It’s been nearly a year since Hurricane Maria wrecked its havoc across the Atlantic. The destruction which was left in its wake makes Maria one of the worst natural disasters to affect Puerto Rico in recorded history. Sadly, despite being a territory of the United States since 1898, the people of Puerto Rico have been treated badly, with little to no concern about their wellbeing. Alexia Fernández Campbell, writing for Vox, indicated that Puerto Rico’s lack of political power could be used to explain why President Trump and the United States government gave only a pittance of aid to the people of Puerto Rico; but underneath this lay a racism which has helped keep Puerto Rico treated as second-class citizens of the United States:
That a sitting US president would expect no political consequences from showing zero empathy toward the deaths of so many American citizens crystallizes the fact that Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory is more than a civil rights issue — it’s a human rights issue.
More than 3 million US citizens live in Puerto Rico with fewer constitutional rights than anyone living in one of the 50 states. Americans on the island can’t vote for president in the general election or elect a voting member of Congress. But the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria has shown that the problem is even uglier than that: Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory, which is rooted in racist legal rulings, has created a class of citizens whose lives are valued less, and whose deaths can be ignored by America’s most powerful leaders.
This is unacceptable. The people of Puerto Rico are American citizens; not only do we have a responsibility to them, because the people of Puerto Rico lack political independence, we have a greater responsibility for them. The less authority they have, the greater expectation is placed upon the federal government to aid them. There is some level of self-government within the territory, but that authority is limited thanks to its status as a territory. Mismanagement comes out of such an imbalance of power. Corruption, both from within Puerto Rico and without, works within that imbalance, for so long as it is maintained, those with no scruples will be able to use it to their own private advantage.
Hurricane Maria can be seen as the final straw. Puerto Rico has been in crisis for a long time; the people have been pushed into poverty, and now, with lack of proper aid from the United States, the future of the territory is in question, as Ralph Negron explained:
Puerto Rico has been in crisis for many years, but Hurricane Maria delivered a knockout punch requiring billions of dollars to reconstruct homes and infrastructure. Today, the unemployment numbers in Puerto Rico are staggering and the mass exodus of young, talented Puerto Ricans in search of opportunities elsewhere does not bode well for a prosperous future. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 43.5 percent of the island’s residents are living below the poverty threshold. Puerto Rico requires a massive infusion of cash and new ideas that will make it a viable American community.
It should not be surprising that with the lack of economic aid and poor planning from FEMA, thousands of innocent people have needlessly died in Puerto Rico after Maria. While there has been an occasional story indicating the continuing plight of the Puerto Ricans, in general, it is a story which keeps being put to the side. It shows how easy it is for the people of the United States to show little to no concern for its own citizens so long as those citizens are somewhere far from the center of our attention. It should be understood that we have a great a scandal before us when the President of the United States is able to use such ignorance so that he can then focus on people he cares about instead of justly working for the benefit of the whole nation. Branko Marcetic is right in his indication that if Trump showed no such concern for the people of Florida or Texas, the reaction would be different:
But it’s impossible to survey the events of the past year in Puerto Rico, particularly in comparison with the relatively successful relief efforts in Texas and Florida shortly before, and not come away with the conclusion that the severity of the hurricane and the number of dead were both made worse by the incompetent government response to it. That’s not to mention the way Trump’s heartless statements about Puerto Rico and its people have served as a kick to the gut.
In any other administration, the death of thousands of Americans and subsequent neglect of millions more through a policy often resembling willful government incompetence would be a defining, career-ending scandal.
The people of Puerto Rico deserve better. The people of the United States deserve better. The two, of course, are one and the same. What Trump is able to get away with in Puerto Rico should scare everyone. It indicates Trump’s lack of care for the American people. He is not interested in the wellbeing of the nation, nor in using his office for which it was meant for, the execution of justice wherever it is needed. Justice demands the United States aids Puerto Rico, not only for what has happened due to Maria, but for what has happened to the people for over a hundred years by being used and exploited by the federal government without giving them a say in that government themselves.
“Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely” (Prov. 28:5 RSV). We know the character of our leaders by the actions, or inactions, they take. Those who seek justice are better than those who do not; those who execute it properly, with wisdom and understanding, are better than those who stumble around foolishly seeking justice without knowing what it entails. Those who do not understand the expectations of office, but seek it only for the sake of power and personal glory, show their true colors when faced with difficult challenges like Maria. We should expect better of the government of the United States, and with it, its president. We should demand better, and when we do not get it, we should work to remove such evil men from the power they possess.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 RSV). We must clean up our nation from the moral filth which now runs it. The words of Isaiah are very apt here: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is. 1:17 RSV). We must correct oppression. The fate of countless innocents depends upon it. We must do what we can to make sure the people of Puerto Rico receive they aid they need, without restrictions, without usurious loans. We must, likewise, recognize it is time to give Puerto Rico full authority. It is time to make it a state, so that then the federal government will no longer look them over and ignore them but realize they play a key role in the shaping of our nation.
[IMG=CBP Conducts Search and Rescue in Mountains of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria By U.S. Customs and Border Protection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
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