Naomi Klein on ‘disaster capitalism’ in Puerto Rico

By pushing Trans Mountain, Notley and Trudeau are ‘still doubling down on the old economy, and that means they have failed,’ she argues

Author Naomi Klein poses for a photograph for her new book "No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need," in Toronto on Wednesday, June 7, 2017.


A year ago, Naomi Klein published No Is Not Enough, aimed at galvanizing resistance to Donald Trump; now, she admits, “I would be lying if I said we’re doing great and all is proceeding according to plan.” And yet, certain groups and movements give her hope, among them Puerto Rico’s JunteGente (“The People Together”). She’ll be donating the profits from her short but characteristically pointed new book, The Battle for Paradise, to the grassroots collective, whose founders she met on a trip to the U.S. territory in January, in the wake of Hurricane Maria. As she tells it, Puerto Rican academics, “sometimes quite pissed off” that her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, didn’t include a chapter about Puerto Rico, had been inviting her to visit for years. Their home, often called the world’s oldest colony, has long been vulnerable to both floods and ideology—as well as what Klein calls “disaster capitalists,” who swoop in to profit from destruction.

READ: For Trump, Puerto Rico may be the last best test of his political word

Post-Maria, the archipelago has been beset by what Klein calls “Puertopians:” cryptocurrency and blockchain entrepreneurs who want to remake Puerto Rico as their winter home while they profit from massive tax breaks. JunteGente, meanwhile, believe the general population’s year-round home—still reliant on a ravaged electricity grid and imported food—needs renewable energy and crop diversity. Just after a Harvard-funded study reported an alarmingly high new death toll from Maria, Klein sat down with Maclean’s to speak about the ongoing battle for paradise—as well as the battle for Ontario and the battle over the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

Q: The official death count for Maria was 64, whereas the recent study has estimated over 4,600. Is this new number greater than even informed people on the ground would have expected?

A: People knew not to trust the numbers that they were getting, and that there wasn’t any reliable data collection going on. When [the government] made those original announcements about how few people had died, they hadn’t accessed some parts of the island yet. The absurdity of that number—and Donald Trump telling them how thankful they should be—was always an insult. We’ve seen this before, with Iraq, when the official policy of the Bush administration was not to count the [Iraqi] dead. There’s no better way to communicate to people that their lives don’t matter than not to bother counting their loss.

Q: The Puertopians have spun their approach as a constructive response to Puerto Rico’s debt, high unemployment and damaged infrastructure. What are we to make of this?

A: Anybody who’s spent any time talking to the gurus of the cryptocurrency crowd knows they are bullshitters of the highest order [laughs]. They’re trying to use similar bluster in Puerto Rico. There’s a four-per cent corporate tax rate, no federal personal income tax, no taxes on dividends or capital gains; they want to convert their crypto money into real dollars, and they can do it without getting taxed in Puerto Rico. They’re wrapping this in this kind of philanthropic [verbiage]: “We’re from Blockchain and we’re here to help.” Those might be the most dangerous words in the English language, to butcher Reagan a little bit.

Q: In theory, if these guys have to live in Puerto Rico for 183 days a year—that is, winter—and if they’re still dependent on an economy that relies on one port and parlous farming monocultures…

A: They send their kids to private school, though. The way in which the electricity system is going to be rebuilt is going to favour the urban centres. If you’re privatizing the electricity grid, that’s where the money is. So all they need is to make sure that they have Internet access. Now, is it smart to buy ocean-front property in Puerto Rico? That’s another question. It’s the fortressed enclave model, and sturdier-built buildings do better in hurricanes. Poor people who can’t afford those structures tend to get hurt most.

Q: You write about JunteGente as the latest incarnation of a decades-old resistance to fiscal and social policies imposed by mainland U.S. Does the long-brewing conflict make this a unique situation with respect to disaster capitalism?

A: I think the layering makes it pretty unique. You already have a lopsided economy—this incredibly fertile island that imports 90 per cent of its food. If you’ve got a colony, you might as well treat it as a captive market, and that’s the way U.S. food manufacturers have treated Puerto Rico. And Puerto Rican labour has been very useful for the U.S. As Trump deports hundreds of thousands of Haitians, Salvadorans—people whose TPS [Temporary Protected Status] coverage is now expiring—a lot of low-wage work has opened. The one efficient part of the Maria response has been taking Puerto Ricans out of Puerto Rico and not giving them return tickets home, which fits in very neatly with Trump’s agenda. He gets political mileage out of deporting immigrants, but then, quietly, Puerto Ricans are coming in and filling this labour hole.

Puerto Rico has a very organized, politicized population and an infrastructure of resistance that isn’t like anything we have [elsewhere] in North America. The kind of meeting that I describe in the book, with dozens of organizations talking about writing a people’s platform in a community that still doesn’t have electricity, that just managed to get their school reopened—I’ve never seen that speedy a response. My last book was called No Is Not Enough, because I really do believe you can’t win these battles just with a, “No, don’t.” There has to be a “No, don’t, and here’s what we do instead.” It is so difficult to do in the midst of a crisis, because that requires a level of organization that is deeper than, “Let’s all go to this protest.”

Q: How would you assess the resistance to Trump since you published that book?

A: Well, I think the limits of “hashtag resistance” have revealed themselves, where if all you are is anti-Trump, that’s a really low bar, and all kinds of people can get under it [laughs]. Hashtag resistance has sort of cleansed the record of people [who] happen to be critics of Trump, whether it’s [Bill] Kristol or [David] Frum—it’s been a real boon for them. There’s been a neo-liberalization of the left, and even though most people will say that we need to get out of our silos and work together and we need the broadest possible alliance, the way in which groups are funded often encourages isolation and competition. But there are a lot of interesting state-based and city-based attempts to do cross-sectoral organizing. I’m involved with a group in Michigan called We the People; they’re doing a state-wide project to draft a people’s platform a little bit like what JunteGente is doing in Puerto Rico. I also think there are some interesting things happening electorally in the States, where there is a new generation of people going into politics—taking on centrist “hawkish” Democrats by running on democratic socialist slates. The understanding that you have to put forward a platform that can be bold, that can inspire people, is being road-tested in a lot of local elections right now.

Q: Is it a matter of the left learning to be as bold as the right?

A: I don’t know—it’s a different kind of boldness.

Q: Sure…

A: But it’s about the electoral left trusting that voters actually do want change. I think we’re seeing this with the Ontario election. Andrea Horwath ran a centrist campaign last time, and it did really badly. Maybe looking at what’s happening in the United States, she is [now] running a very smart campaign. She’s got some bold, clear policy plans. I’d like to see more on education and climate, but what she’s proposing on pharmacare and dental is very strong. What was she running on in the last election—bank fees? This is a big change, and what do you know? When you start talking about policies [where] people understand what this is going to mean to their lives, surprising numbers of them appear to be willing to vote for it.

Q: You’ve been boosting the NDP…

A: Well, I’m not a booster of the NDP. It would be infinitely better to be trying to hold Andrea Horwath to her best campaign promises than to be dealing with Doug Ford with an austerity agenda that he refuses to cop to but is inevitable if he’s going to keep his tax cut promises—but I don’t think anybody is thinking, “Oh, we elect the NDP, and everything will be fine.” I think movements in Ontario that are most organized, whether it’s Fight for $15 or Black Lives Matter, are engaging with this election with their eyes wide open. The real work begins after the election. [If Horwath wins] I think people are going to try to shape the government and push them further, because God knows they are going to be pushed by the other side. [Bob] Rae suffered capital flight, and I think [the NDP have] learned from Rae in the way they’re planning to gradually implement their tax increases—steady as she goes.

Q: Out west, the Alberta and B.C. NDP governments have been duking it out over the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Does this kind of dispute make you warier, as an activist, of engaging directly with party politics?

A: We’ve been in conflict with the Notley government for a couple of years now. Their strategy has been disastrous. To me, the most fateful decision happened when very early on, despite having some of the lowest royalty rates for oil in the entire world, they decided to lock them in to provide certainty to the oil industry. With oil prices collapsing, their revenue was going to collapse, and so they’ve been desperate from the beginning. They’re saying, “We need the pipelines to be able to pay for health care and schools.” No, you can increase royalty rates. You have lower rates than Texas. I don’t see how any political advisor worth their salt—I’m talking to you, [Notley chief of staff] Brian Topp—could have said that this is a good idea. Staking your political future on building a pipeline through other people’s provinces, and through Indigenous territory, against people’s expressed wishes, banked too much on Rachel Notley’s charm—this idea that you could somehow glam up the tar sands and make this look environmental. Do they think we’re idiots? And Trudeau has signed on to the exact same plan. It’s not going to work, no matter how many times they try. We’re three years into Notley’s government, more than two into Trudeau’s. Where’s the big green energy project we can point to and say, “We’re doing both”? We’re still doubling down on the old economy, and that means they have failed. That said, I hope she wins the election, because she’s better than Jason Kenney!

Q: Right now, there’s a dangerous situation, with crude oil being transported by rail from Alberta to B.C.

A: One of the amazing myths about all this is that this is the only pipeline that is going to be built. They’ve already succeeded in reversing Line 3, Trump approved Keystone XL, so we’re talking about three.

Q: Although the other pipelines go to the U.S. …

A: Here’s the thing: I oppose the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline because I oppose the expansion of the tar sands. Rachel Notley plans to cap production of the tar sands after they’ve increased production by 40 per cent. That’s why they need more capacity. And right now, we’re being fed all of these lines. One of them is that we need to expand the pipelines so that we can get oil to China. The existing Kinder Morgan pipeline ships 13 million barrels of oil already out of the port of Vancouver. Do you know how many barrels went to China last year? Six hundred. China doesn’t want our oil. We’re still going to be shipping to the U.S. They want more capacity because they are expanding the tar sands. It’s not about one pipeline or another. I’m still wrapping my head around just how much public money is being put on the line. Imagine what that could be doing on Indigenous reserves. Imagine creating a true showcase of what the next economy looks like. The thing about Trudeau is, he’s been coasting on “He’s not Trump” for a long time. Even Trump hasn’t stooped to nationalizing pipelines, coal mines and other distressed fossil fuel assets. This is all on Trudeau.