Opinion

Donald Trump’s ignorance of Puerto Rico gives Americans an excuse to do the same

By Rosie Mendez and Carlina Rivera |  

October 18, 2017 |  

Puerto Rico National Guard members are assisting communities as Puerto Ricans try to get to their homes in the flooded area after the path of Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos/PRNG-PAO)

We all have seen the devastation that the American territory of Puerto Rico is facing in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Roughly 85 percent of the island is without electricity, 40 percent of residents are without running water and areas with access to medical and other critical services are few and far between. Many public facilities, towns and homes that were most affected will probably have to be abandoned.

Like many of the 700,000 Puerto Rican New Yorkers, this crisis is personal for the two of us. We both grew up visiting family members in Aguadilla, Mayaguez and Isabela. Now, weeks since the hurricane hit, we still haven’t heard their voices.

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It made us sick when we saw President Donald Trump’s tweets about Puerto Rico’s debt issues, criticism towards a local mayor and threats to pull FEMA officials off the island, instead of fighting to bring more help to 3.4 million stranded United States citizens. The way Trump has barely acknowledged the severity of the issues and the crisis that has overwhelmed the island, you wouldn’t believe that he’s actually visited and seen the damage himself. Maybe it’s because Trump has never had to deal with real adversity in his life. He grew up in New York City surrounded by privilege that devalued inclusivity and appreciation of this city’s multifaceted culture. In fact, his discriminatory treatment of minorities in his New York City housing developments have been well chronicled. Trump continues to surround himself with family members, sycophants and far-right advisors instead of embracing counsel from Republicans with a diverse set of life experiences, or at least some who have compassion for Americans in distress.

Even worse, by continuing to disregard the millions of residents in Puerto Rico, Trump gives cover to those who deliberately ignore this humanitarian crisis. Donations to help the victims of Maria are falling hundreds of millions of dollars behind donations to the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Over 70,000 federal personnel and National Guard members were deployed in Texas and Florida. The number deployed in Puerto Rico? Just over 10,000. And Congress, despite pressure for support from long-term members, has still not passed a relief bill to help victims of Maria similar to the $15 billion bill they passed for areas impacted by Harvey. Instead Puerto Rico may have to settle for a $4.9 billion loan that Trump supports, which just continues the cycle of neglect and debt that Puerto Rico has been in for decades.

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Meanwhile, thousands are still fighting to survive, and many more are now being forced to leave the island they love for the mainland. And even without power and regular media updates, the sad reality is that Trump and the federal government’s treatment of Puerto Rico have cut the island off from the world far more than any ocean has. 

Roughly 85 percent of the island's food is shipped in from the U.S. mainland, and 80 percent of the island's crops were destroyed by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. It took Trump 10 days after the hurricane's landfall to temporarily waive the Jones Act, which requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on American-owned and operated ships, and he hasn’t renewed the waiver since its expiration on October 7. This decision is simply one of the most callous and shameful actions any president has made in a time of disaster. 

If Trump does decide to rediscover his humanity, he can first look to the response from strong allies of Puerto Rico like New York state that are making a difference by working with and supporting island officials instead of flailing at them on Twitter. Trump must extend the Jones Act waiver for at least six to 12 months so that distribution of humanitarian aid and other important items can be accomplished, and push for a long-term repeal of the law. Trump should also pressure Congress to finally approve a relief package and provide a military response commensurate with the huge need on the island.

This crisis, which is far from over, has shown that now is also time to implement a long-term plan to correct Puerto Rico’s second-class status in our country and rebuild its infrastructure, education system and economy. If Trump wants to really make America great again, he should acknowledge the millions of Americans that live in Puerto Rico and get them real help.

Rosie Mendez represents New York City Council’s District 2 in Lower Manhattan. Carlina Rivera is the Democratic nominee to replace Mendez, who is term-limited, for District 2.

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