Last week, THE WEEKLY JOURNAL offered political insight on the Democratic presidential candidates that remained back then and their plans for Puerto Rico as outlined by their campaigns. For the second part of this edition, the gaze will shift to the Trump administration’s efforts regarding the welfare of Puerto Rico’s residents.
More than three years have passed since business magnate Donald J. Trump claimed a shocking victory in the 2016 presidential elections. The Republican contender garnered an outpour of support from middle America that clashed considerably with poignant criticism from the “mainstream media,” as he refers to left-leaning publications, postmodern progressives, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and even prominent members of his own party.
Promesa, debt relief, reconstruction and status
Because of his administration’s zero-tolerance policy on illegal immigration—particularly concerning Latin Americans—critics have accused the president of employing racist rhetoric presented as dog whistles to appeal to “neo-Nazis,” the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and other groups rooted in white nationalism or xenophobia. While the depth or congruity of these accusations can be highly debatable, a number of Puerto Ricans have denounced that Trump’s perceived disdain toward Hispanic Americans extends to themselves.
This perception is heightened by American media, most of which claims that the 45th president in office holds a personal vendetta against the Commonwealth and its people. This viewpoint has been showcased extensively by local news sources as well ever since Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
However, although some critics lambast Trump concerning issues that impact the U.S. residents of Puerto Rico, others have praised his administration’s commitment to the island.
An Unprecedented Natural Disaster
When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, the Category 4 storm ravaged the island’s already flailing infrastructure, resulting in a mass power outage, interrupted water service, lack of telecommunications and other essential services, crowded shelters, inefficient medical care and loss of life.
One claim that has been misleadingly presented as a fact is that 4,645 residents died as a result of Hurricane Maria. A 2018 report published in The New England Journal of Medicine presented that number as an estimate of 14.3 deaths per 1,000 persons. As The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler explains, this is an unverified number based on estimates of deaths from people who were interviewed in a survey.
The question of its veracity aside, the unconfirmed death toll from the hurricane and the despoiled state of the island in its wake are sensitive issues that have altered the conditions of both local politics and Puerto Ricans’ expectations from the federal government.
Trump made international headlines after he was seen throwing paper towels at hurricane victims during his first visit to Puerto Rico as a sitting president on Oct. 3, 2017, nearly two weeks after the hurricane struck the island. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz reprimanded the sight as “terrible and abominable,” calling the president the “miscommunicator-in-chief.”
This, and previous social media interactions, would spark an unending dispute between both leaders, with Trump denouncing the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital as “incompetent” and “corrupt.”
On Sept. 30, 2017, the president said that the local government was failing to address residents’ needs, specifically targeting Cruz’s “poor leadership.” But Trump’s criticism of Mayor Cruz’s management prompted a backlash from Democrats and some residents, as well as support for Cruz, including from presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
However, Fernando Jiménez, president of the College Republican Federation of Puerto Rico, pointed out that Trump is the first president to visit the island after a natural disaster and supported Trump’s critique on local politicians.
“We witnessed how [Cruz] didn’t distribute the aid that she was provided and did not attend meetings with FEMA… Same with the [New Progressive Party], who, under Ricardo Rosselló’s leadership and after his resignation, there were news of forgotten warehouses with expired water bottles (in Ceiba), misuse of federal funds, centers full of undistributed supplies (Ponce), etc.,” Jiménez told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
Last week Secretary of Housing Ben Carson announced a federal financial monitor and released a voluminous set of requirements to fulfill before accessing the disaster mitigation relief
Another issue that has cast a shadow on some Puerto Ricans’ stance on Trump is the delayed disbursements from the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program. The Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction & Resilience (COR3) indicates on its transparency portal that the U.S. Congress assigned $48.8 billion in recovery funds, of which roughly $22.1 billion have been obligated and only $15.2 billion have been disbursed.
After a chain of seismic activities impacted southwestern municipalities in Jan. 2020, the Trump administration imposed restrictions on $16 billion in emergency relief, citing a need to hold the local government accountable.
Jiménez nonetheless stated that the Trump administration assigned greater funds to Puerto Rico than other states affected by weather phenomena, even though residents do not pay the federal income tax.
“Puerto Rico needs to change its mentality of the political-economic framework of Keynesian and corporatist dependence, of maintaining the homeless and corporations, because if Hurricane Maria had not happened there would be no emergency funds or a historic rescue worth billions of dollars,” Jiménez asserted.
PROMESA and Debt Relief
While the topic of disaster recovery is an important component in the discussion of Puerto Rico, the U.S. jurisdiction’s multimillion-dollar public debt remains an essential factor in either closing or expanding the relationship between the federal administration and the residents of the commonwealth.
In 2016, the Barack Obama administration signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act (Promesa), which created the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) to control the island’s debt restructuring, whose members were confirmed by Congress. In June 2019, Trump renominated the existing FOMB members to continue in their current positions.
Around that time, his administration urged the U.S. Supreme Court to revoke the First Circuit’s ruling that declared FOMB members’ appointments as unconstitutional. U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued that Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery would be undermined if FOMB was unable to operate.
This falls in contrast with Democratic presidential candidates Sanders and Joe Biden, both of whom have either deemed Promesa as a “colonial” imposition that should be discarded, or as legislation that merits reframing or revisiting.
Regarding relief, some politicians have advocated enabling a mass cancellation of Puerto Rico’s debt, which exceeds $70 billion. In Oct. 2018, the president initiated a heated debate after he accused local politicians of intending to use federal disaster recovery funds to pay off the public debt, an allegation he could not support with claims of political corruption within then-Governor Rosselló’s administration.
“You know, they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out… You can say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that,” the president said in Oct. 2017 while interviewed by Fox News.
After these comments, delivered shortly after the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds dipped at 30 cents on the dollar.
Although the residents of Puerto Rico do not have the right to vote in the U.S. general election, or a voting representative in Congress, the fact remains that there are more Puerto Ricans living stateside than on the island, roughly five million versus some three million residents. With their newfound voting right, politicians from each end of the political spectrum must include the island in its platform to appeal to an ever-expanding voter base.