Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, was the third major storm to hit the U.S. in a month. It followed fast in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, which concentrated their damage on Florida and Texas. Their quick succession highlighted the vast differences between Washington’s response to a disaster that hit the commonwealth, and catastrophes to hit states in the mainland.
In the dramatic days that followed Maria’s landfall on the island on Sept. 20, the federal government was slow to send necessary aid and authorize emergency declarations even as nearly all Puerto Ricans struggled without power, food, gas, running water, and other vital infrastructure. Humanitarian relief organization Oxfam, which almost never directs its efforts to rich countries like the U.S., is now preparing to assist Puerto Rico.
When President Donald Trump visited the island 13 days after the hurricane, amid mounting criticism over federal handling of the situation, he downplayed the seriousness of the emergency by saying that Maria was not “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because there had been only 16 certified deaths versus the thousands in New Orleans. He also made a flippant comment about the storm’s cost: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
This angered many Puerto Ricans on the island and elsewhere – some of whom still had not reached family members to make sure they were safe.
“It’s a complete distortion of reality and the way reality has been handled,” said Jossianna Arroyo-Martínez, a Caribbean expert at the University of Texas who herself is Puerto Rican, in response to Trump’s comments.
This contrasted with the national response to Texas and Florida, where tens of thousands of Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel and National Guard troops were positioned before the storm hit. Public opinion polls pointed at one of the reasons for this disparity: Almost half of mainland U.S. residents don’t know that Puerto Ricans are their fellow citizens. Once they learn that fact, they’re more likely to support hurricane relief.
Taken together, these responses made for a startling case study of the dangerous ambiguity wrought by Puerto Rico’s neither-here-nor-there political status, and the very real consequences it has for Puerto Rico and its residents. The response has also reignited a debate about Puerto Rico’s political calculation: to remain a commonwealth, to push for statehood, or to seek independence.
Trump inadvertently fed this divide when he publicly thanked Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Resident Commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez-Colón, who are members of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, but snubbed San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, who has been a strident critic of Trump.
With weak leadership in San Juan and a legislature hostile to statehood in Washington, there are few avenues for a change to the status quo. Nevertheless, that political division came into sharper relief in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico was already reeling from a long-simmering debt crisis when the storm hit. Now the dueling political parties are taking opposite tacks – one conciliatory, one critical – in their relationship to Washington.
These contrasting views overlay deeper problems in the Puerto Rican body politic, according to Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a research associate at the Hunter College Center for Puerto Rican Studies. The island’s political system was in crisis even before the hurricane, he said.
“The pro-commonwealth party is ideologically bankrupt and does not have an economic or political plan,” he said. “However, the pro-statehood party does not have an economic plan beyond joining the union in parity with the other states.”
There is a third political option for Puerto Rico: independence. However, it appears unlikely that most Puerto Ricans support going it alone. In June, a non-binding plebiscite with historically low turnout showed 97 percent chose statehood. Despite the flaws in that voting process, Vargas-Ramos is confident that “the majority of voters want to retain a relationship with the U.S.”
Instead of instigating independence, the botched hurricane relief is even convincing die-hard independentistas like author José Rivera to consider adopting the statehood cause, consider that voting representation in the U.S. Congress and a say in choosing the president could have galvanized a quicker response to Puerto Rico’s mounting humanitarian crisis.
Big changes aside, could Hurricane Maria lead to tweaks to the current mainland-island relationship? For one, Arroyo-Martínez hopes for a permanent rather than temporary lifting of the Jones Act, which requires all maritime commerce with Puerto Rico to be routed on expensive U.S. cargo ships and limits trade with the rest of the Caribbean. She also would like to see debt relief as part of the island’s eventual reconstruction package from Congress. In an interview with Fox News after his visit, Trump said that Wall Street should wipe out the island’s $72 billion debt: “You’re going to say goodbye to that,” he said.
Over 300 Puerto Rican intellectuals made those concrete demands as well as a philosophical denunciation of Puerto Rico’s second-class colonial status in “The Cruelest Storm: A Statement for Puerto Rico,” published on September 30.
But more substantive changes to what it means to be a commonwealth may run afoul of constitutional restrictions, Vargas-Ramos warned.
“The constitution contemplates a territorial relationship, independence, or statehood,” he said. “What nature will that territorial relationship take and how far will it go? That is to be determined by jurists and constitutional scholars.”
As a result of the combination of constitutional complications, congressional gridlock, and the conservative political establishment currently in power, Vargas-Ramos is a resigned realist who sees nothing changing as a result of Maria.
“When things are murky, Congress is loath to act,” he said. “It will just put off a decision for further down the road. I don’t see major forces operating to change the status of Puerto Rico in short term.”
The intractable nature of big-picture politics, meanwhile, contrasts with the urgency of the situation on the ground. Communities, especially smaller towns in more isolated, mountainous parts of the island, have been forced to rely on their own resources to clear debris.
“This has been a big wake-up call for citizens of Puerto Rico,” Arroyo-Martínez said, referring to the realization on many parts of the island that they can’t wait on their elected leaders, and must self-organize. “You have to take leadership and take things into your own hands.”
Scruggs is a freelance journalist who writes about cities and culture in the Americas