Activists in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Fight for Vital Living Spaces

The main thoroughfare in Caguas, Puerto Rico, a city of nearly 150,000 people, remains desolate for hours at a time. Its buildings, ranging from pale pinks to bright orange and lime green, appear vacant. Many of the storefronts have boarded windows as if the shopkeepers left in a hurry and haven’t looked back.

Hurricane Maria hit Caguas, 19 miles south of San Juan, with the same devastating force that met other municipalities on Puerto Rico’s eastern coast. But for locals, it was a common sentiment that life in Caguas was already careening in an unsustainable direction well before last year’s hurricanes — Irma, followed by the even more devastating Maria — were even on the radar.

City blocks abound with vacant apartments, a situation caused not only by Maria but also in large part by landlords who are holding out for a flood of foreign investment. Puerto Ricans have long expected an influx of wealthy mainlanders in what some activists characterize as the island’s “third invasion.” Post-Maria, Puerto Rico is struggling under a new wave of austerity measures imposed by the Financial Oversight and Management Board — set up by Congress in 2016 to restructure its debt.

The island’s government is aiming to privatize its public resources and is incentivizing mainland investment in tech and the island’s tourism economy. Business elite from the mainland, ready to take advantage of tax breaks, arrive prepared to buy up entire blocks of land. Caguas’ convenient location, just inland from the big city, would be the next logical step in the line of gentrification — cheap property within driving distance of San Juan and world-renowned, pristine coastline.

The future looks bleak in Caguas. Just over 37 percent of the city lives below the poverty line, well above the national average of 14 percent. Homelessness and displacement have reached…

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