Puerto Rico – A Humanitarian Crisis
by Julio Urrutia
Over two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, 90 percent of the island remain without power. Drinking water, food, medical supplies, shelter and fuel remain scarce or non-existent for many of the over 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico. The loss of life and property coupled with destruction of the infrastructure has created a humanitarian crisis which will take substantial resources to overcome.
The world watches as over 3.4 million American citizens suffer and die. Death and suffering first caused by the hurricane and then magnified and exacerbated by the indifference and incompetence of the Trump administration in its response to this humanitarian crisis.
In 1917, Congress, without the advice and consent of the Puerto Rican people, passed the Jones-Shafroth Act which made Puerto Ricans, American citizens. My grandparents did not have to go through Ellis Island. They went to bed citizens of Puerto Rico and woke up second class American citizens.
Puerto Rico conjures up images of spectacular beaches, lush greenery, beautiful architecture and a warm and embracing people. Many do not know that Puerto Rico is the oldest colony in the world. A colony of Spain from 1493 until the United States took possession of the colony in 1898 following the Spanish-American war, thwarting Puerto Rico’s desire for independence.
It was not until 1948, that the people of Puerto Rico were able to elect their own governor. Currently, Puerto Ricans elect local representatives to a bicameral legislature and a governor. However, the laws and policies of their government are subordinate to the laws of the United States. Imagine Congress passing a law signed by the president only to be told by a foreign power that the law is invalid.
Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote for president of the United States, the same president that can send them to war. Although Puerto Ricans on the Islands do not pay federal taxes, we have fought and died for the Untied States in every war since World War I to the present. Puerto Ricans have a non-voting representative in Congress. The Puerto Rican diaspora can vote in federal elections while living on the mainland but, not if we move to Puerto Rico we loose that right.
The current humanitarian crisis is compounded by an economic crisis that has been brewing for years. Puerto Rico is saddled with a debt of $74 billion. In 2016, a so called debt restructuring law was passed by Congress. Under this law, known by its acronym PROMESA, an unelected junta was appointed to oversee repayment of the debt at the expense of the needs of the Puerto Rican people.
It took Trump almost two weeks to finally go to Puerto Rico. Before this he sent 20 tweets about the NFL before he said anything about Puerto Rico. When he did comment, it was about the debt and not the humanitarian crisis. Trump compounded this indifference by going to Puerto Rico and in acts that speak to his callous nature, spoke about the cost of the recovery and threw paper towels at people as though he were throwing peanuts at squirrels. He attacked the mayor of San Juan who’s only transgression was pleading for assistance and calling attention to the slow, inadequate and incompetent response of the administration. This is the first time a president has attacked the victims of a natural disaster.
We’ve seen an outpouring of caring and generosity by many of our fellow citizens, organizations and companies who have stepped up to provide basic necessities and money to the relief effort for Puerto Rico. The compassion shown by many is something for which we will be eternally grateful.
On the other hand, it is an embarrassment that the government of the richest and most powerful nation in the world has let over 3.4 million of its citizens suffer and die because of incompetence and indifference.
Puerto Rico must be rebuilt and transformed in a way that benefits the Puerto Rican people. Humanitarian aide and debt forgiveness must be part of the relief effort. The rebuilding and transformation of Puerto Rico must incorporate a change in the colonial status of the island.
We must be vigilant that the shock to the economic and political system of Puerto Rico is not exploited by the sale of Puerto Rico’s assets and the implementation of policies which deny the people the resources needed to survive and prosper.
Puerto Ricans are a spiritual and resilient people and, one way or another, we will rise again. Palante!