The scandals around in Puerto Rico’s agonies are far greater than the bizarre contract to pay Whitefish Energy, a tiny Montana company from U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown, $300 million to restore electric lines.
Puerto Rico still lacks water, food and electricity. Ninety-eight schools just opened, but that represents less than 10 percent of the nation’s schools. And those opened have no generators for electricity, no air conditioning and no internet access. Students must bring their own water bottles and douse themselves with repellent to fend off the mosquito invasion that plagues the island.
The failure of the U.S. government to meet the emergency has gotten some attention, even as Trump keeps claiming that the administration deserves an “A” for its efforts.
Far too little attention has been given to the context for this crisis.
Central to the crisis is catastrophic climate change: the effects of global warming that pose, as the Pentagon has concluded, a real and growing national security threat, particularly to islands like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, both territories of the U.S. The Trump administration, however, remains in denial about climate change and is systematically rolling back all of the initial steps that the Obama administration made to even begin to address it.
Puerto Ricans are suffering from the administration’s inadequate response to a catastrophe. All of us — and our children — are likely to pay the price of the administration’s ignorant denial of a real security threat.
Puerto Ricans also suffer from a lack of rights. They are American citizens without the right to vote. They have one nonvoting resident commissioner in the House of Representatives. If Puerto Rico were a state, it would have two senators and five representatives in the House. Such representation would surely win Puerto Ricans a fairer hearing in Washington.
Puerto Rico is defined as a territory, but it is treated as a colony. Its people are U.S. citizens, but they are viewed as foreigners. That reality and the contempt that many in the Congress have for the U.S. possession handicap Puerto Rico in this catastrophe and in the future.
Worse, Puerto Rican leaders are hamstrung by the island’s massive debts, and by the outside control board designed to force a harsh austerity on the island in order to ensure that the speculators get repaid first. The catastrophe has brought Puerto Rico’s economy to a halt. Surely its creditors should write off much of their loans that have gone bad. U.S. assistance to rebuild Puerto Rico cannot be siphoned off to repay the debts of the past if the island is to have any hope of revival.
Without representation, the 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico must depend on the kindness of their fellow citizens. Perhaps Puerto Ricans who have settled in the U.S. mainland can mobilize to demand fair treatment for their compatriots. Perhaps their U.S. occupiers will understand the global shame that comes from failing our own citizens. With Republicans intent on passing $5 trillion in tax cuts, largely for the rich and the big corporations, while slashing spending on everything other than the military, the agonies of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are likely to continue.
Some small steps should be taken. Puerto Ricans should have the first option on the contracts and jobs involved in rebuilding the island. The reconstruction needs labor, skilled and unskilled; the residents need jobs. If they get the contracts, the money will circulate in the island rather than be sent to the mainland. If there is a shortage of skilled occupations, investment in training and apprenticeships will pay massive dividends.
Puerto Rican officials need to step up also, insuring that the contracting process is transparent and clean — and cracking down on inanities like the Whitefish contract, which the governor has announced will be canceled. Disasters often open the door for massive ripoffs and fraud.
The Trump administration is systematically weakening enforcement of the laws and regulations on companies and bankers. Puerto Rican officials will have to be courageous enough to set the standards and enforce them. I am convinced that the steadfast leadership of Gov. Ricardo Rossello and the Maxine Waters-like spirit of Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of San Juan, along with the diligence of responsible members of Congress such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, will make for a new, better and more powerful Puerto Rico.
The devastation in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, raises a stark mirror on this administration. How can any president claim to Make America Great Again and then fail in the basic duty to protect this country’s citizens and help them recover from natural disasters? That question should haunt the president and the Republican leaders this Halloween, even as they peddle the next tax break for millionaires and billionaires.