Democracy Dies in Darkness

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A year after Maria, Puerto Rico’s economy remains feeble

September 12, 2018 at 12:55 PM

Arthur Siemon walks though a field where he had planted 15,000 coffee seedlings before Hurricane Maria devastated the crop a year ago. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

ADJUNTAS, Puerto Rico —September is ordinarily the beginning of harvest in the cool, crisp mountains of central Puerto Rico. Coffee farmers pluck the ripe arabica cherries from pregnant plants and begin the painstaking work of separating, drying, hulling and roasting a commodity so sacrosanct that the Vatican once imported it — a factoid the island’s coffee cultivators and aficionados publicize proudly.

But there will be no yield this year for farmer Arthur Siemon.

Standing in an overgrown field with a Stetson atop his head, the 71-year-old looked down at the emptiness that was 15,000 seedlings, planted two years ago for his specialty coffee brand, Café de Puta Madre. They were supposed to reap a bounty of coffee cherries this year, but Hurricane Maria yanked them from the earth last September. Few across the island have fared better, as experts estimate the local coffee industry will produce about 10 percent of the coffee it normally brings to market every fall.

As a whole, the island’s agriculture industry has taken a $780 million hit from the storm, leading to closed businesses and lost jobs.

For Siemon, it took tens of thousands of dollars to bring his coffee farming and roasting business back into operation after Maria, and he has been rationing beans he bought before the storm to fill orders, reducing hours and wages for some of his employees in the process.

If the bean shortage continues, he could be closing down by October.

“Maria may have given it its death blow,” Siemon said.

Siemon in the bean-sorting area of his business. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Coffee seedlings await planting outside Café de Puta Madre’s plant. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
With so few beans left, the plant Siemon is renting had to let go of two brothers who maintained the machinery. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Nearly a year after the catastrophic storm, Puerto Rico’s feeble economy has shown little sign of progress for workers and small-business owners, jeopardizing the viability of entire industries and communities. Hurricane Maria’s assault on the U.S. territory’s weaknesses — infrastructure, government and labor — crippled the financial security of Puerto Rican families struggling to balance post-hurricane expenses, lost income and rising prices for basic necessities.

More than 4 in 10 Puerto Ricans suffered a job loss, reduced hours or lost wages from a business closure or missed days at work because of the hurricane and its aftermath, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. While most say their financial situation is about the same as before Maria hit, a large majority of residents said they are worried that they won’t have enough income to meet their needs in the future, including about half who say they are “very worried.”

The San Juan metro area is an economic bubble where businesses are open, people are heading to work and school, and roads are clogged during rush hour. But there remains a constellation of needy municipalities across the Puerto Rican archipelago where jobs were already scarce and business has been sluggish for years. Those communities were in the storm’s path of destruction and solicited the greatest amount of help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the University of Puerto Rico’s Census Information Center.

“Families who were already poor are now in extreme poverty,” said UPR-Cayey economist José Caraballo Cueto, adding that Puerto Rico has one of the highest indexes of income inequality in the world. “If this inequality continues, the recovery will only exacerbate it.”

Some sectors of the economy are improving or stabilizing, buttressed by the promise of federal dollars. Construction jobs have helped lower the unemployment rate below 10 percent for the first time in five years. But many of those jobs are short term, related to the infusion of federal aid, and will not help build a sustainable economy. And the decline in unemployment could be fueled in part by a worrying phenomenon: the migration of hundreds of thousands of working adults to the mainland United States.

When businesses close and employers leave, the losses are more than economic. It changes the fabric of a community, residents say, forcing residents to look for work outside their towns and to drive farther for services, losing those gathering places where locals stop and chat about life over coffee or an ice-cold Medalla.

“People are disillusioned with everything,” said Maricruz Rivera Clemente, the director and founder of a nonprofit community organization in Loiza, a northern coastal town and heart of the island’s Afro-Caribbean heritage.

Loiza’s beachfront barrio Piñones has long attracted tourists for its kiosks selling fried food like alcapurrias and bacalaitos. Some of the popular ones are being rebuilt with cement — giving up on the colorful wooden huts that became the neighborhood’s signature. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Everything in Loiza feels quieter and emptier since Maria, residents said. Those with jobs worry that they will not have them in the near future. According to the Post-Kaiser poll, 51 percent of Puerto Ricans are worried they won’t be able to find or keep a good job.

Loiza, like the rest of Puerto Rico, struggled with unemployment and poor infrastructure before Hurricane Maria struck. But now the town’s economy is at a standstill. Fifteen Loiza businesses did not reopen after the storm. City Hall has started offering minimum-wage maintenance and cleaning jobs for four hours a day to help residents.

Few families can afford restaurants or to shop for nonessential items. The cultural events that were the heart and soul of Loiza are now sparsely attended as residents have migrated to the mainland en masse, officials said.

Lissette Clemente Vizcarrondo was a cook at 3 Antillas, a beachfront restaurant in Loiza that served Caribbean food and offered live music and salsa dancing classes on Thursdays. But it was damaged and never reopened. A year later, the 52-year-old is still unemployed, and the barriers to reenter the workforce feel insurmountable.

Clemente Vizcarrondo has struggled to find custodial work, in part because of her age, she said. She would love a school cafeteria job, but the vacancies are few because nearly a third of Puerto Rico’s public schools closed. Three shuttered in Loiza alone.

With no income for nearly a year, Clemente Vizcarrondo has been unable to repair her heavily damaged home and has been living with her daughter in the nearby town of Carolina. But she is desperate to return to her own place.

“I cry sometimes, seeing my house like that. It feels horrible,” Clemente Vizcarrondo said. “Wanting to do so many things but not having the resources, I feel helpless.”

Despite the widespread economic disaster, a business is rebuilding on Loiza’s beach. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
After she was forced to close her practice, psychologist Eva Candelas Tamayo is fixing up her late father’s properties to rent them out on AirBnb. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Samuel Lind has lived his entire life in Loiza, and his art draws largely from the town’s Afro-Latino culture. A year after the hurricane, Lind has noticed fewer groups gathering around town: “It looks desolate, as if something were missing.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

When there are few formal options, Puerto Ricans have resorted to “chiripeando,” or working odd jobs to cobble together an income. That could mean day-laboring to repair a damaged home or fix a neighbor’s car or selling fruit or sandwiches on the side of the road.

The informal economy is as old and as inherently Puerto Rican as a plate of rice and beans, but the island’s current reality is pushing professionals such as psychologist Eva Candelas Tamayo to do jobs they never trained for or hoped to do to bring money home.

Candelas Tamayo’s father died from liver cancer days after the hurricane’s passage, when access to oncologists and radiation treatment was virtually nonexistent. He left his real estate business, including four apartments in the San Juan metro area, to his daughter. Meanwhile, her psychology practice was crashing.

Three months without power forced Candelas Tamayo to close her practice, and once she reopened, her patients had disappeared. Many fled Puerto Rico or could no longer afford therapy. In mourning her father, the 49-year-old struggled to treat the patients she had left.

Her husband, a sports journalist, is the main breadwinner, but the family’s finances took a hit. They had to move their 12-year-old son to a more affordable school and take a break from paying off her $100,000 in student loans. Fixing up her father’s properties to rent them appeared to be the most viable source of income.

“My role changed completely, from a psychologist to a handywoman, from having a PhD to doing construction work,” Candelas Tamayo said.

At Siemon’s coffee processing plant in Adjuntas, employee Zeneida Sotomayor sorts beans by size, color and shape into steel bowls, a task that is keeping her from joining others who have fled the area.

“Without this job, I would have to leave town,” Sotomayor said.

Siemon’s remaining beans are safely tucked beneath two giant tarps that keep them dry after Maria tore apart the building’s aluminum siding. Because he has so few beans left, the plant Siemon is renting had no need to keep on two brothers who maintained the machinery. The Santanas, who live on the property, have been doing construction and landscaping to make up the loss.

It will take another three to five years for Puerto Rico’s coffee plantations to rebound and their fragile seedlings to mature. That is also when the government says it expects Puerto Rico’s economy to stabilize. Recovery is another matter.

“There is no other industry in Adjuntas aside from coffee,” said Iris Jannette Rodriguez, president of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau’s coffee sector and a second-generation farmer in Adjuntas. “You work in coffee, or you don’t have work. The bakeries depend on coffee workers. The gas stations depend on coffee workers. If we fall, everything here falls.”

Some members of the family living in this house worked for Siemon before Maria, but the jobs have all but dried up with the lack of beans. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)


Arelis Hernández covers local politics in Prince George’s and regularly moonlights as a national breaking news reporter. She joined the Post in 2014 after nearly four years at the Orlando Sentinel. She most recently spent two months in Puerto Rico covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Samantha Schmidt is a reporter covering gender and family issues.

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