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Thursday, 01 February 2018 06:37

With FEMA Aid Stoppage, US Government Confirms It Still Sees Puerto Rico as Colony

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HurricaneMariaHurricane Maria (Photo: Antti Lipponen)

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Puerto Rico achieved Commonwealth Status under President Harry Truman's administration in 1952, after being a territory since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. However, the United States Congress and presidents over time have continued to treat Puerto Rico like a colony.

The relationship is riddled with contradictions. Residents of Puerto Rico are citizens of the US, but can only vote in federal elections if they move to and live in a state. The island is supposed to have an independent Commonwealth legislature, but its financial affairs are now being overseen by a seven-person Puerto Rico Fiscal Control Board appointed in 2016 by President Obama. The island had been on the brink of bankruptcy -- more than $70 billion in debt. Typical of the island's treatment as a colony, its governor is on the Control Board but cannot vote.

According to USA Today, the relationship of the US government to the island is generally not understood by people in the 50 US states:

The destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria on the 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico resurfaced a disturbing fact – many Americans don't know the first thing about the Caribbean island. 

A USA Today/Suffolk University poll conducted in March [2016] found that fewer than half of Americans (47%) believe that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth.

This may be one reason the Trump administration has gotten away with providing insufficient aid in the wake of the devastating hurricane. This negligence was symbolized by Trump's brief visit to the island, which took place well after the hurricane, and during which he contemptuously handed out paper towels.

It is within this context that FEMA has announced that as of January 31 it will stop distributing food and water to residents of Puerto Rico. The announcement came as a surprise to many elected officials on the island, who contend that there is still sufficient need. NPR reports on one example of the ongoing urgent need for FEMA food and water:

In Morovis, a municipality located in the island's lush, mountainous interior, Mayor Carmen Maldonado said that about 10,000 of her 30,000 residents are still receiving FEMA's food and water rations.

"There are some municipalities that may not need the help anymore, because they've got nearly 100 percent of their energy and water back," she said. "Ours is not so lucky."

While the government reports that island-wide, nearly a third of Puerto Rican customers still lack electricity, Maldonado estimated that in her municipality that figure is more like 80 percent.

The mayor of San Juan, Yulin Cruz, who has been at odds with Donald Trump since the hurricane, called the president a hypocrite for his State of the Union address comments on caring for Puerto Ricans. In regards to FEMA suspending its emergency care, she told CNN, "FEMA said mission accomplished. I do not know what mission they have accomplished, Certainly, it wasn't the mission of doing what they were supposed to do."

Cruz questioned whether Trump would have treated one of the southern states with the same dismissiveness he expressed toward Puerto Rico's catastrophic needs. Given Trump's ongoing contempt for non-whites and his recent vulgar comment about immigrants from non-white nations, it is a fair question to ask.

The progressive National Nurses Union (NNU) recently had a RN Response Network (RNRN) volunteer team on the ground in Puerto Rico for a second visit to assist in addressing medical needs. On Thursday, it issued a news release via email that blasted FEMA for suspending food and water aid:

Nurse volunteers just returned from National Nurses United (NNU)’s second disaster relief mission to Puerto Rico, through its RN Response Network (RNRN) disaster relief project, said today that conditions on the ground remain dire, and that it is imperative that the Trump Administration and Congress not just continue to provide critical aid, but sharply step up the effort....

"At this point, it’s outrageous to even discuss cutting off FEMA aid; it would simply add a next level of disaster to a pre-existing, man-made disaster. Our nurses have seen firsthand, on the ground, even in the past few days, that FEMA aid, which was far too slow and inadequate to begin with, is still necessary to save lives," said Cathy Kennedy, RN, NNU Vice President.

Politically, the short shrift Trump has given Puerto Rico in the face of the ruinous intensity of Hurricane Maria only adds to the evidence of his bigotry. This will hurt him with voters who see democracy as inclusive and Puerto Rico as part of the United States, but help him with the white nationalists he has clasped close to his chest. In addition, as noted above, residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote for president if they live on the island -- and they have no voting representation in either house of Congress, which could be a factor in Trump's lamentable decisions about the island. However, there are an increasing number of Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland. Those individuals can vote in future presidential, state and municipal elections -- including for president -- and Trump's sneering attitude toward Puerto Rico could backfire and affect the presidential vote in 2020, particularly in Florida.

FEMA's withdrawal of the most basic aid to Puerto Rico represents a larger issue about our inclusiveness as a society. Puerto Rico is part of the United States. For those Americans who like to champion the military, the Puerto Rico Report notes that "since becoming US citizens in 1917, Puerto Ricans have served in disproportionate numbers relative to their population within the US."

It is indeed a fundamental hypocrisy to turn the nation's back on the needs of more than 3 million of its citizens, asking them to be loyal to a national government that treats them as disposable.