Trump’s Malign Neglect of Puerto Rico

The mainland usually ignores the U.S.-controlled island, but the president shows active hostility in its time of need.

A collapsed house is seen after an earthquake hit the island in Guanica, Puerto Rico, on January 7, 2020.
Ricardo Arduengo / AFP / Getty

SAN JUAN—Weeks into an ominous pattern of earthquakes, Puerto Rico is still shaking violently. On December 28, what might have been an ordinary holiday week was suddenly interrupted by a mild tremor whose intensity registered at 3.8 on the Richter scale. Mild in itself, it began what geologists call an “earthquake swarm” of more than 1,000 tremors to date. The worst was a 6.4 temblor on January 7 that left one person dead and seriously damaged the Costa Sur power plant, which generates 25 percent of the island’s electricity. Millions were left without power and running water for days, while the electric grid, still recovering from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, struggled to keep up with demand. As I was writing this article from the island’s capital, my electrical and internet service shut down for hours.

Regrettably, this episode is far from over. Experts are predicting more seismic activity in the weeks and months ahead. Many islanders, including me, are nervously watching the U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake website—which chronicled nine aftershocks just from midnight to 5 p.m. yesterday. Like the hurricanes that took 3,000 lives and caused more than $100 billion in damage—and like the political turmoil last year that forced then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign—the earthquake swarm has prompted a flurry of news coverage on the mainland. Inevitably, though, the interest will fade, and the island will be left invisible once again.

Now, however, Puerto Rico faces not just the accumulated physical and civic damage caused by multiple crises, or the usual indifference from Washington. The island must also contend with the personal animosity of President Donald Trump, who has dismissed Puerto Rico as “one of the most corrupt places on earth.” Of the $43 billion allocated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for recovery, only $14 billion had been disbursed by the second anniversary of the hurricanes, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism. Yesterday, the Trump administration imposed stringent new conditions on the release of congressionally authorized aid, including a prohibition on using money to repair Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.

But the slow pace of promised aid has hampered the island’s ability to rebuild from past disasters, much less prepare for future ones.

Puerto Ricans, who are profoundly exposed to hurricanes, have always known that a major earthquake was a possibility too, because the island sits right where the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates meet, but islanders hadn’t experienced a major earthquake in more than a century. The last one took place the morning of October 11, 1918. It and the tsunami that followed left 116 people dead. The absence of significant seismic activity for more than 100 years created an experience vacuum; no one now alive had coped firsthand with such incidents, and building practices had never been seriously tested.

That is not to say that everyone has been silent about the risk of earthquakes. The geomorphologist José Molinelli, an expert on seismic events and a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, had warned the government and the public for decades on the need to update building codes and survival plans. Few people, however, heeded his advice.

The quakes are a human tragedy of great proportions that compounds Puerto Rico’s already dire situation.

Meanwhile, the Fiscal Management and Control Board, imposed by Congress in 2016 to address the island’s financial insolvency, continues to cut pensions and impose austerity measures, because of the diminished fiscal capacity of the Puerto Rican government. Last week, the board agreed to release $260 million to the government for the earthquake recovery effort, a negligible amount considering the complexity of the situation. Guánica, Guayanilla, Yauco, and Ponce are the towns on the south coast most affected by the tremors, with multiple structures permanently damaged, including a Catholic church in Guayanilla and a public school in Guánica that crumbled to the ground. In many areas, roads are closed, and access to basic services is limited. As the ground continues to rumble, residents are sleeping outdoors out of fear and only a few are willing to relocate, complicating the recovery effort.

While Trump seems to view federal aid as a giveaway to people who do not deserve it, islanders have every reason to believe they are being punished by the federal government. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, and its residents are U.S. citizens. But they do not enjoy the full protections of the law, because of a series of landmark cases decided by the Supreme Court in the early 20th century. The so-called Insular Cases doctrine asserts that, when the United States invaded the island in 1898, the Constitution did not follow the American flag everywhere—a formulation that allows Congress to impose any number of limitations on the inhabitants.

Ethnic bigotry was the real motivation for this doctrine. The new colonial subjects were deemed inferior and not worthy of enjoying full citizenship. As a result, Puerto Ricans on the island don’t pay federal income tax, but also lack congressional representation and cannot vote in presidential elections, among other indignities. They can vote, however, if they move permanently to any of the 50 states. As a result, 1 million Puerto Ricans now live in Florida, where they could play an outsize role in deciding future national elections. The 2020 election will provide an opportunity for the Puerto Ricans on the mainland to flex their political muscles. But to rely so completely on the support of those who leave to start a new life somewhere else is a bitter fate for any community.

Like the building codes whose shortcomings, for decades before the recent earthquakes, seemed more theoretical than urgent, Puerto Rico’s limited political representation within the United States seemed tolerable until it suddenly wasn’t. The current situation is dire, and the prospects for recovery in the short term remain poor. The island’s government lacks the resources to provide an adequate response, and is dependent on the management board to authorize its every move.

As the nation obsesses over a potential war with Iran, Trump’s impeachment, and the upcoming primary season, Puerto Rico continues to linger in the background—as a modestly publicized problem with little prospect of receiving the attention it badly needs. During the Democratic debate Tuesday night, none of the candidates mentioned Puerto Rico. Previously, some presidential candidates and mainland elected officials have expressed concern. But as long as the occupant of the White House treats an American island with malign neglect, the human tragedy will continue.