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Trump’s Wrongheaded Choices on Puerto Rico’s Humanitarian Crisis

Americans need real presidential leadership because it is sometimes a matter of life and death, and not about ratings, popularity or reality TV.

By September 20, weather experts were already forecasting that Hurricane Maria, characterized as a category 4 storm, had potential to cause major catastrophic damage in Puerto Rico, a United States territory. President Donald Trump also initially acknowledged the severity of the storm through his Twitter communications that seem to bypass, if not displace, traditional White House communication practices, when he tweeted, “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you — will be there to help.” This was Trump assuring Puerto Ricans, who are also US citizens, that the federal government would be ready to assist immediately post-Hurricane Maria.

When Trump delivered this direct message to Puerto Ricans most would have assumed, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that his confident posture stemmed not from his usual campaign-style bravado, but rather from knowing he had fully anticipated the needs of the island’s residents and physical damage of Puerto Rico, and thus stood ready to send aid and recovery resources to the US territory.

Yet in reality, the president’s rhetoric amounted to more symbolic gestures and less concrete political action. Instead of reacting promptly to these citizens’ urgent needs, Trump chose to distract the American people and the national media, wasting precious time that should have been used to deal with the Puerto Rico crisis. He finally reacted to the devastation facing Puerto Rico largely because of media pressure and critical comments on how slow the federal response was in comparison to other recent American crises in Texas and Florida. Strong criticism came from Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló and, more recently, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Thus, when US citizens in Puerto Rico needed presidential moral and substantive leadership, Trump made the wrong choices, which he continues to downplay or blame others for and not his failed leadership.

Trump had the chance to show real leadership by immediately sending the necessary resources to Puerto Rico, where US citizens are lacking sufficient food, water and electricity. Puerto Rico is now a major humanitarian crisis. At least 16 deaths have been reported, and some estimate that over $30 billion in physical and economic damages will accrue.

The federal government’s slow response under Trump’s callous attitude — despite his tweets otherwise — reflects something fundamental: the president’s increasingly wrongheaded choices since assuming office in January.

First, his decision not to waive the Jones Act/Merchant Marine Law of 1920 — this law means that “any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer” — as he previously did following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, and second, his failure to visit Puerto Rico within hours/days after the hurricane reveal his fundamental disconnect with the gloomy realities developing on the island.

Trump lost an opportunity to enhance his credibility, and his divided Republican Party’s too, among Puerto Ricans and Latinos more generally (although it would not have made a difference considering at least 60% of Latinos have historically supported Democrats). Trump only reversed his decision on the Jones Act (a waiver that will only be in effect for 10 days) because of mounting pressure from Puerto Rican officials, Democrats in Congress and national media. Trump’s lack of empathy for his fellow US citizens in Puerto Rico is consistent with his failed presidency, which is only several months in and already showing signs of rapid decline with another cabinet member resigning on September 29.

PUERTO RICANS ARE AMERICAN CITIZENS

Indeed, Puerto Ricans have US citizenship under the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 and have historically served honorably in the US military. Nevertheless, the US federal government has restricted not only individual political rights, but also the island’s economic liberalism and overall development. For example, even former President Barack Obama, as a supposed progressive liberal, chose to protect bondholder interests over the rights of ordinary US citizens in Puerto Rico.

The US federal government’s full economic control of Puerto Rico is the main contributor to the current post-Hurricane Maria humanitarian crisis. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Nelson A. Denis shows how much of the current crisis is due to Puerto Rico’s “captive market” under the heavy weight of US colonial policies. In fact, Puerto Ricans have historically migrated to the broader US searching for financial and socioeconomic stability because of these policies — traveling for more jobs and educational opportunities to places like New York, Illinois and Florida. Yet when you couple these factors with events due to climate chaos like the recent Hurricanes Irma and Maria that hit Puerto Rico (Maria has been called the most powerful hurricane in 80 years), you get climate refugees. However, having US citizenship does not automatically mean Puerto Ricans enjoy full political and social rights and privileges as others do on the mainland.

As a US citizen from Puerto Rico, I take President Trump’s slow response to the island’s humanitarian crisis seriously, as should others. I was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, which is located a few miles south of San Juan, and raised in New York City and Trenton, New Jersey. My perspective is not unique, but I share it solely to highlight the fact that, since at least the mid-2000s, Puerto Rico’s population has declined from 3.7 million to 3.4 million partly due to having access to mainland economic markets through a limited statutory form of US citizenship on the island.

Puerto Rico’s longstanding colonial territorial status, deceivingly called Free Associated State or Commonwealth, means the US Congress not only maintains complete sovereign rule over the territory, including having the final word over the political status question, but also controls over 80% of the island’s economy. The Jones Act, as already mentioned, reinforces the colonial ties between the US and Puerto Rico, which diminishes any form or level of individual citizenship.

Trump’s divisive politics is obviously not new — it was evident even prior to the surprising November 2016 presidential election outcome. What is outrageous is the extent of Trump’s bluster and wrongheaded choices now as president. His explicit promotion of white nationalist ideology and disregard for the US Constitution should raise real concerns among moderate and even right of center Republicans, let alone the rest of Americans. As a candidate, Trump was tolerated by the conservative and GOP establishment that hoped to regain the White House while keeping out of national power another Clinton. Yet Trump as president, and tweeter-in-chief, has continued to divide the American public and those around him, even when fellow US citizens are experiencing dire conditions that reach the level of life and death in Puerto Rico.

PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP

Finally, let’s look at Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis from a slightly different perspective, and think more clearly about Trump’s wrongheaded choices.

Puerto Rico has a current population of approximately 3.4 million, which means there are more US citizens living on the island than there are in at least 17 mainland states: Iowa (3.1 million), Utah (3), Arkansas (2.9), Kansas (2.9), Mississippi (2.9), Nevada (2), New Mexico (2), Nebraska (1.9), West Virginia (1.8), Idaho (1.6), Hawaii (1.4), Maine (1.3), Rhode Island (1), Montana (1), Delaware (0.9), South Dakota (0.8), and Alaska (0.7). If any of these states were to experience similar levels of devastation presently facing those in Puerto Rico, I doubt Trump and the federal government would have taken so long to provide the necessary assistance, resources and funding.

Trump as president and a businessman should have known the complexity surrounding Puerto Rico’s pre- and post-Hurricane Maria humanitarian crisis beyond saying, “This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” This is about making the right choices for US citizens in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. We need real presidential leadership because it is sometimes a matter of life and death, and not about ratings, popularity or reality television.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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