Trump Threatens to Abandon Puerto Rico As Death Rate Escalates

Trump Threatens to Abandon Puerto Rico As Death Rate Escalates

As the post-hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico began escalating this week, Donald Trump just threatened to pull all FEMA relief efforts from the American territory. Couching his reasoning in the uninformed logic that the island owes money (and should therefore not receive the aid they’re entitled to as a part of the United States), Trump fired off three tweets threatening to abandon millions of Americans.

He said:

In reality, the financial crisis in Puerto Rico is indubitably not the island’s fault; it’s the fault of U.S. leadership dating back to our invasion and takeover of the island.

A History Lesson For Trump

Aside from the fact that the United States immediately devalued Puerto Rico’s currency (and simultaneously everyone’s income and savings) after we invaded and took over the island, U.S. leadership has repeatedly used the island more as a resource than a territory with people that enjoy the full rights and privileges of citizenship.

Business Insider touched on one of the more recent examples of how U.S. leadership essentially bankrupted the island:

Looking at the long-term history of Puerto Rico’s debt and what caused it reveals that the federal government in fact shoulders much of the blame for the crisis.

While Puerto Rican politicians took actions that exacerbated the island’s debt, they were operating within very small parameters set for them by Washington, having had little say on federal policies that have affected them ever since Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1898.

1976 tax break basically created a tax loophole by which US manufacturers could get away with paying almost no income taxes on the island. This led to a massive influx of businesses, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, to relocate to Puerto Rico and jumpstart its industrial economy.

The effort paid off, and Puerto Rico’s economy flourished. But it also contributed the federal government’s tax deficit in the 1980s and ’90s, leading Congress to repeal the 1976 tax break in 1996. By the time the law was totally phased out by 2006, nearly all the American businesses that flocked to the island had gone, and Puerto Rico’s economy had gone into freefall — 2005 was the last year the island experienced economic growth. And that was before the Great Recession, which decimated the economy further.

But it gets worse.

Because the 1976 tax plan was designed by the federal government to benefit large corporations, Puerto Rico’s economy became dependent on them, and once they left there was little indigenous entrepreneurship to replace these giants. To make matters worse, the industry Puerto Rico had initially excelled in, agriculture, is now also in tatters — Puerto Rico has to import 85% of its produce.

And what hinders and highly restricts the import of goods into Puerto Rico? That’s right: the Jones Act.

Business Insider added:

The Jones Act, which stipulates that a foreign cargo ship cannot off-load and on-loan goods in Puerto Rico before doing so on the US mainland first, has made headlines since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, with critics arguing that the protectionist law dating from 1920 was hindering the humanitarian response to the hurricane. Trump eventually waived the act for the purposes of relief efforts, but many have argued that the act has had detrimental effects on Puerto Rico’s economy even under normal circumstances. Studies conducted by the New York Federal Reserve Board have indicated that the Jones Act may be doing serious damage to Puerto Rico’s economy.

Even Trump has admitted that offering aid to an island – “an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water” – is difficult on its surface. Adding the complication of only being able to allow certain ships to dock there places a severe strain on the island’s fragile economic state on good days.

But that’s not all:

The federal government has also directly put up barriers to Puerto Rico’s debt recovery. When US bankruptcy laws were up for review in 1984, Sen. Strom Thurmond, the infamous southern segregationist, snuck in an amendment that barred Puerto Rico from being eligible for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, without giving any rationale for the move.

Perhaps the same reason Thurmond blocked Puerto Rico from accessing bankruptcy laws is the same as why Trump is treating the hurricane disaster there differently than he did in Florida and Texas.

Which is to say, skin color appears to play a large part in how Trump is treating the suffering people in Puerto Rico.

Compare the Responses

When hurricanes hit Florida and Texas, Trump sent out almost identical tweets offering comfort to the people in those states:


Compare that to Trump’s statements to press in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Puerto Rico.

“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” he said. “We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe,” Trump continued. “These are great people. We want them to be safe and sound and secure. And we will be there every day until that happens.”

His first concern was not the safety of its people or returning order to the island; rather, he seemed consumed with debt they have little to no control over.

He would later add – while visiting the island no less – that the humanitarian crisis there had “thrown our budget a little out of whack.”

With his tweets today further attacking the citizens there, Trump is setting the stage for a Katrina-level humanitarian disaster as a majority of the island still has no access to water, food and electricity (let alone medical supplies and infrastructure).

Dire Situation

As Trump mocked and derides Puerto Rico today, news continues emerging of the increasingly deadly humanitarian crisis there from potable drinking water to safe living conditions.

CNN noted today:

Hospitals throughout the cash-strapped island of 3.4 million people have been running low on medicine and fuel, and residents and local elected officials have said they expect the death toll to rise.

The water situation is so dire, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a news release Wednesday, that residents on the island have reportedly been trying to obtain water from Superfund sites — which are bodies of water contaminated by hazardous waste. The EPA advised against “tampering with sealed and locked wells or drinking from these wells, as it may be dangerous to people’s health.”

Rachel Maddow touched on this in an extended segment last night pointing out the choice people are being forced to make among dying from lack of water, getting sick and potentially dying from infection from drinking contaminated stream water, or taking a chance in breaking into and drinking the water at Superfund sites. This is the level of criticality on the ground as Trump literally belittles the citizens there.

“Which would you pick?” Maddow asked.

Vox added:

Our review of reports certainly suggests the real death toll is far higher than what the government has, thus far, estimated:

  • In our search of local and US news reports, we found 36 deaths attributed to the hurricane in addition to the official 43. We cross-checked news accounts with the official death reports to make sure they didn’t overlap.
  • NPR reported an additional 49 bodies with unidentified cause of death sent to a hospital morgue since the storm.
  • The Los Angeles Times reported 50 more deaths than normal in one region in the three days after the hurricane.
  • Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Reporting reported 69 hospital morgues are at “capacity.” Exact figure is unknown.
  • According to El Vocero newspaper, 350 bodies are being stored at the Institute of Forensic Sciences (equivalent to the state medical examiner’s office), many of which are still awaiting autopsies. In the report, Héctor Pesquera, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety, did not say how many, if any, of the cadavers were there before the storm. (On Sunday, Pesquera denied claims that there was a backlog of unexamined bodies.)

“I don’t think there will be hundreds of deaths, but we will see,” Pesquera told reporters on Sunday. “We can’t speculate if there will be 100 or 200.”

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remains life-threatening in some areas. And reporters and first responders are continuing to paint a much more aggressive picture about life and death on the island.

“It’s horrible, it’s horrible. It’s a nightmare,” a resident of the town of Atlaya told CBS on Tuesday. “There’s barely any drinking water, not even in supermarkets; my fear is for my kids,” another said.

But Trump is not only threatening to abandon those people, but is criticizing them for debt at a moment when they don’t have access to the necessities of life (let alone the luxury of thinking about money).

True Colors

In a series of tweets directed at Trump today, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “FEMA needs to stay until the job is done and right now, it’s not even close to done.” He added, “Why do you continue to treat Puerto Ricans differently than other Americans when it comes to natural disasters?”

The question of Trump’s lack of empathy toward Puerto Rican citizens (especially when contrasted against his response to predominantly white mainland hurricane victims) is important as it adds to the ongoing narrative about his ties to white supremacy and white nationalism. The same man who said there are “many fine people on both sides” when referring to neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the other torch-bearing protesters that murdered Heather Heyer is now the man treating darker-skinned hurricane survivors differently than their lighter-skinned counterparts in Texas and Florida.

He begrudgingly (and belatedly) waived the Jones Act to help relief – a waiver that’s already expired despite the need for a continuation. He didn’t think to summon the USNS Comfort until well into the crisis (notably after Hillary Clinton strongly urged it, acting as a stand-in Commander-in-Chief). Unlike the stranded survivors of hurricanes in Texas and Florida, Trump is treating U.S. citizens like residents of a foreign country in requiring them to sign notes promising to repay their transportation costs using the threat of holding their passports as collateral. This is not how we treat U.S. citizens.

To understand Trump’s complete lack of empathy and utter depravity in continuing to treat a subsection of U.S. citizens so horribly, you need only understand one thing:

While he complains about the ongoing cost of helping over three million citizens overcome a life-threatening disaster, Trump is more than willing to drop a quarter million dollars – on a whim – to send Vice President Mike Pence to a football game in order to protest black athletes kneeling during the national anthem.

Do you see a common theme in Trump’s motivations?

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Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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