Puerto Rico: Will Maria make island more of an American priority?

The Caribbean island territory had become nearly invisible in the US political picture. But some say the long road to recovery after Maria could provide the opportunity to build a better relationship with Washington, and a better Puerto Rico.

Carlos Giusti/AP
National Guardsmen arrive at Barrio Obrero in Santurce to distribute water and food among those affected by the passage of hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 24. Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in the US Congress said Sunday that the storm’s destruction has set the island back decades, even as authorities worked to assess the extent of the damage.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrived in a Maria-devastated Puerto Rico Friday, he brought with him a half-dozen electrical generators – coveted assistance for an island that officials estimate could be without power for months.

Yet as appreciated as Mr. Cuomo’s material aid was, his visit underscored the Caribbean island’s precarious status as a United States territory – whose 3.4 million residents are American citizens – yet one with very little clout in Washington.

If New York’s governor saw fit to demonstrate solidarity with Puerto Rico, it is because of the sizable and well-established Puerto Rican population in New York – one that continues to grow as young people with US passports abandon the poverty-stricken and financially strapped island.

But Cuomo’s visit was also a reminder of how nearly invisible Puerto Rico has become in the American political picture, with neither the heft of states like Texas and Florida – also ravaged by storms this hurricane season – nor the room to maneuver of an independent country. Nor does it enjoy the same level of grass-roots support that Americans show states, since, according to a recent poll, nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens.

Yet if there is any silver lining at all to the clouds left hovering over Puerto Rico by hurricane Maria, it might be that a Caribbean jewel held in American hands for a century could now in the wake of such devastation be treated as more than an afterthought, some experts in the island say.

“The status question has long been the albatross around Puerto Rico’s neck, as it has had neither the political power of a state nor the advantages of an independent country,” says Dante Disparte, chairman of the American Security Project’s Business Council for American Security in Washington.

“But it’s at times like these that being a commonwealth of the US can make a tremendous difference and present major advantages,” adds Mr. Disparte, who is Puerto Rican. “Imagine if this had been in Haiti. The loss of life would have been far greater and the assistance resulting from our relationship with the US would not have been forthcoming,” he says.

Beyond that, others hold out hope that an island long held back by outdated and crumbling infrastructure – and by bankruptcy proceedings initiated this year and earlier financial restructuring efforts that imposed strict austerity measures and put off most plans for updating – might seize the opportunity of Maria’s blank slate to rebuild a better Puerto Rico.

“Things are pretty terrible right now, but already there is a sense that this disaster can be a chance for Puerto Rico and the US mainland to work together to change the island for the better,” says Ricardo Barrios, an associate of the Latin America and the World program at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

With Puerto Rico’s bankrupt and antiquated public utility knocked out by Maria, “a debate is already popping up about modernizing energy infrastructure and enhancing energy security by turning to renewables like solar energy and away from a system that requires us to import” fossil fuels, says Mr. Barrios.

What Disparte calls Puerto Rico’s state of political and financial “limbo” was on full display after Maria left the island without power, with dwindling supplies of food and water, and with a ruined agricultural sector.

President Trump declared Puerto Rico to be in a state of emergency Sept. 18, paving the way for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief.

But then Puerto Rico seemed to disappear from the nation’s consciousness.

“Perhaps there was a little too much debating who was taking a knee at sports events rather than who was drowning in a devastating storm’s aftermath on a Caribbean island that is a US territory,” says Disparte, echoing a criticism that grew among Puerto Ricans over the weekend.

By Monday it seemed federal officials had got the message. FEMA Director Brock Long visited the island, assuring Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that federal assistance was ramping up and would not wane. Mr. Rosselló had reminded Congress in a message that as American citizens, Puerto Ricans have the same right to federal disaster assistance as the people of Texas and Florida.

House Speaker Paul Ryan reassured Puerto Rico while in Florida Monday that a package of federal aid would be forthcoming, and on Tuesday used a press conference to underscore mainland solidarity with the island territory.

“This is our country and these are our fellow citizens,” Mr. Ryan said. “They need our help and they’re going to get our help.”

Also Monday, the fundraising effort launched by the five living former US presidents in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma was extended to cover Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

On Tuesday the White House announced that Mr. Trump will visit Puerto Rico next week to survey federal recovery efforts. The announcement followed the president’s tweets Monday in which he emphasized that the island’s dire financial straits and crumbling infrastructure are impeding efforts to move forward.

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which has already suffered from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” Trump tweeted. A plan approved last year to deal with the island’s $73 billion debt and overseen by a new financial control board required a raft of new austerity measures on top of ones in place for a decade.

Puerto Rico’s bankrupt state and lackluster economy seem certain to figure prominently in efforts to address the disaster left in Maria’s wake. Critics are already cautioning Congress not to let its sympathies prompt a bail-out from the island’s manmade financial disaster – years of deficit spending contributed to its indebtedness – while others see this as a moment to free Puerto Rico from old regulations and practices holding it back.

“For this to be an opportunity requires two things: When cleaning up the debris of this natural calamity we also need to clear the debris of policies that have been holding back the island for decades,” Disparte says. “And we need to see that a much stronger and more diversified economy can emerge.”

One frequent target of Puerto Rico experts is the Jones Act, a 1920s relic that requires that goods imported to the island arrive on US-flagged ships. Another criticism zeroes in on a tax code that experts say contributed to the island’s de-industrialization – the departure of a once-thriving pharmaceutical sector, for example – and impoverishment. A decade ago, Congress did away with the island's tax-haven status for industries like pharmaceuticals.

No one discounts the importance of first addressing Puerto Rico’s human desperation. “What worries me is that an acute humanitarian crisis like this can quickly devolve into an unraveling of social order and security,” Disparte says.

But island advocates also hold out hope that the ravages of Maria will prompt the hard thinking and long-term planning they say will determine whether or not Puerto Rico succeeds at renewal.

“We’re seeing the first signs of soul-searching, but it will take much more than that to turn this disaster into something good,” Barrios says. “Unless we can move from debate to concrete actions,” he adds, “it’s going to be just another natural disaster we failed to learned lessons from.”

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