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Trump’s tweets anger, but do not surprise, Puerto Ricans

Residents of San Juan had strong words after President Trump tweeted on Oct. 12 that relief workers would not stay in Puerto Rico “forever.” (Video: Hector Santos Guia, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Jose Vazquez was listening to the radio this morning when the programming was interrupted by a special report.

The exasperated announcer read President Trump’s tweets about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, first responders and the military not being in Puerto Rico forever over the air as the other disc jockeys gasped in disbelief.

Vazquez couldn’t believe it either, he said, pausing. Well, actually, he could.

“We don’t want them here forever,” the 35-year-old said. “We need them until Puerto Rico normalizes. If they can leave soon, great. That would mean we are closer to a full recovery.”

Vazquez, who works for a government subcontractor that works with public housing clients, said the president was out of line and lacks the context to speak authoritatively about what is happening in Puerto Rico.

“This isn’t presidential,” he said. Vazquez was waiting outside the Puerto Rico coliseum where a group of chefs have been cooking free meals for weeks. Vazquez was waiting for 1,300 meal orders to deliver them to elderly public housing residents in the San Juan-area neighborhood of Hato Rey.

“FEMA is not a gift, it’s insurance we pay for,” he said. “It’s their duty to respond. And we really need the help.”

A tale of two Puerto Ricos: What Trump saw -- and what he didn’t

On Thursday, Trump further inflamed tensions surrounding his administration's response to the damage done to the island by Hurricane Maria when he unleashed a several tweets saying that Puerto Rico is partly to blame for its problems and suggesting that the federal government could abandon its relief efforts some time in the future.

“We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” the president tweeted.

His comments were widely condemned, especially at a time when Puerto Rico's 3.4 million residents continue to struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine and only 17 percent of customers have electricity.

Trump's comments were not surprising to many Puerto Ricans, but they stung. And they helped underscore the feeling that the president doesn't view them as deserving the same level of assistance as citizens on the mainland United States.

“We are the same kind of citizens as those in Texas and New York,” said Joan Figueroa, a 44-year-old homemaker, adding that most Puerto Ricans try to ignore Trump. “He wouldn’t say what he’s said if the disaster was there. We depend on the federal government because our government can’t handle it. But we will rise up with or without Trump.”

Asked what she meant, Figueroa, who was waiting for several servings of rice to take to bedridden neighbors in her apartment complex on the edge of San Juan, said: “Because we help each other here.”

On a bus headed for the crowded and sweltering San Juan airport, retirees Isabel Cruz and her husband, Ramon Nieves, sat in the middle row of an airport van Thursday talking about Trump's tweets in voices that dripped with disdain.

“He doesn't think of us as Americans,” Nieves, 71, said.

“It's not just that,” Cruz, 78, said. “He's racist.”

That last word, “racist,” she said extra slowly and emphatically. Then she repeated it for emphasis.

Cruz and Nieves lived much of their adult lives in New Jersey but decided to return to the island of their birth when Nieves retired from his chauffeur job four years ago. They bought a little house in Camuy, a city in northwestern Puerto Rico. Everyone in their families lives in New Jersey or other parts of the mainland United States. Everyone wants them to return — permanently. But they spent a chunk of money to move here, and it might not be easy to recoup their investment.

They were headed for the airport to visit family, hoping to catch a flight Thursday that had already been canceled three times over the past week.

While waiting, they had been riveted to the news. And sitting there, they rattled off several of Trump's tweets almost word-for-word. The one about withdrawing FEMA and military support has a particular sting for the couple. But they also, almost spitting out the words, recalled the president's tweet last month accusing Puerto Ricans of wanting “everything to be done for them.”

The bus driver, Carmelo Delgado, was listening in and dove into the conversation, asking why Trump says what he says. He used a local slang term to describe Trump's remarks that roughly translates to “crap.”

“How could he say that?” said Delgado, a 57-year-old who was born in the now-devastated mountain town of Orocovis, and who now lives in San Juan.

Delgado has been trying for days to find the time to get to his family's original home in that ruined place, which lies miles of twisting and dangerous roads away from San Juan. He's seen the footage of houses blown apart and desperate residents there.

“I just don't know why 'El Trump' says things like that when we need so much,” Delgado said.