Criticizing Trump’s ‘unsung success’ in Puerto Rico is valid — empty rhetoric is not

Criticizing Trump’s ‘unsung success’ in Puerto Rico is valid — empty rhetoric is not
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE’s latest tweets denying Puerto Rico’s approximate 3,000 death toll as a consequence of Hurricane Maria, and his self-serving claim that his administration’s handling of its aftermath was an “unsung success,” has provoked general condemnation for his lack of empathy to the suffering of many, and for his political opportunism in the face of then incoming Hurricane Florence. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has avoided criticizing the Trump administration in the past, has had to come out and reaffirm his support of the death toll cited in a George Washington University report, which he commissioned.

The report is being read — unfortunately — as if it imposed some sort of political responsibility for the deaths on federal and territorial government, instead of as a scientific study describing the serious problems faced in the aftermath of the hurricane for purposes of correcting and avoiding in the future whatever errors might have been committed.


Even San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz could not resist the temptation to engage in a Twitter exchange with Trump, calling into question his lack of respect for the dignity of the people of Puerto Rico. Generic claims of dignity, unaccompanied by specific concrete measures, do not address our challenges moving forward.

As a matter of fact, in a op-ed for the Puerto Rico newspaper El Nuevo Día, the mayor paraded her populist sentiments, emotionally calling on all loyal Puerto Ricans to stand up (for what and against whom, was ambiguously left up in the air). It is well known that she favors independence for Puerto Rico under the guise of an Associated Republic. Trump’s tweets were the perfect opportunity to put herself on display and present herself as the defender of the down-trodden in her version of a passion play. Cruz has much in common with Trump in her use and abuse of stereotypes and generalities to promote skewed narratives.

This back and forth on Hurricane Marias’ death toll needs to be understood within a broader context. The president’s self-aggrandizing tweets on Puerto Rico are ideal fodder for political jockeying in Washington.

As seen and heard from Puerto Rico, it is interesting to note the array of comments and reactions of politicians, political analysts and opinion makers of all political persuasions. On the one hand, one hears the criticism of the snail pace of Puerto Rico’s recuperation due to a combination of red tape and mismanagement by federal and territorial authorities.

A prime example of governmental mismanagement involved misplaced bottled water crates at an airfield at the old Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Ceiba. It is hard to argue against this failure. This criticism, albeit fair, clearly aims to undermine Trump’s administration within the larger political contest of the midterm elections.

On the other hand, administration supporters argue that given the extent of the damages caused by the hurricane across the island, particularly to its electrical grid, and the logistical difficulties due to its geographical location, it is understandable that there would be problems in getting the necessary help in a timely manner. Even Trump offered this argument, although in a rather stilted manner. Although there is some truth to this, it does confuse an explanation with a justification.  

With notable exceptions — former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) comes to mind — most media commentators finally acknowledge as a matter of course that Puerto Ricans are American citizens and deserve the full assistance of their government, particularly after suffering such a devastating event. This is a welcome development in the recent public debate about Puerto Rico.

One hundred and twenty years after the Spanish-American war, it is finally being understood that Puerto Rico does not only belong to, but is a part of the United States and should be treated as such. Precisely, what is profoundly offensive of Trump’s tweets is their callous attitude towards the loss and suffering of his fellow citizens. One would have expected more from the Office of the President, regardless of political differences.

Notwithstanding, the silences concerning Puerto Rico’s political status are still noticeable. Few are willing to publicly admit that the root cause of its uneven treatment by the federal government has much to do with the fact that Puerto Rico does not have voting representation in Congress, and that it is subject to its plenary powers.

Contrary to North and South Carolina, for example, which have their congressmen and senators to hold the federal government to account in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Puerto Rico’s non-voting resident commissioner has to measure her words and actions so as not to generate unnecessary ill will towards the territory. Perhaps Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Shanahan drama shocks Capitol Hill, leaving Pentagon rudderless Shanahan drama shocks Capitol Hill, leaving Pentagon rudderless MORE (R-S.C.), for example, would like to trade places for a few days with Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón as an experiment in the importance of perspective. Representation as sufferance is not representation.

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.