Cantera or the Neglect of Public Policy to Tackle Poverty

Twenty-six years after the creation of the first public corporation in Puerto Rico that formalized support for community self-management, the government abandons the project.

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Photo by Leandro Fabrizi Ríos | Center for Investigative Journalism

The quintessential image that portrays the history of the Cantera community in San Juan dates back to 1989, when residents met in a house garage to assign each other tasks and assume their own reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. It sparked a community organization process, which in turn led to the establishment of a public corporation to meet the needs of the impoverished sector and work with its residents to improve their living conditions.

Three decades later, Cantera is in agony and after enduring hurricane María, it now faces the shutdown of the Company for the Integral Development of the Cantera Peninsula, as proposed by the Fiscal Plan certified in April by Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Control Board (FCB). The measure, although approved by the FCB, is not an idea of the entity imposed by the federal government. It shows up in internal documents of the Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares administration, which in October 2017 — a month after María — contemplated closing down the public corporation.

Photo provided by the Center for Puerto Rico

Children from the community in a CDIPC activity

The shutdown of the Company was projected since its inception. According to its charter law, Act 20 of 1992, the public corporation would exist for 20 years, with an option to extend it five years. In 2013, then Gov. Alejandro García Padilla decided to extend the life of the Company for another 20 years, including a five-year phase-out process so that the community could identify vital programs that would have remained in place through the Neighborhood Council of the Cantera Peninsula.

But now the certified Fiscal Plan calls for the shutdown of the Company after a “wind-down period” that would last from two to three years, beginning with fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1. The plan further specifies that within the next two fiscal years, the Company must achieve a 50% saving on its budget. Cantera’s budget for the current fiscal year was reduced to $433,000 annually.

“The budget of this corporation is $400,000. In general, it is ‘spare change.’ We don’t know what are the real motivations of all this. There are things that cannot be understood,” said Felícita Maldonado, a resident of Cantera and co-founder of the Neighborhood Council, during an interview with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIJ).

On the shutdown of the Company, she added: “I don’t pretend to have the [public] corporation perpetuate itself because it was not created for that. I think that [the government] should allow us to see what remains to be done of what we once dreamed for our community, that they give us time to have an orderly transition as the law itself establishes and if possible, if we are prepared in the Neighborhood Council, they can transfer some programs to keep us doing something for our people.” Maldonado is also part of the G8 board, a group that comprises the impoverished communities surrounding the Martín Peña Channel.

In the budget proposed by the Rosselló Nevares administration and sent to the FCB on May 18, the Company is allocated $390,000, a reduction of 11.03% with respect to the current fiscal year.

“That limits the activities they can do. I do not agree with the killing of the Cantera project, “said Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, mayor of San Juan, adding that she agrees with the extension of the project until 2033, like García Padilla proposed in 2012.

When answering questions about what measures the municipality would take to support the San Juan community, the mayor spoke of the initiative ‘Cantera Blooms’, through which neighbors of the community were hired, with federal funds from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA, in English), to do landscaping tasks in areas of the capital. In terms of municipal funds that may be assigned to the Company, Cruz Soto made no commitment.

“If we want to eliminate poverty, we can not do it by making people dependent on government aid. We have to be with them with education and community development projects, “concluded the mayor.

Washington resident commissioner Jenniffer González Colón toured the Cantera community on May 11, accompanied by Jeff Merkley, a Republican senator from Oregon and member of the Appropriations Committee. The visit was part of a day to show the senator the sectors most affected by Hurricane Maria. At a press conference, and through social networks, the Resident Commissioner expressed in a general manner that “We are working together to obtain funds for the communities of Caño Martin Peña, such as Cantera. We cannot allow successful programs to shut down because of lack of funding.”

The CPI made arrangements to interview González Colón on this matter, but she did not answer.

Stab to a weakened project

In addition to the budget cuts and the death sentence, there is also a lack of leadership at the helm of the public corporation: the person who directs the agency, Francine Sánchez Marcano, has been in office for just three months and on an interim basis.

Sánchez Marcano couldn’t provide a list of tasks that the Company performed in the days following the Hurricane María to support the Cantera community. She only mentioned that the entity helped residents fill out the online forms of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as coordinated some recovery efforts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), but couldn’t specify which ones. The only help that the interim director could detail was the one she gave when she worked in the Casa Educativa program: “to help people find ice,” or buying bags at an ice company that is close to the community and selling them to residents “at the same price they sold it to us.” Casa Educativa works with children from the Cantera community and was led by Sánchez Marcano until she was put in charge of the Company.

Photo by Leandro Fabrizi Ríos | Center for Investigative Journalism

Community street full of debris five months after the passage of Hurricane Maria.

The scenario of this sector of the capital is gloomy and echoes one of the realities that came to light in Puerto Rico after Sept. 20, 2017: it was the people who mostly saved themselves because the government’s response efforts failed. No government entity arrived to Cantera but weeks after María and if the community has some services it has been in large part because its residents mobilized and protested.

In fact, since he was sworn in as governor, Gov. Rossello Nevares hasn’t been to the Cantera neighborhoods, confirmed Maldonado and Yenniffer Álvarez Jaimes, the governor’s press secretary.

“We have not met him [Gov. Rosselló]. In fact, some aides from [Sen.] Miguel Romero told me that we had never invited the senator here and I was like, ‘Well, sometimes they come to the communities without invitation.’ If you are interested in helping me and think you can help me, you can make an approach. This is a public corporation, they don’t have to ask for permission to enter here,” Maldonado said.

“It wasn’t after two weeks following María that the staff came to work. I didn’t like it. The staff here was dedicated to filling out FEMA documents. We met with Luis Cintrón [who was the executive director at that time] and we asked him. He only told us that for [immediate help], there was municipal and state emergency management [agencies]. And I answered: ‘Hey, this project came from a hurricane, from Hurricane Hugo.’ I was not satisfied with the answer he gave us,” she added.

Sen. Miguel Romero, who represents the district of San Juan, spoke with Cantera leaders in April, but didn’t mention the Fiscal Plan. “It was not about the Fiscal Plan itself, but rather the impact of the government’s reorganization, the fiscal problems of the corporation and aspects of the community,” Romero explained on the meeting’s agenda. The New Progressive Party senator has talked about the importance of community organizations to fight poverty, but he has yet to say whether he supports or not the shutdown of the Cantera public corporation.

Photo by Leandro Fabrizi Ríos | Center for Investigative Journalism

Mabel Román Padró

“It is unacceptable that we are like in 1989. I tell people that my problem is not María, that is something completely natural. My problem is what doesn’t happen afterward due to bad administration,” denounced Mabel Román Padró, a resident and community leader of Cantera, in reference to the juggling that her neighbors are currently doing to survive.

“We poor people fix life as if with a needle every day.”

Mabel and her family experienced Hurricane Hugo at her sister’s home in Villa Palmeras. They wanted to be in a concrete house on elevated ground, contrary to where they lived. The hurricane warning was of very strong winds and heavy rain. They thought that the family would be more secure if they took refuge. They were right: when the scourge passed and they were able to return to their neighborhood, the devastation was palpable. Those who lost the least were without roofs or fences, while others were without residences. The community was flooded so it was impossible to distinguish between the accumulated rain and sewage. The trees and poles were all on the ground, blocking the way into the community.

“The blow was so brutal that you realized that you did not have any kind of action that could improve the devastation. Where there were houses, they were gone,” said José ‘Chago’ Santiago, who is married to Mabel Román, recalling the days after Sept. 18, 1989, when Hurricane Hugo passed through Puerto Rico and significantly affected his Cantera neighborhood.

His memory is shaped by images of the destroyed San Juan community, but seeing his neighbors dealing with the emergency was his strongest impression. “What really struck me was that the storm passed and when we returned to the community, everyone was organized, cleaning, picking up [debris], opening the streets for when the ambulances arrived. The people, motu proprio, initiated the reconstruction process. We would count the people: ‘How many are we? One, two, three, four, Mabel and me. Let’s go to help,’” said Santiago, who was then the a history teacher in the neighborhood and quickly assumed the leadership to tackle the needs of the community.

Mabel Román also recalls the will of her neighbors to overcome Hugo’s blow and go back to normal, but what stands out in her memory is the absence of the government in the reconstruction process. “In the case of Hugo, the community, the cultural center, the school and the church could serve as support centers where some aid was channeled. With Hugo we had the great lesson that if you don’t have a government-assigned shelter, at that time you did not receive aid. Cantera had no shelter. In other words, we were invisible even for the government because without an official shelter, aid was very scarce. The natural leaders, recreational leaders and teachers are the ones who give a little structure to the chaos,” Román said.

For days—which became long weeks—Cantera survived with what it had: the skill and strength of its residents. But Hugo didn’t come and go: it severely weakened the soil on the hill adjacent to the community and landslides began. This got the attention of the San Juan municipality government and officials arrived to Cantera, although not with machinery to stop the landslides, but rather with expropriation and development plans, the latter of which after residents were evicted. The siren song: to avoid the horrors of the 1985 Mameyes landslides in Portugués, a neighborhood in Ponce.

Photo provided by Centro para Puerto Rico

Image of houses in Cantera in the early 1990s

“Hugo also brings physical infrastructure problems: the houses that were on the hill were threatened by landslides. The municipality sees the opportunity to implement several plans that it already had: to get more families out of the community,” said Román, who stressed that the municipality didn’t go to Cantera with alternatives, but rather to scare residents. Alerted by the municipal government’s moves, the community inquired and discovered there were 29 plans to intervene in Cantera. None were consulted. One of these plans, from the 1970s, was Parque del Sureste, a land development initiative by Hernán Padilla, a former mayor of San Juan under the New Progressive Party from 1977 to 1985. The project sought to expropriate residents and replace their homes with luxurious marinas.

It was an episode of frustration. Cantera residents remembered well the expropriations in the Tokío neighborhood in Hato Rey and the abuses of the State to remove the people from Villa Sin Miedo—which roughly translates to No Fear community—in Canóvanas.

“We had raised in a meeting that if one [resident] leaves, we all go. We brought this to the community, and the community gets upset, rises up and organizes. Very gregarious, all united,” said Santiago, who admitted that they could not prevent some neighbors from accepting the municipality’s offer and sold their houses. At the end of the day, 200 families left.

“We organized ourselves to avoid eviction. That was the first goal: to survive,” Román went on to say.

While community leaders met and talked with residents about the plans of the municipal government, a nun dedicated to community work in Cantera reached out to a former student of hers, a journalist in a local newspaper, and told her about the government’s abandonment, that no help arrived and that, without water or power, the situation was an emergency. The journalist, Ileana Cidoncha, visited her teacher and wrote an article for El Nuevo Día that put Sister Isabel “Lalín” Pérez Calderón’s denunciation on the desk Sila M. Calderón Serra, the governor’s chief of staff at that time.

Calderón recognized “Lalín,” who had also been her teacher, so she went to see her and assure her that the government’s reconstruction efforts were at full steam. Yet, Calderón’s speech was broken when she arrived to the neighborhood.

Photo provided by Centro para Puerto Rico

Sister Pérez Calderón talks with Sila Calderón during a tour of Cantera in 1989.

“What I saw there radically changed my life forever. The situation was so horrible after the hurricane, but also before: children playing with sewage in the Martín Peña Channel, shacks that almost couldn’t stay up. The most abject poverty you can imagine,” recalled Calderón, who went on to become governor of Puerto Rico in 2000.

Meetings began with experts in community design at the University of Puerto Rico. In 1991, the Cantera Neighborhood Council was founded. Its members were residents elected as representatives of the community. A proposal was then outlined with 10 priorities for improving Cantera, which in turn made way to what in 1992 became, by virtue of law, the Integral Development of the Cantera Peninsula Company.

“Some people hated us to death and will hate us to death. Even then mayor of San Juan, Héctor Luis Acevedo, didn’t support the initiative. He didn’t appoint the Board of Directors until six months after [the law was enacted], disregarding his responsibility,” Román criticized.

Former governor Calderón has a similar memory. Although she didn’t want to name anyone, she did recognize that partisan politics was one of the biggest hurdles. “At that time, and still, the biggest obstacle is politics. There were problems with a person who was sitting in an important political position and who simply didn’t even want to put a representative [on the Board of Directors] because he was afraid that they would go against him, which is an absurd thing,” she conceded. The law was approved thanks to the incessant lobbying of the neighbors.

“Lobbying is important. When the bill was filed, we didn’t leave [the Legislature]. There were 300 residents of the community. It was an election year: 1992. That marks a before and after. We knew that if we didn’t do it, the bill would not materialize,” said Mabel Román.

Photo by Leandro Fabrizi Ríos | Center for Investigative Journalism

Edwin Quiles

Residents of Cantera learned the importance of political lobbying and trained themselves to conduct a needs survey together with a multidisciplinary group of professors and students led by Edwin Quiles, an architect. This resulted in the Comprehensive Plan for the Development of the Cantera Peninsula, which was issued in 1994 and continues to this day. It proposes physical and social improvement for the community.

“The plan involved a thorough investigation not only in terms of who lived there, but also thinking about that place and its capacity for a better future. As part of the study, we thought of changes to the space: improve housing, attract more housing for Cantera and attract investment for Cantera. Investment not so much in the sense of bringing investors to Cantera, but rather capital so that the people of Cantera who were already entrepreneurs—such as the [resident] who owns the grocery store, daycares or makes billiards—also had the capacity to increase their business and employ people from Cantera. That the main employer was Cantera. We also made a proposal so that the roughly 40 cuerdas [about 30 acres] that were still vacant could also be urbanized, thus increasing the number of residents in such a way that more services could be made viable; better services for Cantera,” Quiles explained.

Photo provided by Centro para Puerto Rico

Sila Calderón and Edwin Quiles during the press conference to present the CDIPC.

For the architect and professor, emphasize the value of the land was important. “We visualized Cantera as a kind of center, so that those social facilities that didn’t exist in the central part of Barrio Obrero could be located in Cantera and promote a flow of people from and toward Cantera. To locate Cantera in the city,” he added.

This is one of the most important memories of the whole process that community leader Mabel Román has.

“Edwin Quiles teaches us with aerial maps—we had never seen us from the air—that geographically we were a larger community than we thought, that we were a peninsula, we had three bodies of water. We continued to learn what we were and what we could be. The central location we have. People knew that being in Cantera was important, but seeing it from the air, seeing what was around us… the value of Cantera. We have an emotional value as well as the older generations, who built Cantera from the mud, from the garbage, by taking out garbage. Perhaps those of us who did not see this, were only appreciating it from a property value [standpoint],” Román said.

Even after all the meetings, an approved development plan and approved legislation, the initiative had yet to kick off. Former Gov. Calderón contends that the needs of the community didn’t go hand in hand with the demands of the public corporation. “It had been two years and the plan was not moving forward, and during one of the meetings I said: ‘We are far behind. We are very slow. We have to advance this plan.’ One of the residents, Mabel Román, raised her hand and said: ‘Ms. Calderón, you want us to go fast and we want to please you, but you have to understand that we poor people fix life as if with a needle every day. That means that when you live in poverty, you get up in the morning and don’t know how the day will end. You have to work to survive that day.’ I understood at that moment that planning is a luxury,” she said.

The former governor was asked about her reaction to the closure of the Company that she promoted. “Measures such as the proposed one will further increase poverty and inequity in our Island, which are already on shameful levels,” she declared, without specifying what actions she would take to prevent it.

Cantera inspired

“It was a pilot project. What was done here had never happened in Puerto Rico: it was possible to unite the private sector, the government and the community to work toward a common goal,” reflected Felícita Maldonado on the experience in Cantera. She points out that the most important achievement of the whole process was the strengthening of community leaders.

“Leadership training is good. Many people measure the achievements of things by the physical component, especially the government. But the training of people, which is something that you continue to develop, makes a profit. You see it in the long term, not immediately, like a building. The training of the people, discovering that they are leaders and contribute to the country,” Maldonado concluded.

Photo provided by Centro para Puerto Rico

Photo of neighbors in front of the CDIPC sign

When asked about the greatest achievement of the initiative, Mabel Román answered without hesitation: “We stayed here.”

Cantera became the prototype of an organized community and former Gov. Calderón sought to scale that experience through the Special Communities initiative, Act 1 of 2001, which managed to outline development plans for 686 poor communities throughout Puerto Rico. The office, attached to the governor’s office, has been changing its name and losing resources, rendering it practically inoperative. As of 2016, about 45% of people lived below the poverty level in Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to the 2016 Community Survey of Puerto Rico by the United States Census Bureau, 45% of the people lived below the poverty level on the Island. According to this same survey, in the Las Casas neighborhood, which has sectors that are part of Cantera, 77% of the people lived below the poverty level at that time.