Despite the Trump administration's insistence that it is on top of the crisis, some 3.4 million Puerto Ricans — basically the entire population — remain without regular electricity. An estimated 1.5 million are without access to clean drinking water. It is a remarkable, shocking state of affairs for an island inhabited by more American citizens than 21 individual states on the U.S. mainland. Countless residents are cut off by collapsed physical infrastructure and the failure of communications systems on the island.
My colleague Samantha Schmidt reported from one corner of Puerto Rico, where residents despaired at the lack of outside aid. “In the five days since Maria battered the city of Morovis, 37 miles southwest of San Juan, residents and local officials said they had received no help from Puerto Rico officials and had no contact with federal agencies,” Schmidt wrote. “Puerto Ricans across the island have echoed those frustrations as advocates off the island began to put pressure on the Trump administration to speed up help to U.S. citizens who have long felt disconnected from the mainland but perhaps have never felt so alone.”
On Tuesday, Trump defended the pace of relief efforts with the simple excuse that Puerto Rico is “on an island in the middle of the ocean,” where “you can't just drive your trucks there from other states.” But the deeper reality is that Puerto Rico is also stranded in a faraway place in the American imagination.
It just so happens that this year marked the 100th anniversary of Washington's decision to confer U.S. citizenship on the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, an island wrestled away from Spain in an earlier war at a time when a burgeoning American empire ran roughshod across the Caribbean. Yet, even a century later and amid a barrage of news reports on the two consecutive hurricanes that battered Puerto Rico, the island still seems a distant relic of forgotten imperium for many Americans.
A new Morning Consult poll of 2,200 U.S. adults found that only 54 percent of Americans knew that people born in Puerto Rico were American citizens. Tellingly, the majority of those who were not aware of their compatriots' status did not approve of sending aid to the island.
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, meaning that while its residents are citizens, they send one nonvoting representative to Washington and have no say in presidential elections. For decades, political debates have raged over whether the island should maintain that status, push for statehood or seek independence.
A pronounced disaffection has set in, largely a result of a decade-long recession and a staggering public-debt crisis deepened, in part, by a Washington-appointed board that has imposed grinding austerity on the island. The shambolic economy has spurred a brain drain and increased migration to the mainland, which further undermines Puerto Rico's chances for revitalization.
“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,” wrote journalist and broadcaster Julio Ricardo Varela. “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.”
The storm has brought the island's state of political neglect into sharp relief. “It is long-term structural problems that turn a disaster into a catastrophe,” wrote Yarimar Bonilla, an associate professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University. “Vulnerability is not simply a product of natural conditions; it is a political state and a colonial condition.”
Bonilla added: “With a poverty rate nearly double that of Mississippi, failing infrastructure that has been neglected for more than a decade and a public sector that has been increasingly dismantled in response to the debt crisis, the island was already in a state of emergency long before the storm hit.”
A case in point: the island's dams, which are threatening to fail in the aftermath of the storm. Water is already pouring out of the 90-year-old Guajataca Dam, which had not been inspected in four years by the bankrupt state-owned utility tasked with monitoring it.
“After one hundred years of citizenship, Puerto Ricans are prohibited from managing their own economy, negotiating their own trade relations, or setting their own consumer prices,” wrote Nelson Denis, author of “War Against All Puerto Ricans,” in an essay earlier this year. “Puerto Rico has been little more than a profit center for the United States: first as a naval coaling station, then as a sugar empire, a cheap labor supply, a tax haven, a captive market, and now as a municipal bond debtor and target for privatization. It is an island of beggars and billionaires: fought over by lawyers, bossed by absentee landlords, and clerked by politicians.”
That condition won't likely change under Trump's watch. The president'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,” wrote Varela. “Any push for a bipartisan solution for comprehensive relief has no political value for anyone in Washington.”
And so, even as relief and aid reach the island, it won't alleviate the fact that a far tougher reckoning still needs to take place.
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