by Anne Jaclard
Ten days after Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, the population of 3.4 million people is struggling to survive, with no electricity, little water, food, gasoline and communications, plus flooded towns and impassable roads. Relief supplies sit in the harbor because federal officials have not sent the personnel and equipment needed for their distribution. The old and sick are dying in nursing homes and hospitals—most of the hospitals were shut down to consolidate fuel supplies in order to run the generators of a few major ones—or dying at home or in shelters because the roads are blocked by debris. Conditions become more desperate daily.
Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, has been on TV daily, eloquently describing the growing threat to life and pleading for more U.S. aid. Aid has been slow and much too little, in sharp contrast to the relief sent immediately by the federal government to Texas and Florida when hurricanes hit them in recent weeks. The mayor addressed Trump publicly: “We are dying, and you are ignoring us. We are not second-class citizens.” She wondered “why the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island, just 100 miles by 35 miles in size.”
In case the answers were not obvious—that Puerto Ricans are not the “white” Americans favored by Trump, and that millions of Puerto Ricans who live in the United States vote Democratic—Trump launched a disgusting attack on Mayor Cruz and the Puerto Rican people today. All week, he and his officials had insisted that conditions were improving, when they were really worsening; a high official even called Puerto Rico “a good-news story,” which Mayor Cruz denounced. Today Trump, true to his pattern of viciously attacking anyone who criticizes him, announced that the federal workers in Puerto Rico “are doing a fantastic job, but it must be a community effort. People cannot expect that everything will be done for them.” Of Mayor Cruz and other local officials, he said, “Such poor leadership. They can’t get their workers to help.”
Trump’s racism is right up front: he might as well have said “those lazy, brown, Spanish-speakers don’t deserve our help.” He also mentioned several times this week that Puerto Rico has a debt crisis and had an antiquated infrastructure, implying that the people brought the current situation on themselves. He has refused to commit to giving federal money to rebuild Puerto Rico, though funds for rebuilding Houston and Florida came quickly.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory (a “commonwealth” since 1952) and its population are U.S. citizens, albeit ones with no right to vote for President or have representation in Congress. Millions of Puerto Ricans have migrated to the U.S. since the Second World War; most live in the New York City area and a million in Florida.
The facts are that this was the worse hurricane to hit the island in 90 years. Puerto Rico’s government and thousands of volunteer citizens have been doing the best they can to distribute food, water and supplies and to clear those roads that are not under water, but it is not possible to avoid a growing disaster as supplies dwindle, unless they get more workers, fuel, equipment and electricians. Puerto Ricans in the States are collecting and sending aid. But only in the last couple of days has the U.S. government begun to send in units of the armed forces with the skills and equipment to restore services. Even with additional help, it may take six months to restore electricity, as the grid was weak before the hurricane and is non-existent now.
Puerto Rican officials have asked for an additional 20,000 troops to help. Some people have debunked the idea that this is hard to do (Trump’s recent response to why his government hadn’t done more by now was, “It’s an island, surrounded by water, big water”). The Caribbean is not very far from the States, and Puerto Rico can be reached by ship and air. People have pointed out that three days after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (which, unlike Puerto Rico, is not legally a U.S. colony), the U.S. government landed troops there to restore it to functioning. What the troops actually did was to guard a gold mine and police the cities to prevent rebellion and destruction of property, including U.S. sweatshops. Puerto Rico is able to police itself.
Thousands of other “nonwhite”—in this case, Black—U.S. citizens are also suffering in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were virtually destroyed by Hurricane Irma just weeks ago. They have seen proportionally less aid than the States that were hit, and they lack the Puerto Ricans’ support network in the States. No one knows if they will receive aid to re-build, or will have to leave their homes forever.