Donald Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, in the aftermath of Hurricane María, was an insult to a proud people who identify as Latin Americans and are also responsible U.S. citizens. Sadly, the response of local leaders left much to be desired, as they ultimately chose to enable the President and his whims. The result of Trump’s trip could imperil the significant federal response that is required not just to save lives in the present, but to rebuild the island into the future.
Trump’s fleeting sojourn in the Caribbean began with the President scolding Puerto Ricans —his apologists would say jokingly— for throwing “our budget a little out of whack.” Had Trump said anything to that effect about Florida or Texas after the recent storms that struck those jurisdictions, state leaders would have justifiably reacted indignant.
The four-hour visit also featured a staged event in which the President tossed packages of paper towel at folks that, according to media reports, had been bused in from shelters. Blinded by celebrity and still reeling from loss, participants gleefully reached for his munificence and snapped pictures of The Donald. That no one thought to aim for him and toss back a roll will shame me and many of my fellow Puerto Ricans for years to come. Typically for Trump, it was this classless display, and not the very real needs of millions of people, that made it on to the evening news.
Local political leaders in attendance seemed similarly entranced, with the notable exception of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Many selfies with the President were taken. Words of praise were exchanged between Trump and Governor Ricardo Rosselló. In the end, the Trump administration was not challenged for its tardy and lethargic response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, no one spoke out for what is due to 3.5 million U.S. citizens, notwithstanding any budgetary concerns, and no one spoke up for those who are suffering daily with little or no access to water, food and adequate healthcare.
Some have argued that the local government’s position is a recognition of our poor bargaining stance, something akin to not biting the hand that feeds you. I would argue that what our leaders exhibited was the worst and most pathetic sycophancy. Expecting respect from a fickle leader like Trump through flattery is a mistaken approach. Singularly important, his offhand remarks to Geraldo Rivera about “wiping out” Puerto Rico’s debt will need to be backed by action. If not, they will be as futile as the rest of his trip.
Further, we can not forget our complicated history with the U.S., nor allow the President to ignore it. We were a fully formed nation by the time Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. by Spain at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. We are U.S. citizens —proudly so— but were not consulted when, in 1917, prior to the country’s entry into World War I, said citizenship was extended to all Puerto Ricans. Since then, men and women from the island have fought bravely in every U.S. military conflict to date and have contributed fully to American cultural and political life.
Trump’s sad excuse for a Presidential visit was a reminder of the darker episodes in that shared history. Our leaders’ response demonstrates a deep ignorance of our standing as citizens of the U.S. That our political relationship does not allow us to vote for the President nor to send representatives and senators to Congress, does not make us any less worthy of the protections that are promised to us by the Constitution. Meekly waiting for a handout (paper towels?), as if undeserving of aid and support, is the wrong approach at the wrong time. We demand support because we need it and are deserving of it.
The mutually congratulatory nature of the encounter and the rosy picture painted by his itinerary —he only visited a well-off neighborhood in the metro area that suffered little damage— will add injury to insult. What Puerto Rico needs is legislative and executive action to direct billions of dollars to relief and recovery. If the President deplaned Air Force One in Washington thinking that María was not, to quote him while in Puerto Rico, “a real catastrophe like Katrina,” then federal action may be delayed or put off while more pressing needs, in his mind, are met.
That combination of complacency and of an apparently undemanding, prostrate and docile Puerto Rican leadership, willing to accept whatever is tossed at it, is a toxic and potent recipe for inaction.
Armando A. Valdés Prieto is a lawyer and political consultant, and a former director of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s Office of Management and Budget. He lives in San Juan with his wife, two cats and a dog. He tweets from @armandovaldes.