By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah
During the early Puerto Rican recovery efforts in late September, President Donald Trump unsurprisingly tweeted out his frustrations. The new edition of tweets included criticism of the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. He cited the mayor’s inability to mobilize the workers. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” tweeted Trump.
In response to the tweets, critics circulated a photo of the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, trying to help a citizen who was stranded in a kayak stranded in the middle of the deep water. Cruz has also come back lambasting Trump for his “insulting” visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday. From the comments, one question arises — who has the stronger case against the other? Let’s view the veracity of both exchanges.
First, we will view the argument over federal response. Trump claimed that Cruz wants everything done for them, a response to the plea from the mayor on CNN. The mayor refuted and claimed that the federal government has seldom helped. Trump waived the Jones Act, which required that vessels traveling between U.S. ports be U.S. ships. The waiver decreases the cost of U.S. ships going to assist Puerto Rico, but it only lasted for ten days.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 19,000 federal workers have arrived on ground in Puerto Rico. At least 75% of the recovery money will come from the governmental agency. The Department of Transportation gave $40 million to Puerto Rico for road and bridge repairs. The White House has sent the US Navy and the USNS Comfort (one of the Navy’s two floating hospitals) out to Puerto Rico. The ship is a useful addition because Puerto Rico’s health infrastructure is in ruins. However, its lack of decks means it requires a pier, a problem that is complicated by damaged roads, which we will get to later. Also dispatched were ships that could travel on land and in water that had hospitals on board as well. The dispatchment lessens the problem of roads, an important solution that will allow mobility throughout the island to deliver key resources. There is still, however, a lot to restore, especially electricity.
Many argue that, in comparison to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, the federal government was prepared much better for those hurricanes than Hurricane Maria. However, both Texas and Florida have much stronger economies and infrastructure than Puerto Rico, giving them an advantage in preparedness. Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and economy, however, had been in decline for years as we will see soon.
Next, let’s talk about road infrastructure. While the topic was never mentioned in the crossfire, it will give us more context as to why workers have not been mobilized in San Juan. Many parts of major highways in Puerto Rico are closed down due to flooding, structural damage, or debris. It becomes harder to circulate resources by motor vehicle. A 2 ½-hour drive from San Juan to Cabo Rojo in southwestern Puerto Rico becomes a very long trip on heavily damaged roads. The problem of roads has been a big reason as to why ships carrying important resources sat idle at the port of San Juan.
Electricity has taken the hardest hit in terms of infrastructure. The island has only one provider, the publicly-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), who has experienced financial struggles for years. Their piling debt has led to an endless cycle of borrowing from creditors. The decrease in demand for oil has also affected the company. According to CNBC, 55% of Puerto Rico’s electricity came from petroleum in 2013. Rising oil prices make it harder to get oil, worsening the ability of the company to provide electricity as its product. Workers have also left for greener pastures, which worsens the product.
The endless practice of borrowing adds to the $72 billion debt that Puerto Rico owes to the United States. The debt becomes more dire since Puerto Rican incomes have leveled off at 35% of the average U.S. income, and the poverty rate in the territory hovers at 45%. In May of this year, the island declared bankruptcy, marking the first time any state or territory has done so.
Another reason for the lack of workers in Puerto Rico is its declining population. According to the Pew Research Center, since 2010, there has been a 38% increase in Puerto Ricans moving from the territory to the U.S. mainland. The island has been suffering from population loss since 2006, although the trend has spiked since 2010. Puerto Rico’s fertility rates are at 1.3 children per woman as of 2013, down from 1.9 in 2003. The declining population has a lot to do with the island’s economic recession. Citizens who have the financial ability will leave a region to seek greener pastures if the region cannot consistently supply them with good opportunities. The phenomenon leads to less valuable labor and less demand for Puerto Rican products. Fewer businesses are attracted to the region, further closing work opportunities and setting the economy and infrastructure into decline.
Finally, let’s talk about Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico, a polarizing event. While he exchanged niceties with local officials and citizens, he repeatedly congratulated the federal effort instead of the efforts of the islanders. Critics found it insulting given how he hyped it up on his Twitter, only to visit for 4 hours and most memorably throw paper towels at a crowd. Trump claimed that he was “having fun,” and that the Puerto Rican people also had fun during his visit. Others found it very demeaning.
Trump is right that the workers in Puerto Rico have been poorly mobilized. It’s likely that many of the territory’s talented workers will flee the island, according to the Financial Times. It was a problem that grew for years without effective policy to solve it. The mayor of San Juan’s response, therefore, has been complicated by Puerto Rico’s unfortunate regression. The federal response has been complicated by a few major factors, but can always be improved. Finally, depending on your view of what Trump’s visit was supposed to be, the visit could’ve been very heartwarming or very demeaning.