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What Trump's response was to Puerto Rico's humanitarian crisis

A man tries to salvage a table belonging to his restaurant before the arrival of Hurricane Maria in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Photograph: (Reuters)

New York, NY, United States Oct 04, 2017, 05.19 AM (IST) Carlos Figueroa

By September 20, 2017, weather experts were already forecasting that Hurricane Maria, characterised as a category 4 storm, had potential to cause major catastrophic damage in Puerto Rico, a United States territory. President Donald J. Trump also initially acknowledged the measured severity of the storm through his Presidential tweet-communications that seem to by-pass, if not, displace traditional White House communication practices. Trump tweeted, “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you – will be there to help”. This was Trump assuring Puerto Ricans, who are also U.S. citizens, that the federal government would be ready to assist immediately post-Hurricane Maria.

When Trump delivered this direct communication to U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, most would have assumed, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that his confident posture stemmed – not from his usual campaign-style bravado – but rather from knowing the needs of the island-residents and physical damage to the island. Thus, the popular assumption was that the president stood ready to send Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) officials and workers as emergency first-responders to the overseas U.S. territory. 

Trump, finally, reacted to the devastation facing Puerto Rico, largely, because of media pressures.
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Yet, in reality for Puerto Ricans, and the international community, the President’s rhetoric amounted to more symbolic gestures and less concrete political action. Instead of reacting promptly to these citizens’ urgent demands, Trump chose to distract the American people and the national media. He, thus, wasted precious time that should have been used to deal with Puerto Rico’s increasing humanitarian crisis.

Trump, finally, reacted to the devastation facing Puerto Rico, largely, because of media pressures and as there were critical comments on how slow the federal response was in comparison to other recent American crises in Texas and Florida. Strong criticism came from Puerto Rico Governor Rosselló and, more recently, from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Thus, when U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico needed presidential moral and substantive leadership, Trump made the wrong choices, which he continues to downplay, or blame others for and not his failed leadership.

Trump had the chance to show real leadership by immediately sending the necessary resources, including the assistance of the military to Puerto Rico where U.S. citizens are lacking sufficient food, water and electricity.

Puerto Rico is now a major humanitarian crisis: at least 16 deaths have been reported, and some experts estimate that over $30 billion in physical & economic damages will accrue. The federal government’s slow response under Trump’s callous attitude – despite his tweets – reflects something fundamental: Trump’s increasingly wrongheaded choices since assuming office January 2017. 

The U.S. federal government’s full economic control of Puerto Rico is the main contributor to the current post-hurricane humanitarian crisis.
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First, his decision not to waive the Jones Act/Merchant Marine Law of 1920 (this law means that “any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer”) as he previously did following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, and second, his failure to visit Puerto Rico within a few hours/days after the hurricane reveals his fundamental disconnect with the gloomy realities developing on the island.

Trump lost an opportunity to enhance his credibility, as well as, that of his divided Republican Party, among Puerto Ricans and Latinos more generally. Although it would not have made a difference considering at least 60 per cent of Latinos have historically supported Democrats. Trump only reversed his decision on the Jones Act (a waiver that will only be in effect for 10 days) because of mounting pressure from Puerto Rican officials, Democratic Congress members, and national media.

Trump’s lack of empathy for his fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico is consistent with his failed Presidency that is only several months in and already showing signs of rapid decline with another cabinet member resigning even as I write.

Indeed, Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizens under the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 and have historically served honourably in the U.S. military. Nevertheless, the U.S. federal government has restricted not only individual political rights but also the island’s economic liberalism and overall development. For example, even President Obama, a supposed progressive liberal democrat, chose to protect bondholder interests over the rights of ordinary U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.

Having U.S. citizenship does not automatically mean Puerto Ricans enjoy full political & social rights and privileges as others do on the mainland. 
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The U.S. federal government’s full economic control of Puerto Rico is the main contributor to the current post-hurricane humanitarian crisis. In a recent New York Times opinion editorial, Nelson A. Denis shows how much of the current crisis is due to Puerto Rico's 'captive market' of the heavy weight of U.S. colonial policies. 

In fact, Puerto Ricans have historically migrated to the mainland U.S., searching for financial and socio-economic stability because of these policies; travelling for more jobs, and educational opportunities to places like New York, Illinois, and Florida, for example. Yet, when you couple these factors with events due to climate chaos like recent Hurricanes Irma and Maria that hit Puerto Rico (Maria has been called the most powerful hurricane in 80 years), you basically get climate refugees. However, having U.S. citizenship does not automatically mean Puerto Ricans enjoy full political & social rights and privileges as others do on the mainland. 

As a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, I take President Trump’s slow response to the Puerto Rico humanitarian crisis seriously as should others. I was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, which is located a few miles south of San Juan and raised in New York City and Trenton, New Jersey.  My perspective is not unique, but I share it solely to highlight the fact that, since at least the mid-2000s, Puerto Rico’s population has declined from 3.7 million to 3.4 million partly due to having access to mainland economic markets through a limited statutory form of U.S. citizenship on the island.

Puerto Rico’s long-standing colonial territorial status, deceivingly called Free Associated State or Commonwealth, means the U.S. Congress not only maintains complete sovereign rule over the territory, including having the final word on the political status question but also controls over 80 per cent of the island’s economy. The Jones Act, as already mentioned, reinforces the colonial ties between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, which diminishes any form, or level of individual citizenship. 

Moving forward, we need real Presidential leadership because it is sometimes a matter of life and death, and not about ratings, popularity, or reality television, Mr Trump.
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Trump's divisive politics is obviously not new; it was evident even prior to the surprising November 2016 presidential election outcome. What is quite outrageous is the extent of Trump's bluster and wrongheaded choices now as the president. His explicit promotion of white nationalist ideology and disregard for the U.S. Constitution should raise real concerns among moderate, and even right of centered Republicans, let along the rest of Americans. As a candidate, Trump was tolerated by the conservative and GOP establishment who were hoping to regain the White House, while keeping out of national power another Clinton. 

Last, let's look at Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis from a slightly different perspective, and think more clearly about Trump's wrongheaded choices. Puerto Rico has a current population of approximately 3.4 million, which means there are more U.S. citizens living on the island than there are in at least 17 mainland states: Iowa (3.1), Utah (3.0), Arkansas (2.9), Kansas (2.9), Mississippi (2.9), Nevada (2.0), New Mexico (2.0), Nebraska (1.9), West Virginia (1.8), Idaho (1.6), Hawaii (1.4), Maine (1.3), Rhode Island (1.0), Montana (1.0), Delaware (0.9), South Dakota (0.8), and Alaska (0.7). 

If any of these states were to experience the similar level of devastation as is seen in Puerto Rico, I doubt Trump and the federal government would have taken so long to provide the necessary assistance, resources, and funding. Beyond tweeting, Trump as the president and a businessman should have known the complexity surrounding Puerto Rico’s pre- and post-Hurricane Maria humanitarian crisis: "This is an ISLAND, surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water."

This is about making the right choices for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. Moving forward, we need real Presidential leadership because it is sometimes a matter of life and death, and not about ratings, popularity, or reality television, Mr Trump. 

This article has been originally published in Fair Observer.

Carlos Figueroa

Carlos Figueroa is assistant professor at the Department of Politics at Ithaca College, New York. He is engaged in working-class politics, labour organisation, collective bargaining and urban activism.

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