Among the many unique qualities of US President Trump is his ability to easily make enemies. And the Mayor of Puerto Rico is his latest find. Puerto Rico, a US colony in the Caribbean, was hit by Hurricane Maria on September 20, the third in the recent series of hurricanes with Harvey striking Texas, followed by Irma landing in Florida. Perhaps Trump was suffering from hurricane fatigue, or was just being himself, but he turned his charm offensive towards Puerto Rico. Facing criticism that his administration was not doing enough to help Puerto Ricans, Trump accused Carmen Cruz, mayor of the capital San Juan, of ‘poor leadership ability’ and publicly charged that Puerto Ricans ‘want everything to be done for them’.
That would hurt any Puerto Rican. The islands were still reeling from the effects of the hurricane. The electricity grid was down and 95 per cent were without power even three weeks after disaster hit, more than 80 per cent of the cell towers out of commission, food, fuel and water was being rationed, and people unable to get to work due to lack of transport. You would say that they were due some empathy, and not tough love. But that is Trump’s style who became popular on a TV show because he would say ‘You’re fired!’
The US acquired Puerto Rico (along with the Philippines and Guam) from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish American War. Over all these years, a convoluted relationship between the US and Puerto Rico has emerged. It is not a state of the US and has its own constitution but Puerto Ricans are US citizens. They do not elect members to the US Congress which makes the laws for Puerto Rico. There is even an Act that stipulates that shipping to the island from the mainland can only take place in American built and crewed vessels, denying competitive transport costs for all goods imported from the US.
The UN has determined that ‘a colonial relationship’ exists between the US and Puerto Rico. Every now and then, nationalist Puerto Ricans murmur a desire for independence and take part in half-hearted referendums. In the most recent one held in June this year, only 1.5 per cent of the population wanted independence. In a referendum in 2012, 61 per cent wanted statehood. But all such moves from Puerto Rico when they reach Washington get put in a box titled ‘When we have the time and inclination’.
Even before the hurricane struck, Puerto Rico was facing bankruptcy. It has been suffering from a recession for about 12 consecutive years. US federal government tax credits which the territory enjoyed in the past were not renewed further accentuating the problem. It has outstanding debt of about $70 billion and a very high debt-to-GDP ratio of about 68 per cent. Being clear about its political status and a better control over its governance is a precondition for the territory to revive and take responsibility for its future. The rich uncle in Washington DC bailing them out in the past has not encouraged responsible governance.
Puerto Rico has suffered losses from the hurricane that will require several billions in aid to rebuild homes and infrastructure. The thriving pharmaceutical industry attracted in the past by tax concessions is now at a standstill threatening to cause shortages of some key medicines and devices on the mainland. And tourist traffic will take years to revive.
The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston