U.S. Continues to Neglect Puerto Rico

During a recent news conference in San Juan with Puerto Rico officials and the Trump Administration, President Trump said, “I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.” His response to the effects of Hurricane Maria on the American territory was an effective representation of the U.S. government’s lackluster attempts to rebuild  the storm-ravaged territory. At risk of throwing the budget a little more “out of whack,” the citizens of Puerto Rico have endured abysmal circumstances lasting six weeks with limited aid. On the mainland, such a delayed response to a natural disaster would be deemed a form of environmental injustice.

At the onset of the storm in late September, Puerto Rican citizens lost electrical power, cellular service, and water as a result of  significantly damaged power grids. Currently, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is generating 37 percent of its standard output leaving the island’s 3.4 million citizens without electric power. In an attempt to swiftly repair power grids, PERPA contracted Whitefish Energy, a Montana-based energy company, to rebuild power grids after administratively appointed Army Corps engineers lacked a “sense of urgency” in assembling a team. In the days following the merger, the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello was advised by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Authority) and Members of Congress to cancel the 300 million dollar contract. FEMA protested the contract had “significant concerns” noting that the company’s chief executive, Andy Techmanski, came from the same Montana town as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Accusations of wrongdoings were denied by both Techmanski and Zinke. In comparison to the seemingly unmotivated attempts of US powers in rectifying Puerto Rico’s main systems, the mainland American powers took on an unusually rapid interest in criticizing the executive decision of the Puerto Rican government.

The lack of equity in decision-making and exertion of power by American forces reintroduced the ongoing question of whether Puerto Rico should receive statehood. With a debt to private creditors of $74 billion, the American territory is under significant economic strains. In March 2017, the U.S. government vetoed Puerto Rico’s request to file for bankruptcy. As a result, the fiscal control board reduced healthcare spending and made significant cuts to pension payments and education funding, including closing 179 schools, in order to repay creditors. Unfortunately privatised funding is not unfamiliar for the Puerto Rican government, as it has previously borrowed from external endowments for road maintenance and healthcare costs. As a territory, Puerto Rico would be unable to afford the estimated $1 billion electric power grid repair without significant outside financial assistance; thus, Puerto Rican citizens will continue to lose public funding to finance hurricane repairs. Statehood would allow the Puerto Rico to declare  bankruptcy and gain further protections from the U.S. government.

From the U.S. mainland, however, the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico is being treated as a mere inconvenience. Mainland hospital administrations were concerned by the product reduction of the highly regarded medical commodity, the Mini Bag, a small fluid bag used to dilute drugs slowly into the veins. Mini Bag production, along with 30 other medical drug productions which occur in Puerto Rico, has significantly decreased as a result of Hurricane Maria. As many factories are working under 50 percent capacity due to the lack of power, the F.D.A has created two solutions: supplying factories with generators and resources to continue production or diverting the importation of medical supplies to Ireland and Australia. Both attempts have proved counterproductive in supporting Puerto Rican citizens. While American mainland hospitals are agitated with the reduction of the Mini Bag, many Puerto Rican hospitals have yet to recover from the storm’s effects. Hospitals are not performing at their fullest capacities because there are limited diesel generators; instead, factories producing American products are consistently supplied with imported diesel generators provided by American agencies.

Diverting productions to other countries has left hundreds of workers without an income in the aftermath of the storm. Jeff Rosner, a supervisor of pharmacy contracting and purchasing in a Cleveland clinic, said: “I am fearful that this is not the end of the shortage—it may only be the beginning.” Thus job loss in Puerto Rico—where the current unemployment rate of 11% unemployment is 2 ½ times greater than that on the U.S. mainland—could continue to grow. Job loss is not restricted to medical factory employees. Around the territory, the effects of Hurricane Maria are being felt in nearly every facet of life. Because students cannot make it to school, for example, teachers are unable to teach. On plantations, workers are unable to work because farmland has been ravaged by the storm.  

The lack of urgency in the performance of US forces acknowledges the hierarchical value system in American politics. Aid arrived in Texas and Florida with more efficiency than in Puerto Rico, as Texas received aid before Hurricane Harvey hit, and Florida got help four days after Hurricane Irma. In Puerto Rico, aid arrived 2 weeks after Maria. In the interest of maintaining positive relations with voting states, distributing aid to represented states proved beneficial to the current political administration. As Puerto Rican citizens do not contribute in American electoral voting, standing benefits for distributing swift and sufficient aid are less directly apparent, making Puerto Rico a lower priority than mainland states. Instead Puerto Rico is marginalized, excluded from the English-speaking eurocentric ideals of the common American and oppressed under the colonizing restraints of US powers. These restraints work to limit educational fundings and increase poverty rates. Moreover, the high industrial lifestyle of the U.S. accounts for ¼ of greenhouses gases emitted in the Earth’s atmosphere. From 1980-2012, temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean have doubled and, as result, hurricanes have become more violent and intense. U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases largely affect small islands and territories unable to carry out rapid restructuring after storms. But  the Trump Administration has taken a clear stance on  climate change, so it seems there is no need to throw any more legitimate situations “out of whack.”