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A Chicago theater veteran’s view from Puerto Rico

Longtime Theater Oobleck ensemble member Dave Buchen sees hurricane devastation from his house on a hill in San Juan.

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Former Chicagoan and Theater Oobleck ensemble member Dave Buchen has lived in Puerto Rico since 1999. - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • Former Chicagoan and Theater Oobleck ensemble member Dave Buchen has lived in Puerto Rico since 1999.

Todo bien."

That's Dave Buchen's unlikely response to the question of how he's faring, ten days after Hurricane Maria. I've caught the former Chicagoan and longtime Theater Oobleck ensemble member during a rare interlude of cell-phone connectivity at his home on a hill in the Santurce area of San Juan.

"My house is OK. My family is OK. I have access to water and food. So I'm doing great," he says, adding that he's lucky to be on high land. Down the hill, he can see neighborhoods that are completely flooded.

"There are areas close to me that still have sewage in the street," he says. "And people in the mountains—there are whole areas that are just devastated."

Electricity?

"None."

Power was out for more than a week after Hurricane Irma, came back on for four days, and has been out now since September 20, when Maria struck, with a wind that "roared for seven hours." He says if it's back on in two months, he'll be "really excited." There's no word about when the public schools will reopen.

Buchen, who's lived in Puerto Rico since 1999, says he's also lucky to be a self-employed visual artist and musician. Neighbors and friends who work at businesses shut down by the storm don't know when their jobs will come back, if they come back. Tourism and agriculture alike have been literally blown away.

"A lot of people, their income just disappeared."

Puerto Rican residents Yadira Sortre and William Fontan Quintero with what remains of their house after Hurricane Maria. “We lost everything,” Quintero says. They have three children, one of whom lives in Chicago. - RAMON ESPINOSA
  • Ramon Espinosa
  • Puerto Rican residents Yadira Sortre and William Fontan Quintero with what remains of their house after Hurricane Maria. “We lost everything,” Quintero says. They have three children, one of whom lives in Chicago.

So what can we do to help? The immediate need, Buchen says, is money for the organizations that are doing the work: clearing streets, getting drinkable water to the people, providing shelter. (There, on the ground, he likes Radio Vieques and Taller Salud.)

"Longer term, structurally, we need to not be expected to pay billions and billions of dollars of debt. There've been calls for a moratorium on that, and that's important," he says.

Two large issues figure in this, Buchen says. "The economic crisis—we've been in recession for 11 years." And behind that, colonialism. "Puerto Rico is the world's oldest colony," he says. "The United States keeps it as a colony, and because of that, it's poor. The money has been siphoned off. The sugar industry took tons of money out, and development has been stunted by U.S. control."

A tax break that encouraged U.S. companies to manufacture in Puerto Rico was ended in 2006. While it was in force, Buchen says, "all kinds of companies came down, set up factories. There were jobs, but there was no accumulation of capital, no reinvestment in the island. They took all the money out, and when the tax break was lifted, they left."

Since then, unemployment has risen, population and tax revenues have dropped (as Puerto Ricans decamp to the mainland), and the government has borrowed heavily to stay afloat. Puerto Rico, with a population of only about 3.4 million, now owes about $120 billion in bond debt and pension liabilities. More than 40 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty level, according to data collected before the hurricanes hit.

(On September 28, after tweeting that Puerto Ricans "want everything done for them," President Donald Trump temporarily lifted a long-standing federal law that had interfered with the island's trade, driven up the cost of living, and was said to be slowing the arrival of supplies after Maria. The Jones Act requires that ships carrying goods between American ports must be U.S. built and staffed; the temporary suspension expired on October 8.)

Buchen's not looking to statehood as a permanent solution. "For me, statehood means simply that Mississippi wouldn't be the poorest state in the country," he says. "I'm a firm believer that Puerto Rico should be independent."

"The important thing to remember is that this is a problem that's not going to stop for a long time. If you're not in the middle of it, the event happens, you count the dead, and then you move to the next horrible event—Las Vegas. But for the entire population here, this is going to have repercussions for years to come. I would say to the people up there, find a way to pay attention to how things play out."

Up here, the community's rallying. Among the efforts: The Puerto Rican Arts Alliance has joined with the National Museum of Mexican Art to raise money for hurricane relief that'll be split between Puerto Rico and Mexico. The Puerto Rican Agenda launched a "Pallets & Planes" drive that already sent two planeloads of supplies to the island and is gearing up to do more. And on October 19, the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center will host a benefit for Puerto Rican artists featuring two acts from Santurce: the comedy troupe Teatro Breve and singer Juan Pablo Díaz.   v

Puerto Rico Artist Hurricane Relief Fund-Raiser Thu 10/19, 7 PM, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage, 773-698-6004, segundoruizbelvis.org.

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