large as free concerts in grand theaters which are made open to all.
Politically, however, we are on shaky ground. The governments of many countries on Earth— most notably, places like Japan— are equipped to address the sorts of damages that we have experienced. Often in these places, earthquakes, cyclones, and even tsunamis only momentarily disrupt the pace of life. People can rest in relative ease, knowing that, while there are many forces in nature that we cannot control, their wellbeing has been protected by governments which have anticipated these events, and taken the necessary measures to minimize the suffering that they bring.
We, meanwhile, have little to no such security. The last time we had a major environmental event, María, the government’s (both local and federal) response exposed the rotting foundations of our political system. Countless articles have been written on this story, and a simple Ecosia search will yield them all. In essence, though, the story is this— that the politicians within the Puerto Rican government and their US counterparts had for years been pursuing policies aimed primarily at open the island up to private sector profiteering.
For well over a decade prior to María, many of us have been criticizing the various measures that have been taken to make it easier for the so-called 1% to exploit the island’s natural and human resources for their own gain. Oversight boards, austerity measures, slashes in public sector funding, neglect of public infrastructure, withdrawing support for essential social services, repeals of protections for nature reserves, special schemes that effectively legalize tax evasion and private gambling with public money: These overlapping actions and more have created a profound insecurity that runs through us just as powerfully as a physical earthquake.
After María, our worst fears about our government’s priorities and loyalties were confirmed. Politicians here and in the United States regarded the island as a source of revenue, as real estate— not as a home for people, plants and animals who all look to political leaders for much of their physical security.
Since this summer’s unprecedented protests, which called for the resignation of Puerto Rico’s then-governor, Ricky Rosselló, we have witnessed greater transparency in the island’s governance. Yet the same fears linger. If we experience a power outage, for instance, we know that it is possible that energy will not be restored for months and months. If we sustain physical damages, we are not entirely sure that we will ever be compensated for the repairs. And if disaster of any kind strikes, we have little to no assurance that a safety net exists to give us everything we need to make it alright.
In the last few days, the word “unsettled” has been given deeper meaning for me. We all know what being physically settled— that is, the ground beneath us being firm— means. Similarly, what does it mean to be politically settled? Most of us, I believe, already know the answer. And when we visualize it, we can feel the ground within us become a little steadier.
With thoughts and prayers for those in the South, and thoughts and prayers for the countless many across the globe who have experienced and suffered from earthquakes and politics.