Center for Human Rights Devotes Annual Conference to the Crisis in Puerto Rico

Center for Human Rights Devotes Annual Conference to the Crisis in Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and created an island-wide, ongoing humanitarian crisis. In response, last week the Lehman Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies brought together scholars and activists from around the nation for a special symposium titled “In the Eye of the Hurricane: Understanding Puerto Rico’s Crisis.”

“It was important to hold a conference on the crisis in Puerto Rico at Lehman College because the Lehman community and the greater Bronx community have been personally impacted by this crisis,” said Victoria Sanford, the Center’s director and chair of the Department of Anthropology. “Students, staff, faculty, and members of the Lehman and Bronx community came together to learn what we can do to support Puerto Ricans in their ongoing struggle for survival and transformation following the hurricane.”

During his welcoming remarks, President José Luis Cruz noted that the conference was “deeply personal to me and my family.” Cruz said it took several weeks to account for all his family and friends living in Puerto Rico. He also shared that since the hurricane he has cycled through the “five stages of grief” but is still stuck in the stage of anger.

“It’s a good type of anger,” Cruz said. “It’s a type of anger that drives purposeful and deliberative action. It was the tweet storm that followed the actual storm that crystalized in my mind the importance of a campus like Lehman coming together.”

Lehman College’s Dr. Rima Brusi was instrumental in working with Sanford in putting the conference together. She described the dire circumstances facing the island in the aftermath of the crisis. “The official death count continues to hold steady at 58, but journalists and researchers estimate it’s as much as 20 times higher than the government’s count,” she said. “Fifty percent of the island still has no electricity and most people still have to boil their water. As of last week, there were 800 official refugees and this number doesn’t take into account the countless people living with friends and family.”

Brusi also discussed how this recent humanitarian crisis follows a full-blown economic crisis that has, in recent years, crippled the island’s economy. The conference’s first speaker, Natasha Bannan, from the National Lawyer’s Guild and LatinoJustice, delivered a talk titled “Colonialism, Climate Change, and Disaster Capitalism,” that considered the effects of all three on Puerto Rico and its people.

“There have been two and half months of horrors that have been happening on the island, but there’s a reason why,” said Bannan. “The disaster wasn’t just the hurricane on September 20. The disaster has been ongoing since far before that.”

Frances Negrón-Muntaner, a professor at Columbia University, was the conference’s second speaker, and made a presentation that addressed the challenges facing the island before and after the hurricane called “Blackout: Debt, Migration, and Citizenship in Post-Maria Puerto Rico.”

Lehman Professor Teresita Levy, moderated an afternoon panel to further discuss and analyze the crisis in all its political and economic complexity; panelists included Adriana Garriga-López from Kalamazoo College; Alexa Dietrich from Wagner College; Dr. Brusi; and Angel “Monxo” López, from Hunter College. The panel addressed the topics of public health, education, and politics.

The conference was sponsored by the Lehman Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies. Its co-sponsors include the Leonard Lief Library; Department of Anthropology; Dean’s Office of Arts and Humanities; Dean’s Office of Natural and Social Sciences; Department of Latin American, Latino, and Puerto Rican Studies; and the Office of International Programs and Global Partnerships. For more information about the Lehman Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies please visit their website.