The image couldn’t be any clearer. On September 25th, NYU primate researchers flying over the streets of Punta Santiago in Puerto Rico took a photograph of a desperate call for help. Locals had used chalk to carve out the letters S.O.S. in a cleared street, asking for water and food. The desperation, even up in the air, is tangible. It was well known that Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but the island, along with many other United States territories, continues to be neglected.
National beliefs of what constitutes “important” Americans and “unimportant” Americans have become more evident with U.S. territories under threat; The Washington Post noted with shock in July that North Korea possessed a ballistic missile which “experts said could be capable of reaching as far as New York”. Shouldn’t the highlight have been on the Americans who were definitely under threat, our American people in Guam and Samoa? Shouldn’t we value our people across the Pacific and engulfed by the flurry of Atlantic sea the same way we value our New Yorkers and North Dakotans?
United States territories have long been excluded and demeaned by politicians and the federal government. Policies that have destroyed local economies in favor of national interests, such as army bases, have long caused anger and upset but have never really been addressed. American Samoans, despite having one of the highest rates of military subscription in the United States, do not have the ability to vote in presidential elections. Many are denied citizenship because neither of their parents are already American citizens, and their representative in Congress isn’t allowed to vote. Puerto Ricans also have no electoral votes, can’t contribute to the national political dialogue and can’t declare bankruptcy if they want to protect their economy from fallout. This past May, the territory defaulted on a record-setting debt of $70 billion. But because of arcane, discriminatory laws, Puerto Rico is helpless, though they pay most federal taxes. The treatment of territories seems inconsistent with American values: aren’t we the country that proclaimed “taxation without representation [was] tyranny”?
Lack of care for Puerto Rico, in particular, became evident with President Trump’s treatment of the territory in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The island suffered greatly, with many areas experiencing power outages and loss of access to water. The infrastructure was already in a decaying state because of the financial situation of the territory, but the hurricane put the island in an even worse position, destroying 95% of wireless communication infrastructure and making it near-impossible for officials to communicate with citizens. One of the few medical centers on the island with a generator began running out of fuel; the island saw “near-record levels” of flooding and raining. Hurricane Maria also damaged the Guajataca Dam, which threatened many citizens with the possibility of flooding on top of existing damage.
When President Trump eventually arrived on the island for his visit, he managed to further offend and display ignorance of Puerto Rico’s situation. When he opened his press conference, he said “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’re throwing our budget out of whack.”
Part of the reason Puerto Rico has struggled so much with the aftermath of the hurricane is that many of the key support systems installed in the U.S. government, such as disaster aid, are fought for and established by the state’s senator. But Puerto Rico is not a state. It does not have a senator. It does not have disaster aid that is allocated by an individual familiar with the territory’s background, resources, and politics. So when FEMA had to scramble to support the territory, of course it “threw” Mr. Trump’s budget “out of whack.” Perhaps the President would have been happier sending no money to Puerto Rico at all, which was, in fact, his initial move: to deny the territory support because the situation really “was not that bad”.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Texas received FEMA relief approximately 10 days after a formal request for aid was placed by the governor. Yet Puerto Ricans had to wait more than two weeks to receive any kind of financial support. President Trump could have expedited the process by using legislation like the Stafford Act, which allows FEMA funds and resources to be allocated at the President’s discretion. But instead, he found it more useful to complain that Puerto Ricans were complaining.
“They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” said Trump in one of his Twitter rants.
Let’s consider Mr. Trump’s statement. If the community were to help Puerto Ricans, who would be a part of this community? Would it simply be Puerto Ricans, or would it include Floridians who were born in Puerto Rico? Could it possibly be that Puerto Rico’s community is all of America, as in truth they are as American as you or me? What Mr. Trump says is true; sometimes when people are in crisis, they want help. Sometimes, we need to look to our communities to take care of us when we are falling apart. Sometimes we forget that America is not what Mr. Trump says, that is bigger, more complex. Sometimes we forget our people across the Pacific, in the Caribbean, in the Gulf. Sometimes we forget we have a duty to them.