The little hope Puerto Ricans had from a historic 2019 summer — when a sitting governor dramatically left office — has vanished just six months later. The tangible belief in a political transformation that would elevate the U.S. territory to a place where it would finally be taken seriously has disappeared and bowed to the status quo reality: a dazed and confused island-colony still searching for purpose and respect in a post-Hurricane Maria world.
Since the earth started shaking on Dec. 28, it’s been clear that Puerto Rico will never be the same again — and still the quakes continue. The most destructive ones from Jan. 6 and 7 have devastated several towns, including Ponce, Guánica, Guayanilla, Yauco and Peñuelas. The U.S. Geological Survey predicts more activity (although decreasing) for the next 30 days, while another major earthquake struck last week near Jamaica and Cuba. A 5.0-magnitude quake struck just Tuesday morning.
For over a month now, Puerto Rico has been living with earthquakes that haven’t stopped yet. The result has been loss of power, loss of water, damaged homes, millions of dollars in property damage and thousands of people displaced from their residences. Only 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s public schools are open, due to fears that schools are not up to seismic code. It’s as if Puerto Ricans are living through Maria again, but only this time, it seems like the end is nowhere near, even though images of people “canceling” out January and celebrating February are being shared widely.
It took President Trump close to a week to issue a major disaster declaration for the area most affected, and even though more money will start coming in to help those in need, the fact remains that Trump wanted “reforms” as conditions or that his administration continues to hold back hurricane relief money for a storm that hit Puerto Rico in 2017.
Trump, a compulsive tweeter, has yet to mention the current situation in Puerto Rico since the strongest earthquakes hit early last month. That alone shows how little the island matters to him: He simply doesn’t care. Unless, of course, you could be so cynical as to suggest there’s a reason that news of the major disaster declaration came on the same day that Vice President Pence was talking to a small group of Puerto Rican supporters in Florida.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez, who assumed office after Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation, is facing her own problems, ever since news surfaced earlier this month that relief warehouses were never utilized to help people displaced by the earthquake. Since that report, Vázquez has been doing damage control, firing government officials for what she said was incompetence but then admitting that she always knew about the warehouses.
Vázquez had no real answer for why Puerto Rico has received $1.53 billion in federal grants but has spent only $34 million for Hurricane Maria damage. Congress has approved even more money — $20 billion — and Trump has tried to block some of it, but the local government bears some blame, too.
The Vázquez mess prompted the Trump camp to repeat old claims that Puerto Rico is one of the most politically corrupt places in the world, as Donald Trump Jr. made sure to point out, as if that excuses failing to treat the island’s residents like the U.S. citizens they are.
The island does have a history of political corruption — you can blame that on a disconnected political class — but that history should not be held against the millions of Puerto Ricans who are the ones who have suffered on so many levels.
Historically, Puerto Rico’s political class has perpetuated a colonialism that has enabled the interests of their U.S. colonial masters, so naturally Puerto Ricans are skeptical of Vázquez, a Republican surrounded by fellow Republicans, such as Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representation in Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonázalez, and José Carrión III, the head of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Control Board, who is also part of the Trump campaign’s official Latinos for Trump board.
It doesn’t help Vázquez’s cause, either, when she says she will “trust God and the Virgin Mary that a major catastrophe will not occur” in response to questions from Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism about poorly planned local responses to emergencies. The governor, it seems, would rather push the easier narrative of resilience than begin to look at how Puerto Rico was never really ready for earthquakes and to explore how to respond to them. She would rather say that people are “happy” about the government’s response and make sure she tells people that she has been there since the quakes started happening. Her visit to Tuesday’s State of the Union might win some public relations points, but it won’t gain much traction, either.
Resilience should not be the end goal here, although it’s true that the only way Puerto Ricans have survived is through the compassion the community has shown to each other. It happened during the bleakest days of Hurricane Maria, and it is happening now during the earthquakes. Trust in local government and the federal government is low. Faith in fellow Puerto Ricans is high, but how long does that have to last? Don’t Puerto Ricans deserve better?
In talking and texting with countless Puerto Ricans — both on the island and in the diaspora — since the early days of these latest quakes, I found a pending sense of uncertainty and anxiety that was different from even the days of Maria. The ground was still shaking; even though people in most of the island’s areas that the quakes didn’t rock seem to be heading back to normal, fear and a sense of a loss of control still linger. People are tired. They feel ignored and forgotten.
Enter J.Lo with a Puerto Rican flag, and it helped a bit. At least until the exhaustion returned.