US has duty to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

By Editorial Board

Puerto Rico is struggling with the aftermath of a violent hurricane, a debilitating debt crisis and a long history as a colonized community. Moreover, Puerto Ricans are barely acknowledged as U.S. citizens. 

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. Massive flooding caused extensive damage and evacuations, and the storm’s powerful winds flattened buildings. Aid couldn’t reach victims because of limited gasoline and blocked roads. Puerto Rico faces years of rebuilding, and for the island’s residents, it will be a long journey to regain normalcy. 

Rebuilding in a debt crisis is even more difficult. The island is $72 billion in debt because of decades of ill-considered bond issues encouraged by the American government and Wall Street. Because of the island’s U.S. commonwealth status, Puerto Rico is not eligible for one of the only resources that can bring economic relief: Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which gives municipalities the ability to reduce or eliminate debt owed to creditors. 

However,  it has enacted a similar form of relief—the May 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act—that allows the territory to pare down its obligations to residents, such as pensions and construction projects while coaxing its creditors to restructure their debt. Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was already crumbling, and the storm will further delay any improvements on the island. 

President Donald Trump’s disrespect for Puerto Ricans makes recovery even more daunting. It took six days and heavy criticism of the federal government for it to send sufficient aid to the island. The administration temporarily waived the Jones Act on Sept. 28, which barred non-U.S. import vessels from entering Puerto Rico, to make delivering needed aid easier, but one good act does not absolve Trump from his name calling and victim blaming.

Trump called the mayor of San Juan, who waded through flood waters to help residents, a weak leader and a “nasty” woman and stated Puerto Rican officials “want everything to be done for them” in a thread of antagonistic tweets from Sept. 30, instead of listening to the people’s pleas. Before the moment he threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd during a televised visit to the island, the president’s lack of decency was already on display when he compared Hurricane Maria to Hurricane Katrina and stated Puerto Ricans should be proud that only 16 people had lost their lives because of the storm. 

However, the problems Puerto Ricans face predate the Trump administration in the form of a long history of U.S. colonialism and indifference. The island remains a U.S. territory, giving Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship without the right to vote in presidential elections or have full voting representation in Congress. Puerto Ricans can fight in America’s wars but cannot have a voting voice for the island in Washington, D.C. 

On June 11, Puerto Rico held a referendum in which an overwhelming 97 percent of voters supported U.S. statehood for the island. Congress has the final decision, yet refuses to consider whether to grant statehood. The mainland is content with Puerto Rico remaining a territory instead of a state so its financial obligations to Wall Street remain on the books. 

Puerto Ricans deserve to be treated as more than America’s afterthought. They are Americans who have made an important contribution to the country and are a vital part of it. If America wants to see a better Puerto Rico free of suffering, then it must be a national effort where responsibility is equally shared.