President Trump’s approach to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria has been coherently inhumane. He has called some Puerto Rican leaders “politically motivated ingrates,” made insensitive references to how much federal money is being spent on recovery, refused to support equitable health-care access for the island’s 3.5 million U.S. citizens, bemoaned on Twitter how federal personnel could not be in the commonwealth after the hurricane “forever” and this week complained from the Rose Garden that the military is distributing food, “something that really they shouldn’t have to be doing.”
Only one notable deviation from this narrative stands out. While on his official trip to the island, Trump told Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera that Puerto Rican governments “owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that.” Hours later, the White House was back on track: “I wouldn’t take it word for word,” said Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
A week later, congressional Republicans unveiled a relief plan that would only add to the island’s debt load.
The disjointed thread of off-the-cuff commentary Trump has issued in real time and on social media since the storm reveals either the president’s profound ignorance or his deep-seated prejudices. He seems fully unaware of the United States’ history of involvement in Puerto Rico; the nation took the island as booty after the Spanish-American War in 1898 and made us citizens without consulting our forebears in 1917, just one month before the country’s entry into World War I. For decades, the U.S. military was here — seemingly forever — using two small but inhabited islands as live ordnance ranges for the Navy. Trump, however, seems to believe that Puerto Rico is a foreign jurisdiction and hence, in his mind, U.S. tax dollars should not be spent to prop up the island’s fragile health-care system nor to save lives and rebuild in the aftermath of a major hurricane.
But if he is in fact aware of our standing as citizens — which he certainly should be — then perhaps he is simply treating Puerto Ricans as he has women, other Latinos, African Americans, Muslims, people with disabilities and any number of other groups.
Unfortunately, the administration’s actions have been entirely consistent with the president’s disdainful remarks. The federal government’s response has been lethargic. Last week, I interviewed the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority president on San Juan radio station NotiUno. He informed me that of 150 backup generators he had requested from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the day of the storm to keep potable water flowing into homes, only 17 had been installed in the 20 days that followed. So never mind Trump’s statement on Monday that “Puerto Rico now has more generators, I believe, than any place in the world. There are generators all over the place.”
Worst of all is how Washington is adding to Puerto Rico’s debt burden, even after Trump’s confounding remarks about it. Congress is moving to approve legislation that, although it does provide some money for recovery, includes a $4.9 billion loan to shore up the island’s liquidity. Otherwise, due to long-standing fiscal problems and the near-total collapse of the economy since the hurricane, the commonwealth and some local governments are expected to run out of money in the next few weeks.
Nonetheless, even with the loan, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón (R), stated that the government would only be able to sustain its operations through the end of this year. So while the money is needed, the fact that it must eventually be paid back and that it is only a very short-term fix complicates future prospects and ignores deep-seated problems that need careful attention now. With over $70 billion in debt, no reasonable means to pay it down, a dwindling population, a devastated economy and a shrinking tax base, sending this loan our way is like throwing a drowning man a gallon of water and expecting him to use it as a flotation device.
Sadly, that is what Puerto Rico has become: an island drowning in an ocean — “a very big ocean,” to quote the president — of debt, incompetence and indifference.