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Puerto Rico Crisis Update

The NiLP Report

Not that there is anything wrong with that!. It's an expression of affection.

Trump's Not Forever Tweets.

Thursday was perhaps the day of greatest disgust in the Puerto Rican community to date, this time in reaction to Trump's tweets about the federal government not staying forever helping hurricane-savaged Puerto Rico. Essentially blaming the people of Puerto Rico for not being prepared for the hurricanes' devastation, he gave the impression of pulling out FEMA staff and the military out of Puerto Rico prematurely; confirming the reality that US citizenship for Puerto Ricans is of the second-class variety at least in his mind. Although his Vice President and FEMA Director both publicly reaffirmed the federal government's commitment to stay the course, Trump's tweets raised questions about the extent of this commitment and revealed, once again, his politically cynical use of the Puerto Rico tragedy as a wedge issue to feed his base. On the hand, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is leading a "bipartisan" Congressional delegation visit to Puerto Rico today, has stated the Congress' commitment to supporting Puerto Rico's recovery. But it turned out that this "bipartisan" did not include two key Democrats on the Puerto Rico issue --- Nydia Velazquez and Luis Gutierrez.

The immediate reaction to the Trump tweets came from Democrats, officials in Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican and other Latino community leaders stateside, and others.. There was widespread praise forCongressman Gutierrez speech on the floor of the House telling Trump that the federal government will be in Puerto Rico for as long as it takes. However, as far we can tell, no Republican raised any problems with Trump's position.

While there was a strong social media response condemning Trump for threatening to pull out of Puerto Rico prematurely, others were calling for a stronger reaction. These included the need for a massive protest in Washington, DC of at least 10,000 Puerto Ricans and supporters. Others stressed the need to begin the process of registering and mobilizing the more than 5 million stateside Puerto Ricans in Florida and other key states with large Puerto Rican concentrations. There is also the question of whether or not Puerto Rico has any recourse for support by international tribunals --- arguing that Trump in his tweets and the federal government's irresponsibly inadequate hurricane relief efforts and economic exploitation of Puerto Rico constitute a breach of its social contract with Puerto Rico that reverts its official status back to a colony requiring supervision by the UN. More and more Puerto Ricans are beginning to frame the federal government's responsibility to fully fund Puerto Rico's recovery as reparations for more than a century of its colonial exploitation by the United States. At present, the only national gathering being planned is a November 9th summit being called by the National Puerto Rican Agenda, a coalition of 30 Puerto Rican organizations.

The Media and the Growing "Disaster Competition." Since the unimaginable destruction caused by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, there was the concern that, as has been the case in the past, national stateside media attention to this crisis would be minimal and short-lived. This concern has grown with the competition for media attention of Hurricane Harvey, the massacre in Las Vega, the Mexican earthquake, the California wildfires and, let's not forget, Trump's threats of starting a nuclear war with North Korea.

To help address this problem, Alex Nogales, who is Mexican-American and President of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, sent letters to the heads of the major television news network pressing them to provide adequate and ongoing coverage of the crisis in Puerto Rico. The entire group of network executives contacted responded immediately that they were committed to the long-term coverage of this issue. Nogales informed them that his organization will be monitoring them on this commitment they have made. The organization joined other public interest groups in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take more proactive steps to restore communications on the Island.

The Federal Commitment. The estimates of what it would take to rebuild Puerto Rico's economy and society has been estimated to be about $70 billion. On top of this, there is the Island's $72 billion debt as well as over $50 billion in what is owed to their pension fund. This would indicate the need for a massive Marshall Plan-like redevelopment and stimulus funding, as well as the need to forgive what is clearly an unpayable debt. There is also as well the need to adopt some other, smaller Congressional measures to address more significant short-term shortfalls in Medicaid funding and other federally-mandated programs.

Given these realities, there is a growing recognition in the Puerto Rican community, if not in Congress, that the clearly inadequate and undemocratic PROMESA legislation needs to be repealed and replaced. It needs to be replaced with something that makes more sense and is more respectful of the political and civil rights of Puerto Ricans. On October 28th, the Puerto Rican Studies Association (PRSA) will be holding a symposium with the focus on "Rebuilding Puerto Rico" as part of their overall bi-annual conference that will be held in NYC. For details, click here.

The White House has proposed to Congress a $36.5 billion nationwide disaster package that includes $13 billion to replenish FEMA funding, which was just passed 353 to 69 and goes before the Senate next week. As part of this package, Puerto Rico would be receiving a $4.9 billion loan under FEMA's Disaster Assistance Direct Loan Program, which in all likelihood be forgiven, to meet the immediate liquidity needs of the Island government. Puerto Rico will also be seeking an additional $8.8 billion for funding several federal programs such as those under the Small Business Administration. FEMA has also approved $44 million for assistance to individuals and $96 million for emergency work required for the damages from Hurricane Maria. The problem with the disaster loans for individuals is their ability to apply promptly because of the lack of electricity and other obstacles, a situation that will require federal agencies making these loans to fund ways to expedite this process.

Officials in Puerto Rico see this as a good start to receiving more long-term federal funding to support relief and recovery efforts. However, Trump's recent tweets have raised concerns about the possibility of this longer-term funding. This, also, does not address proposals to continue to waive or kill the Jones Act or the fate of the Island's unpayable $70 billion debt and $50 billion pension system debt. As Trump and others raised the need to forgive this debt outright, those in the business press has begun to frame the debt as "belonging to all of all" as a rationale for opposing forgiving it, despite the fact that it is primarily owned by wealthy venture capitalists and other Americans, not really "all of us."

Disneyland of the Caribbean? All being focused on the current reality of basic survival in Puerto Rico, concerns are being raised widely about what the future rebuilding of its economy will look like. Will Puerto Ricans themselves be in control of this process, or will wealthy Americans and speculators? This is where images of Puerto Rico becoming a huge garage sale of its land and other assets comes to mind, where from the rubble can arise the equivalent of its becoming a Disneyland of the Caribbean of sorts. Or will Puerto Ricans themselves, both from the Island and stateside, take charge of this rebuilding? It is hard to tell because the current colonial status means that the rules for this rebuilding will be determined by the US Congress, and we know who they ultimately are accountable to, especially under Republican control with a Trump White House and Trump-friendly Supreme Court (BTW, unfortunately, we also know who the Democrats are ultimately accountable to as well). The current pro-statehood government in control in Puerto Rico also has a US Republican-type agenda that favors privatization, so it is not clear what approach they will be ultimately championing.

Death Toll Rises. Meanwhile, the confirmed death toll has risen to 45 and is continued to rise, but there is an understanding that it will be much higher. On top of this, there is also the possibility of the spread of Leptospirosis because of the contaminated water that may have been the cause of at least 4 deaths. As San Juan Mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, pointed out, the need for greater federal support is to literally save lives in Puerto Rico. There are over 100 people still missing in Puerto Rico.


The NiLP Report on Latino Policy & Politics is an online information service provided by the National Institute for Latino Policy. For further information, visit www.latinopolicy. org. Send comments to editor@latinopolicy.org.