The Trump Administration has been breaking the law as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) keeps illegally withholding close to $18 billion Congress approved in 2018 for disaster relief, mitigation and reconstruction in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María, the deadliest hurricane in modern U.S. history struck in September 2017 and killed more than 3,000 individuals.
Two and a half years later, 30,000 families are still living under blue tarps as opposed to roofs. To make matters worse, between late December 2019 and January 2020, more than a 1,000 seismic events, including two devastating earthquakes, have rocked the island, leaving thousands more to sleep on the streets because their homes either collapsed or they are too afraid to live in their houses for fear they will be hurt by another quake.
The money Congress approved to rebuild Puerto Rico two years ago is needed now more than ever. The situation is so dire, several Members of Congress are considering a lawsuit against the Trump Administration for continuing to withhold the money Congress approved and the president signed into law.
Given this state of affairs, an even more troubling and grossly underreported tragedy is still unresolved: the government of Puerto Rico has had $1.53 billion (out of the $20 billion Congress approved) available for use since February 2019, and it has only used around $34 million. Yes, that is million with an “m,” out of one and a half billion, with a “b.”
The following official HUD chart, dated December 31, 2019, shows the current spending breakdown, which the Puerto Rico section highlighted in red by Latino Rebels. This is what we can calculate:
Total Grants to Puerto Rico: Around $1,537,000,000
Balance Remaining: Around $1,502,834,000
Money Spent: Around $34,000,000
How can this be possible, you ask? Several diaspora groups and others have been asking this same question and continue to be ignored. Many of these stateside-based Puerto Rican groups have been hammering away at Donald Trump since Hurricanes Irma and María struck the island in 2017, due to the slow, insulting and botched federal response that followed. Yet after the historic protests that led to the resignation of the island’s governor last summer, some of these same organizations are wondering, why do Puerto Rico government officials continue giving excuses to the Trump Administration to keep mistreating Boricuas?
The answer is as elusive as ever.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico continues to face an economic and financial crisis that has been aggravated by the imposition of a Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB or la Junta) imposed by Congress under the PROMESA federal law in 2016, that has forced crippling austerity cuts that have further harmed the people. In addition, while the earthquake and hurricane victims continue to wait for relief, the Junta is insisting on using billions in available funds for the Commonwealth not to help the people, but instead to provide windfalls for Wall Street financiers.
It is high time for Congress to remove roadblocks for growth and provide tools for economic development in the island, instruct the Fiscal Control Board it created to allow Puerto Rico to use its own money to help the people —instead of wealthy bondholders— and let Puerto Ricans decide their own political future. Until then, the island will not be able to get back on its feet.
EDITOR’S NOTE UPDATE, January 25, 2020, 1:15 p.m. ET: In an interview with David Begnaud, the governor gave an answer about this issue and she said she is promising a change to how this money is being distributed and used, but she was unclear about specifics, just that she will bringing in a new team to solve this problem. She also said that the relationship Puerto Rico had previously had not been good but that is getting fixed. Vázquez took the time to thank President Trump and other Republicans for rebuilding the relationship with Puerto Rico.
Federico A. de Jesús is Senior Advisor for the Power 4 Puerto Rico coalition and was the Deputy Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA). He also served as spokesperson for Hispanic Media for Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and runs the DC-based consulting firm FDJ Solutions. Twitter: @fdejesusfebles.