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Death toll in Puerto Rico is just another political football

According to a recent Harvard University study published in the New England Journal of Medicine the estimated death toll caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was 4,645, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in United States history.

According to the study, the deaths recorded — between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, 2107 — were primarily caused by the “unsafe or unhealthy conditions resulting in injury, illness, or loss of necessary medical services” due to the interruption of medical care.

{mosads}The government of Puerto Rico had already commissioned George Washington University for a similar study in advance of Harvard’s finding, which is expected out soon.


The Harvard study contrasts with the low official death tolls provided by the government of Puerto Rico, which admittedly had difficulties in obtaining accurate information in the aftermath of the hurricane, and on occasion may have hindered it.

As to be expected, this study is now being used for political purposes, particularly to highlight the Trump’s administration alleged poor handling of the disaster relief. In this context, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz statements that the federal government “was killing us” resonated in certain sectors interested in embarrassing President Trump for his cavalier remarks on the damages suffered in Puerto Rico as compared to the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina.

In light of the findings, the San Juan mayor has positioned herself as some sort of tropical “Pasionaria” defending Puerto Rico from Washington’s colonial neglect, while promoting her political ambitions for the 2020 general election in Puerto Rico. Carmen Yulin Cruz is a well-known populist member of the Popular Democratic Party that favors a watered down version of independence for Puerto Rico in the form of an associated republic, with American citizenship of course.

Any discussion of the Harvard study and the estimated death toll in Puerto Rico needs to be mindful of the overlapping and at time conflicting interests involved. From the perspective of national politics, the Harvard study argues powerfully against the premature dismissal of Puerto Rico from the national discussion. In this regard, the study does justice to those that died during and in the aftermath of the hurricane, and to those of us that continue struggling in Puerto Rico to recover from the natural disaster and its continuing fiscal and economic crisis.

An essential component of this recovery process is working towards overcoming our political disenfranchisement. The study should not be read— as it is by a vocal minority still trapped in the pseudo-romantic rhetoric of national liberation— as a condemnation of American presence in Puerto Rico as an instance of colonialism.

Whether the federal government has been dragging its feet in aiding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is fundamentally a factual question that needs to be answered looking at the specific measures adopted by Congress and implemented by the Trump administration.

As in any event of this magnitude, mistakes are surely to have been committed both by the federal and territorial government. That does not necessarily mean however that they should be characterized as intentional or willfully negligent.

According to some estimates Puerto Rico thus far has received approximately $35 billion in diverse assignments for various purposes from Congress since Hurricane Maria. The short-term economic impact of these assignments will not be felt immediately, although all concerned recognize that without them the island’s recovery would not be possible.

Looking beyond these assignments it must be kept in mind that Puerto Rico is mired in a bankruptcy-like procedure in the Federal District Court under Title III of PROMESA, with an outstanding $74 billion public debt, teetering government pension plans, a collapsed and costly electrical grid infrastructure, dysfunctional government services, a decade long shrinking economy and a continuing population loss due to stateside migration. The damages and death toll caused by Hurricane Maria was the “coup de grace” to our misfortunes.

In the last few weeks the Financial Oversight Board charged with the responsibility of overseeing the government’s fiscal recovery has reached some tentative understandings regarding its annual budget, and which are now pending approval in the territorial Legislature. These understandings are an improvement from the earlier tense conversations that threatened what little political viability the government of Puerto Rico might have. Although disagreements persist, there seems to finally be a growing consensus among government officials that they need to address its fiscal mismanagement in collaboration with the Financial Oversight Board.

In Puerto Rico, the Harvard study is viewed by the political opposition to the current pro-statehood administration as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon it with for its lack of transparency and competency. In the world of practical politics this is perfectly understandable.

What is missing from this criticism though, is the acknowledgement that the thousands of people who died did not have political representation in Congress to defend their interest in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. Had it been otherwise, things might have turned out differently.

Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, where he teaches contracts and property courses. He is also an occasional columnist on legal and political issues at the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico.

Tags Andrés L. Córdova Donald Trump Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico

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