By Thomas Kennedy
Puerto Rico needs help: Food, electricity, clean water, clean up and the restoration of its infrastructure. Yet Donald Trump has once again proven he is unfit for office after his visit to the hurricane ravaged island. In all too familiar fashion, Trump used the trip to engage in self-congratulatory praise for his administration and the federal relief efforts to the island. During a meeting with Puerto Rican officials, he joked that Hurricane Maria was not a “real catastrophe” in comparison to Hurricane Katrina and said that the impact of the Hurricane has thrown the budget “a little out of whack”.
The low point of the visit has to be the moment when Trump decided to throw paper towel rolls at people waiting to receive supplies. The fact that the President of the United States lacks the empathy and common sense to simply hand out supplies as opposed to throwing them at people who have been directly impacted by a catastrophic hurricane, who have been living without electricity and might be hungry and tired, speaks volumes about his character.
Unfortunately, the administration has shown a lack of empathy when it comes to the American citizens in Puerto Rico. It took a full six days for Trump to address the humanitarian disaster and the lack of adequate food, water, fuel and electricity in the island. When he finally did, he tweeted that the electrical grid was “devastated” but that the island owed “billions of dollars to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
These comments drew criticism from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who Trump has been feuding with on Twitter. She, meanwhile, has been seen waste deep in sewage-filled water helping with relief efforts. Mayor Cruz praised efforts by FEMA to help the people of Puerto Rico, but criticized Trump’s response about the debt, which is unrelated to the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding.
“These are two different topics,” Cruz told CNN. “You don’t put debt above people, you put people above debt.”
The debt crisis has been affecting Puerto Rico for years now, resulting in many Puerto Ricans moving to the United States mainland, mostly to the state of Florida. Creditors have been buying bonds very cheaply and seek an astronomical payout in return, attempting to force the island to pay them back at a full 100 cents on the dollar. The result has been an ongoing economic crisis and severe austerity measures being implemented in order for the bondholders to be paid back in full.
The creditors then use shell companies to hide their complicity in the misery of millions of U.S. citizens from the rest of the public.
Although Trump had made comments appearing to suggest that he would work towards wiping out Puerto Rico’s debt after his visit, this appeared to be the President speaking off the cuff yet again as administration officials promptly walked back his vow.
“I wouldn’t take it word for word with that,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said on CNN, “Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out how to fix the errors that it’s made for the last generation on its own finances.”
The Trump administration needs to take steps towards helping our fellow Americans by providing much needed relief in the hurricane’s aftermath and in the long term over the debt. But all we have seen so far from the President is the treatment of Puerto Ricans as second class citizens.
Thomas Kennedy is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.