Once again, Puerto Rico has become the target of President Trump’s unflattering attention. On Thursday, after the governor of Puerto Rico publicly denounced Trump’s failure to fulfill a promise of a meeting to address issues with recovery from Hurricane Maria, Trump proclaimed that he had treated Puerto Ricans better than not just any U.S. politician but any “human being.”
The sentiment is easy to dismiss as yet another case of the usual Trump hyperbole, but perhaps it is worth asking: What exactly has the Trump administration done for Puerto Rico since Maria? And is it at all possible, given the way that Puerto Rico has been treated by previous politicians, that his insults and his apparent insistence on blocking aid to the island are the best that residents can expect from Washington?
Trump has demonstrated a clear pattern of antagonism toward Puerto Rican politicians, and he is reportedly pushing for a tight cap on the amount of federal funds allocated for the island. Several news outlets have detailed his various attempts at cutting disaster relief, on the grounds — for which there is no evidence — that the funds are being used for the payment of debts incurred before the hurricane.
The claim that relief funds are being rechanneled toward the payment of debts is patently false. However, Trump’s insistence on this idea is particularly cynical given that Puerto Rico’s debt is, in many ways, an integral part of the island’s current disaster: It set the stage for the storm’s impact, it has limited the ability of the government to rebuild, and it should be addressed as part of the recovery plan. Indeed, Trump himself said as much. During his first visit to the island, his knee-jerk reaction was to say that clearly the island’s debt was now unpayable and would need to be “wiped out.” Trump has since shifted his position, and now he denies debt relief and seems intent on denying disaster relief, as well.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general is investigating whether the White House has purposefully detained the flow of emergency aid to the island. However, even without the investigation, we already know that Puerto Rico is being subjected to different standards than other disaster areas. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has admitted that given the island’s “history of fiscal malfeasance,” his agency was implementing financial controls beyond the norm. Although Trump claims that more than $91 billion in disaster relief has been given to Puerto Rico, that number appears to represent the damage estimate, not the amount of federal money sent. And most of this seemingly exaggerated number is pledged, not received, and is wrapped up in extraordinary amounts of red tape.
Trump’s rhetoric and policy are both insulting and paternalistic, but not out of step with the long history of U.S. policy on the island. In particular, his approach reflects the way Washington treats Puerto Rico’s debts and disasters as purely local concerns, portraying federal assistance as a form of benevolence rather than as part of the nation’s responsibility to its territories.
The island’s debt crisis, in particular, is consistently portrayed as merely the result of local malfeasance, rather than a logical outcome of federal policies. The fact is that the United States hindered the development of a sustainable economy by eradicating the island’s agricultural economy and instituting tax breaks for mainland-based manufacturing companies, only to then phase out those incentives in 1996, sending the island into an economic downward spiral. Moreover, the island’s unique political and fiscal status made it easy prey for Wall Street: Its ability to issue triple-tax-exempt bonds and the fact that the territory was explicitly written out of the bankruptcy code made it a preferred site for U.S. speculation.
These tendencies have only intensified after Maria. While the Trump administration delays and begrudges any release of federal funds for recovery projects, nearly 98 percent of the island has been officially declared an “opportunity zone” for outside investors, who will receive massive tax exemptions to develop projects that could intensify the displacement of local residents. Already, researchers at the Center for a New Economy have shown that federal contracts for recovery efforts to date have been overwhelmingly assigned to outside contractors. And the fiscal control board, imposed in 2016, estimates that only about 20 percent of the federal funds released will actually contribute to the local economy, with the great majority of revenue returning instead to the mainland economy.
Rather than addressing the root causes of Puerto Rico’s economic problems, Washington has consistently treated the debt as merely the product of missteps in local governance. Instead of undertaking meaningful policy reform, the Obama administration imposed an anti-democratic fiscal control board to supervise the island’s finances at the expense of local sovereignty. The 2016 PROMESA law that established the board also set up a task force to address Puerto Rico’s larger economic issues, but that fell by the wayside in favor of austerity measures and shrinking local budgets. Those cuts came at precisely the worst time, it turned out: when the island would most need a robust public sector to take on the task of recovery.
When Trump declares with disdain that he has treated Puerto Ricans better than any other human being, he reveals how Puerto Ricans are generally regarded within the fabric of U.S. society — as foreigners to the domestic body subject to a different set of rights and guarantees. This is emblematic not just of the current administration, but of politicians across the political spectrum who have routinely voted against parity for the island on health care, economic security and other measures of well-being, not to mention civic rights and entitlements.
The major difference under Trump is that he openly draws on racialized rhetoric in his public statements — declaring that Puerto Ricans want everything done for them, that they lie about their deaths, inflate their misery, mismanage their finances and are thus solely responsible for their tragedies. This has the effect of echoing prejudices that minority populations are undeserving of federal assistance, without addressing the structural inequalities that shape their vulnerability to begin with.
But Trump is not the only U.S. politician who has failed to see residents of U.S. territories as equal citizens. Indeed, while the Obama administration refused debt relief for Puerto Rico, it also cited archaic legal precedents set in the early 1900s, which described the residents of the territories as “alien races,” to deny citizenship rights to the residents of American Samoa. The racist foundations that were originally used to establish the territories’ colonial status continue to legitimize Washington’s contemporary treatment of them.
As a result, Puerto Ricans have learned that they cannot count on Washington to recognize their humanity. Trump might claim that he has done more for the island than anyone else, but locals know that it has been communities, neighbors and family members (both on the island and in the diaspora) who have taken on the task of recovery in the face of state neglect. When FEMA failed to deliver tarps and supplies, local residents took it upon themselves to organize aid brigades to deliver food and water to remote parts of the island and bring relief to those who were left homeless. As the power outages stretched for more than a year, community organizations on both the island and within the diaspora brought generators and solar panels to small businesses, retirement homes and schools to provide safe spaces in which to charge phones, cool insulin and prepare meals. After FEMA denied and rejected the majority of local disaster claims, residents took it upon themselves to rebuild their lives. Even today, over a year and a half after the storm, as homes remain shattered, streetlights are unrepaired, and many bridges and roads are still inaccessible, residents continue to quietly carry on the task of recovery as federal authorities remain focused on regulating aid distribution and limiting its impact.
The president’s behavior has certainly set a new benchmark for the kind of open contempt Puerto Ricans can expect from the federal government. Many would like to view Trump as uniquely cruel toward the island, but residents know that although he might be singular in his brazenness, he is far from alone in his indifference.