Julio Ricardo Varela is co-host of the 2017 Webby-nominated In The Thick podcast and senior digital editor of LatinoUSA.org, the website for NPR’s Latino USA, a 2014 Peabody-winning show anchored by Maria Hinojosa and produced by The Futuro Media Group.
Residents of Puerto Rico's municipality of Utuado are trapped by landslides and broken roads after Hurricane Maria. Many are running out of food and water. (Ashleigh Joplin,Whitney Leaming,Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Almost a week after Hurricane Maria destroyed the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, President Trump paused from his weekend NFL obsession to share his thoughts about the 3.4 million American citizens who are now living with no power, no real communication, limited access to food and water, eight-hour lines to get gasoline, a collapsed infrastructure, and horrific stories of desperation and survival.

The federal government had already responded with relief packages for hurricanes Harvey (Texas) and Irma (Florida). But Trump didn’t sympathize with Puerto Ricans on Monday night. Instead, on Twitter he blamed the island for its problems, as if residents allowed a Category 4 hurricane to ravage their homes to spite him. Amid the worst humanitarian crisis in modern Puerto Rico’s history, Trump reminded the world that the commonwealth still had a $115 billion debt that Wall Street will still need to collect.

No power? No food? No way to communicate with others?

Just pay up, Puerto Rico, because according to Trump, your U.S. citizenry might not get you the billions and billions of dollars you will need to rebuild an island that, officials say, was demolished so badly, it set Puerto Rico back nearly 20 to 30 years. And despite reports that short-term federal aid is now being rushed to the island — nearly a week after Maria — White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday afternoon that plans to pursue a more comprehensive long-term relief package are premature.

The United States may not like to see itself as the type of nation that has colonies, but if you’re not treating Puerto Rico and its American citizens the same way as you treat states and theirs, that’s the only explanation. The island always struggles to get federal aid for natural disasters that flows virtually automatically to people on the mainland. Maria is the worst example, but it’s hardly the first.

Even though Trump will tour Puerto Rico next week, the White House still seems to be taking its time asking for the money that it’s obvious the island will need. “Our focus is still continuing to be on the lifesaving efforts in the immediate disaster response efforts, which are still currently underway,” Sanders said Monday in the White House briefing room. “And those funds have been secured and are available, and once we have a greater insight into the full assessment of damage, then we’ll be able to determine what additional funds are needed, but we’re still in that kind of fact-finding process on that piece of it.”

Cruelty mixed with the veneer of compassion and stewardship is the essence of colonialism. Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah says President Trump reinforced that in Puerto Rico, where he suggested survivors of Hurricane Maria are a burden. (Adriana Usero,Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

The “kind of fact-finding process” isn’t providing any comfort to Puerto Ricans, who continue to share stories with friends and relatives on the mainland that would break the hearts of the most hardened cynic or Trump supporter. A friend of mine who lives on the island said that “Puerto Rico was hit by an atomic bomb of nature.”

As Puerto Rican journalist Jay Fonseca told me Sunday night, the early response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been atrocious: Diesel fuel for generators is scarce. Towns outside metro areas are unreachable. Hospitals can’t treat patients. Countless texts, spotty phone calls and tweets from the island tell of lost homes, flooded streets, looting, highways destroyed and the real fear that some parts of the island have yet to fully report on the damage. Reporters now covering the story are finding that the initial information coming from Puerto Rican social media during the first hours after Maria was hauntingly true.

And although FEMA and Trump are now telling the world that relief efforts going well, a trusted longtime journalist friend who is covering what is happening in Puerto Rico disagreed, texting: “I’ve yet to see a National Guard, FEMA, Red Cross or federal vehicle anywhere on this island.”

Congress, meanwhile, has put out plenty of statements, but it hasn’t had any serious conversations about a real bipartisan relief package in the billions of dollars. On Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters in San Juan that the goal should be “to rebuild Puerto Rico stronger than ever. These aren’t normal times. This is a crisis.” A statement from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), though, didn’t mention any prospect of an immediate aid package or commitment to real money.

None of this is a new development in the very complicated relationship between the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, another Caribbean territory that was slammed by Maria and Irma.

In 1989, when Hurricane Hugo descended on South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the USVI, President George H.W. Bush was criticized for not acting quickly enough. More relief for the Caribbean had to be added belatedly to a bill that was initially meant to address damage from California earthquakes. When Georges hit Puerto Rico in 1998, it took about six months for the federal government to act on a long-term plan for the island.

Why?

Trump’s tweets on Monday offer some answers. Americans don’t really view Puerto Ricans as fellow Americans with equal rights. Nearly half don’t realize Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Trump underscored this point when he brought up Texas and Florida. Those two states are getting the money, but what about Puerto Rico? Welcome to second class.

In addition, the island’s massive debt means that Puerto Rico has no money to spend its way into sustained recovery. Apparently, Trump wanted to highlight that as well. Will Puerto Rico be a serious priority for the United States? Or just a backward island with a bad power grid that has to solve its own problems, even when the most dire problem — a Category 4 hurricane — was totally out of its control?

Finally, there is Wall Street. It seems that bondholders will look like compassionless fools if they begin to ask for their money now, but that doesn’t matter to Trump, and it won’t matter to those who want to get paid. Would a relief package include more opportunities to privatize the island’s utilities and infrastructure, resulting in an island where profit is valued over the well-being of its residents?

Trump’s attitude toward Puerto Rico is just the latest example of how the United States views its island colony — good enough to be a place for U.S. companies to make money, but not good enough to have any real political power. Any push for a bipartisan solution for comprehensive relief has no political value for anyone in Washington. Puerto Ricans who live on the island lack representatives with voting power. Rubio’s advocacy is helpful, but he already represents more than 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida. Might one motivation for his concern be heading off an exodus of thousands more Puerto Ricans to the Sunshine State, which will happen once more and more three-hour flights off the island are available?

If Washington follows its typical path of inaction, Puerto Rico’s desperation will only intensify. Will Trump and Congress eventually see that such desperation needs relief, or will the United States continue to let Puerto Rico suffer? History doesn’t leave much reason to hope for the best.

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