Paternalism Towards Puerto Rico Isn’t a ‘Trump Problem,’ It’s a Colonial One

Oct 4, 2017
4:27 PM

On Saturday morning President Trump Twitter trolled San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for criticizing his lackluster approach to Puerto Rican recovery after Hurricane Maria.

The President’s response is neither surprising, nor new. Four days earlier, Trump blamed Puerto Rico for its slow recovery, implying the island’s debt crisis disqualified it from humanitarian aid.

Both attacks from Trump expressed paternalism towards Puerto Rico, implying the people of the island do not know what they need. How could they, the argument goes, they cannot keep their finances together or their leadership in line! While some have been surprised by Trump’s paternalism, the United States has treated the island in this way for at least 120 years.

Immediately after the 1898 Spanish-American War, Protestant Missionaries met in New York City to construct a plan for the “new mission field” of Puerto Rico. After several hours their project became clear: they would enter Puerto Rico to spread the gospel of Christ, the treasures of capitalism, and the power of democracy. These missionaries believed God gave the United States the military capacity to ensure Puerto Rico could receive these triune gifts. It was thus their job as “agents of God” to work with the Nation’s leadership and ensure their message was preached to “backwards” peoples of that land. And they did.

Within a year, politicians justified U.S. imperialism with the mission that Protestants articulated in New York City. In an 1899 meeting with Methodist leadership, President McKinley argued the United States ascertained new colonies like Puerto Rico as part of God’s plan to bring the world Christianity and civilization (i.e. capitalism and democracy). That same year on the Senate floor, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana contested that God “had made [the United States] master organizers of the world to establish organization where chaos [reigned].” He continued that the United States entered Puerto Rico to spread business, democracy, and Christianity because of God’s providence.

The logics of paternalism manifest among Protestant Missionaries, McKinley and Beveridge. Puerto Ricans were children entrusted to the United States directly from God. As a parent, then, it was the latter’s job to rear the former in Christian faith, capitalist economics, and democratic politics. And if the children ever became unruly, it was the job of these “master organizers to establish organization” among their kids.

And the United States has accepted this paternalistic role over Puerto Rico ever since. Tuesday’s paper towel video was the latest example, but it clearly wasn’t the first or the most dangerous one.

In the 1930s through 1950s the United States government reprimanded the cries of Puerto Rico’s independence movement by torturing its leaders and bombing civilians (that is, U.S. citizens) in the towns of Jayuya and Utuado. Twenty years later, “Daddy Sam” made sure to let his kids know his discipline followed them into the mainland by infiltrating the Young Lords Party with the FBI and COINTELPRO. And in 2016, Puerto Ricans were reminded that “daddy knows best” when the United States (under President Obama) imposed a financial control board on Puerto Rico to manage the debt they allegedly couldn’t figure out (even though all evidence shows the debt is “daddy’s” fault).

Trump blasting Yulín Cruz—a woman who has literally been chest deep in water saving Puerto Ricans—is nothing new: for decades the United States has treated its colony like a child, one that needs discipline when it acts up. Even as leadership has changed over the last 120 years of colonialism, paternalism has not. All Trump’s underwhelming response to Hurricane Maria reconfirms is that this self-appointed parent is slowly killing its forcefully adopted children.


Jorge Juan Rodríguez V is Ph.D. Student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He tweets from @JJRodV