Hurricane Maria highlights the peril of Puerto Rico’s colonial status

With each day, we gain a clearer picture of the devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria.

Officials describe the situation as “apocalyptic,” noting the disaster has set the island back “20-30 years.” Harrowing tales of survival are also emerging: of hospitals without power, 8-hour lines at gas pumps, cell communication destroyed, and rural areas still cut off from the rest of the island. Residents are likely to go without power for several months, after crippling blows to the state-owned electric utility, PREPA. Meanwhile, a lethal combination of infected floodwaters and shortages of potable water are creating an urgent public health crisis. The mayor of San Juan describes scenes of “horror” playing out across the capital, amid looting and mandatory curfews.

ADVERTISEMENT
In this environment, the federal government’s response has been woefully inadequate. Imagine, for a moment, if the same crisis were unfolding in Connecticut. As the journalist Carl Cannon pointed out in a weekend column, Connecticut and Puerto Rico have virtually the same landmass and population size, of approximately 3.5 million Americans each. What kind of a response do you think we would see if all of Connecticut were without power and water? The relief effort would likely be of a size and strength unprecedented in the nation’s history.

Why should Puerto Rico get any less? As many have observed, Puerto Ricans are American citizens too. One wishes that were enough to motivate greater federal action. It certainly should be.

Unfortunately, however, politicians do not always respond to moral suasion. If you want to achieve significant political results, you need a lot more than good arguments on your side. What you need are incentives. It is a cynical but essential truth that politicians are not altruistic do-gooders; rather, they behave predictably in ways that are likely to increase their own power and chances at re-election.  

When democracy works, it does so by aligning politicians’ own interests with the greater good. If our elected leaders fail to deliver the results we expect, we can always “throw the bums out,” as they say. In the American system, the true sovereign is always “we the people.”

The same cannot be said of Puerto Rico.

In fact, as recently as 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the true “sovereign” of Puerto Rico is the U.S. Congress. A Congress in which Puerto Rico still, in 2017, does not have a voting representative. At the level of the presidency, Puerto Rico is similarly disenfranchised. Lacking any electoral votes, Puerto Rico has no way to register its displeasure with any president who ignores the island’s needs. That is why Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE is but the latest of a long line of politicians who have given the island short shrift.

Take healthcare: Puerto Rico receives less funding for Medicare and Medicaid from the federal government than any state, despite paying the same rate of Medicare tax. In cold terms, there is little political cost in Washington of neglecting Puerto Rico. Politicians there have little to gain by allocating funds to an island territory that has no influence over their re-election.

After days of mounting pressure on the White House to do more, President Trump has finally begun to take some positive steps.  Yesterday he ordered FEMA to bear more of the cost of clean-up, and today he ordered that additional military assets be deployed to Puerto Rico to assist with relief efforts.  This morning, his administration also suspended the Jones Act for Puerto Rico.  By allowing non-US flag boats to deliver goods to the island, this order will likely reduce the costs of goods and supplies in Puerto Rico.  For desperate Puerto Ricans living on the island, each of these orders comes better late than never.

Once the short term crises are stabilized, Puerto Rico will begin to confront the long-term challenge of rebuilding. Tens of billions of dollars will be required.  And yet, in Washington, D.C., there is still no sign of any political will to discuss a long-term aid package. This, quite simply, is a travesty. But it is entirely predictable, and consistent with historical reality.

In our American system, the principal way that disaster zones secure relief is via their elected officials. Donald Trump and Senators Cruz and Rubio know that if they do not do an adequate job rebuilding Texas and Florida, their time in office will be short.

Deprived of these basic electoral checks and balances, Puerto Rico lies at the mercy of an unaccountable federal government. This needs to change. As Hurricane Maria makes painfully clear, the costs of maintaining Puerto Rico’s unequal status are simply too great to bear — for them or for us.

Evan Berquist is a business attorney at Cozen O’Connor. From 2011-2013 he lived in Puerto Rico, where he clerked for a U.S. federal judge.