Jim Crow FEMA: How Trump’s Disastrous Hurricane María Response Highlights U.S. Debt Owed to Puerto Rico

Sep 29, 2017
5:51 PM

By Alan A. Aja and Reynaldo Ortiz-Minaya

On Monday evening, Sulaima Cruz, an independent street dog rescuer who lives in the hurricane-ravaged municipality of Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, took to Facebook: “¿Dónde está la ayuda que ha llegado? Necesitamos agua,” she wrote. She wanted to know: where is the aid that has supposedly arrived? We need water.

Thanks in part to Puerto Ricans like Cruz sharing posts, images and calls for help, the developing humanitarian crisis in the U.S. territory —disaffecting 3.5 million U.S. citizens, from the island’s mountainous interior to its coastlines— is coming into view.

Residents are facing inadequate rations of food, water and fuel, sparse (if any) electricity, roads cut off due to structural damage or flooding, hospitals and elder-care facilities needing evacuation—and this is all occurring amid blistering heat and humidity.

But for Donald Trump, who delivered a childish, five-days-too-late rationale Tuesday as to why federal aid was slow to arrive in Puerto Rico (“This is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean … It’s a very big ocean”), his administration can do no wrong. “Everybody has said it’s amazing the job we’ve done in Puerto Rico,” Trump told reporters, a day after a barrage of typically responsibility-evading, victim-blaming tweets. “Texas and Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he wrote, “with millions of dollars … owed to Wall Street and the banks,which sadly, must be dealt with.” Trump, who cost island taxpayers $33 million with a failed condo/golf course venture in 2015, went on: “Food, water and medical are top priorities, and doing well.”

That his administration’s response to the disaster is in any way going well is news to the typical island-side Puerto Rican. On top of already inadequate disaster spending for Puerto Rico’s immediate to long-term needs, a larger federal aid package will likely not be ready until mid-October. Current policy mandates that before aid packages can be estimated, a needs assessment by federal officials is required, and local resources must match federal funds administered by FEMA. A waiver for this outrageous “cost-sharing” requirement —especially in the context of the supposed debt owed by the Puerto Rican people to Wall Street— has already been requested in a letter penned by eight members of Congress, including Puerto Rican Reps Luis Gutiérrez, Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano.

A New York Times editorial published earlier this week argued that Puerto Ricans “are entitled to the same federal emergency funds and resources that Washington has been funneling to the far more politically powerful and economically resilient states of Texas and Florida in their hurricane miseries.” But the apparent deference toward an imagined “white” mainland over an island of color, evident in Trump’s own tweets —which no doubt spoke to his white nationalist supporters— is one that through the repressive structures of colonialism relies on the premise that some people deserve more aid than others.

Our colleague Jeanne Theoharis aptly dubbed this intentional, structural, racially stratified disaster response Jim Crow FEMA: the notion that, just as New Orleans’ residents of color should be grateful for better-late-than-never federal response after Katrina, so too should Puerto Ricans after María.

This, if anything, undergirds the position of the U.S. since its initial invasion of the “country” in 1898, one that places direct blame on Borinqueños themselves for the economic disparities they endure, while exacerbating a dependent relationship that extends from coerced citizenship to economic policies and a political status that suppresses its potential independence as it protects U.S. mainland resource and military interests.

In a widely shared emotional video interview, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz observed that Puerto Ricans are afraid “not because of what has happened, but because of the difficulty of what will come, and what may come.”

“Everything we need comes from the outside,” she said.

The Larger Truth

What Yulín Cruz noted there speaks to a larger truth wound up in the typical policy blindness those on the benefitting end of imperialism depend on: the need to not just suspend the debilitating and antiquated Jones Act —as the Trump administration finally did after public pressure on Thursday (temporarily)— but to actually overturn it.

A 1920 maritime law (Merchant Marine Act) that requires shipped international goods to stop first on the mainland over the island, then, under a U.S. flag and regulations (hence increased transportation costs), finally shipped to Puerto Rico sold at inflated prices the typical Puerto Rican struggles to afford, the act was historically responsible for giving carte blanche access to U.S. corporations. In the aftermath of 1928 Hurricane Felipe and 1932 Hurricane San Ciprián, the act’s presence accentuated the increased privatization of state services and corporate acquisition of the island’s resources (human and physical), this occurring at the same time U.S. corporations began to seek increased access to safe haven from taxes on the island.

A New York Times piece by Nelson Denis referenced island economists who underscore the more recent effects of the act, in that by now, a much healthier economy would allow the island to not only pay off its supposed current external debt, surpassing $73 billion, but also possess existing proactive and reactive systems of operations when dealing with such emergencies. Needless to say, the Jones Act is among many present colonial barriers representing the systematic process of pilfering an island’s natural resources while further immersing its residents into abject poverty, alarming health disparities and complications, meanwhile simultaneously and exponentially enriching the coffers of bankers.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and neither should we normalize predictions for Puerto Rico’s recovery. For instance, a reported initial assessment by officials that electricity will not be back on fully for 3 or 4 months or longer, clearly situated in a “disaster-capitalism” context of long-imposed austerity and divestment of public works best explained by scholar Yarimar Bonilla last week in the Washington Post, seems to be based on assumptions about a present lack of urgency and dedicated humanpower to do the job.  In comparison, when hurricane Sandy hit the New Jersey/New York region in 2012 and more than eight million people lost power, 57,000 utility workers were commissioned from Canada to other states to help get the power back on in New York (some working 16 hour days for weeks), with a clear understanding that this cannot proceed days let alone weeks and months. There was a general feeling from D.C. to Albany that there would be “hell to pay” if aid and recovery didn’t happen immediately—but as expected in these Jim Crow-like, “undeserving” stateside (read: Katrina!) to colonial (read: Maria!) spaces of relief and recovery, there is no feeling right now that there will be hell to pay in terms of the failed response to Puerto Rico’s devastation.

We Need to Be Bolder

For Puerto Rico immediately, we need to be bolder, and punch out of the incrementalist, too often bipartisan frame that limited resources inevitably affect the logistical and distributive—a neoliberal frame that ignores that deficits are social constructions, places profits before people, and only helps those in more advantageous positions to begin with. This will require an uncomfortable reckoning and admission by U.S. residents, many who don’t like to see themselves this way, that the U.S. is a colonial power, rendering great violence onto the Global South for our economic benefit (a political-economic to bodily practice it disproportionately commits onto black and brown Americans, among the very reasons Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett and white allies like Megan Rapinoe and growing number of athletes “knelt” to begin with).

Everyday Americans will need to insist, from phone calls and rallies, to outright occupying, that this human-induced, climate-change situated environmental to humanitarian catastrophe is unacceptable and force the federal government not just to immediately act, but fully carry out its obligations. Lifting the Jones Act (permanently) is both a humanitarian and practical initial move, so that Puerto Rico can receive immediate to ongoing aid and supplies and further develop its own autonomous relationships with neighboring countries. This must include regularizing our relationship with Cuba, whose humanitarianism in wake of disasters serves as a global model, all the while occurring to actual distribution of already-arrived and subsequently necessary massive amounts of aid and resources with an urgent, commissioned agency that empowers the grassroots level and establishes local structures of sustainability.

But for the long run, alongside the immediate all hands on deck approach, it is not a wild idea to state that as we are past due reparations to Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexicans/Mexican Americans, the island should receive structural to household level restitution given its pre-existing environmental to health to economic crises perpetuated and as direct. This is already backed by an endless list of grievances to documented injury, from uncollected taxes (see Section 936) and profiteering (past and present) carried out by U.S. corporations, including the revenues the federal government has collected from its aforementioned shipping monopoly, to the substandard, non-living wages committed by U.S. companies like Wal-Mart, to its repulsive history of sterilizing Puerto Rican women for economic purposes to using them as human guinea-pigs for birth control pills, to the public health crisis caused by U.S. military bombings on the island of Vieques.

This would be no-strings attached set of redistributive mandates, one that acknowledges Puerto Ricans may end up re-organizing for a more liberatory political status with direct ownership of the means of production. This could begin with complete suspension of the debilitating PROMESA, Puerto Rico’s absurd current legal debt-restructuring process, then centered on a massive infrastructural investment and rebuilding of its “commons” through an island-wide, living wage “job guarantee.” Much like what economists William Darity, Jr. and Darrick Hamilton envision through a federal job guarantee, this program could directly employ Puerto Ricans to partake in rebuilding its infrastructure to agricultural production: whether it involve working on a new electrical grid for the entire island, with focus on building solar and wind energy capacity, to re-sowing fields and rebuilding roads, to constructing (and working directly in) light rails/mass transit, libraries, schools, universities and reopening its public health facilities previously subject to the violence of austerity before María.

In the end, San Juan Mayor Yulín Cruz is correct. For Puerto Rico, it isn’t just about what has happened, but what comes next. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, born into a coerced colonial context, a status that by legal definition, forces them to live as second class citizens, whether residing on the island or living in the Diaspora. As 3.5 million suffer the immediate effects of this status through disproportionate, unequal preparedness and response, another five million in the Diaspora suffer with them, knowing full well that the federal government is failing their loved ones on a massive, unforgivable scale.


Alan A. Aja is an Associate Professor in the Department of Puerto Rican & Latino Studies at Brooklyn College (CUNY).

Reynaldo Ortiz-Minaya is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Puerto Rican & Latino Studies at Brooklyn College (CUNY).