In 1899, there was a period of famine after the scourge of Hurricane San Ciriaco. On top of that, the aid arriving at the docks of San Juan was landed with delays due to labor conflicts with the stevedores.
Back then, the vulnerability the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, who depended on food import to satisfy their food needs, was already being discussed.
Some 118 years after that, the vulnerability of Puerto Rico, in some aspects, is even greater.
The passage of Hurricane Maria made evident the crisis that has been discussed for years, and the impact was so great that Puerto Ricans will not see the supply system normalized until next year. In fact, we have to wait several months to overcome the current scenario, warned Manuel Reyes, spokesman for the Puerto Rico Food Marketing, Industry and Distribution Chamber (MIDA, Spanish acronym)
Currently, the maritime movement of goods between Puerto Rico and the United States depends on three shipping companies and two ports: San Juan and Jacksonville, Florida. Any problem in these two facilities is quickly reflected with some shortcomings in the products consumed by Puerto Ricans, agreed experts in planning, distribution of goods and food security.
These risks continue with poor storage capacity on the island. In Puerto Rico, the products that are stored pay municipal taxes for movable property. In order to avoid high payment of this tax, companies keep a limited stock in their facilities and depend on the agility of the distribution chain to have products available, explained Reyes.
This low storage capacity also prevents the development of an industry that takes surpluses from agricultural production in Puerto Rico and converts them into non-perishable food items, such as canned food, vacuum sealed or preserved with some kind of typical industry method used nowadays. This use of surpluses would also help improve agricultural production in Puerto Rico, where only 15 percent of what Puerto Ricans consume is produced.
"The vulnerability of Puerto Rico's food system was demonstrated," said Myrna Comas, former Agriculture Secretary and director of the National Food Security Initiative in Puerto Rico.
In fact, shortage that currently exists in supermarket shelves, estimated by MIDA in slightly less than 40 percent of the products, is related, in general, to the balance of destruction and logistical complications left by hurricanes Irma and María.
Reyes explained that, normally, during the hurricane season, supermarkets have extra stock of items such as canned food. These supplies were significantly reduced after the passage of Irma, which affected mainly the Northeast and left the island without power.
Later, when Irma threatened the state of Florida, port operations that serve Puerto Rico, such as Jacksonville, had delays in the movement of vans. At that time, Puerto Ricans were helping the neighboring islands affected by that first cyclone. Two weeks later, María hit Puerto Rico.
This cyclone, one of the most intense in Puerto Rico, came at a time when there were not many supplies on the island, Reyes said. Damage was so extensive that a lot of external aid and special cargo shipments were required to bring materials for the reconstruction and stabilization of the island. And that created piles of shipment at the docks in San Juan and Jacksonville. The capacity of the fleet does not seem to be enough, Reyes said.
And there is no way to quickly add new shipping companies. The US Merchant Marine Act, also known on the island as the cabotage law, requires maritime traffic between US ports to be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, and crewed by U.S. citizens. This makes the fleet that attends the traffic between the US and Puerto Rico limited.
In addition, in general, these companies don´t have the best record of commercial practices. In fact, in 2008, four shipping executives with operations here pleaded guilty to agreeing, among them, the prices of the shipment, which goes against antitrust laws and the commercial principle of free competition. Currently, these companies are the ones that establish priorities regarding which van leaves Jacksonville and arrives in Puerto Rico.
"Right now, the demand for maritime transport is beyond the capacity of these shipping companies. The fleet that serves Puerto Rico is insufficient and you have these companies deciding what does and does not fit with the criteria they understand. We can think that they are acting with the best interest, but we do not know the criteria they have because there is no government supervision, "Reyes said.
El Nuevo Dia sought the opinion and reaction about the issue of food security of two of the three main shipping companies with operations in Puerto Rico. But there was no answer.
For 10 days, these limitations on maritime traffic were suspended by the US president Donald Trump. Reyes indicated that in that short time about 20 ships brought goods to the island.
"This whole issue will begin to be addressed if we diversify and dilute the risks," said the MIDA spokesperson.
There are several issues that must be addressed to achieve this diversification. For example, Reyes stressed that more ports should be used in Puerto Rico and the US. for shipping.
He also argued that the freight movement should be excluded from the cabotage laws in order to satisfy the demand for goods movement, promote free competition and for control not to be in a handful of companies.
As a third point, Reyes affirmed that municipal taxes must be reformed, so that the storage of goods is not penalized.Meanwhile, Comas, also emphasizing on this point, indicated that this could improve local agricultural production. This is crucial so that food needs are met to a greater degree by local production.
Planner José Rivera Santana said that greater local production requires, in addition to economic stimulus, a rigorous protection of land with agricultural potential. The current Land-Use Plan helps in this process. However, this ordering is often overlooked with exceptional consultation processes, he said.