Shaken out of its torpor at last, the Trump administration is finally getting serious about mobilizing relief to Puerto Rico by appointing a high-ranking military official to oversee Defense Department operations. May three-star Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan get all the money, manpower and good luck needed to tackle the catastrophe engulfing the island.
But the real power to fix things lies in the Oval Office, where only President Donald Trump has the power to take on some of the most pressing tasks.
Activating the bully pulpit of the White House — not to mention the social media that connect him with tens of millions of people — Trump should be issuing daily reminders that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. A recent poll suggests that nearly half of all Americans don’t realize that the islanders facing starvation, disease and worse are their fellow citizens.
That ignorance has consequences: The same poll found that people who don’t understand the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans are less likely to approve of the idea of providing aid to the island.
So one low-cost way Trump could boost congressional aid to the island is to stress, early and often, that the national government is responding to the plight of 3.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico — just as he would if most of Iowa (population 3.1 million) had no electricity or phone service and more than 1 million people without access to fresh water.
And it’s important that Trump avoid resorting to inane, self-congratulatory political happy talk at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are grappling with death, thirst, sickness and more. On CNN’s “New Day” on Friday, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz properly rebuked acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke for calling the government’s “a good news story.” This is a “people are dying story,” Cruz said.
“When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story,” Cruz said. “When you have to pull people down from buildings — I’m sorry, that really upsets me and frustrates me.”
Trump and his aides should recognize that no amount of relief, however speedily delivered, will seem acceptable to people who have gone a week without power, fresh water or adequate medical care.
Beyond consoling victims and educating the public, Trump should convene a high-level discussion about the economic future of Puerto Rico, which was in dire straits even before the hurricane hit.
The crushing multibillion-dollar debt owed by the island government and quasi-public agencies such as the electric company will likely never be repaid in full. The average pre-hurricane income of Puerto Ricans was only about $15,000 — less than half that of Mississippi, the poorest US state.
After the hurricane, employment and income prospects will be even bleaker, not least because a wave of middle-class families have been fleeing the island for years. The post-hurricane exodus will likely accelerate.
But Trump and Congress could turn things around. “In every crisis is opportunity,” is what author and ex-politician Nelson Denis told me. Denis, who served in the New York state Legislature years ago, recently wrote an incisive, well-timed op-ed demonstrating the crippling effect of the federal Jones Act on Puerto Rico’s economy.
The 1920 law, which applies to all US ports, requires that all goods shipped to or from the island be handled by American ships, to the deliberate exclusion of lower-cost foreign freighters.
The law, according to economists, cited by Denis, makes food cost twice as much in Puerto Rico as in nearby Florida, and has drained as much as $17 billion from the island between 1990 and 2010.
With the island facing enormous costs to rebuild its infrastructure — billions that will likely come directly from the federal treasury — now is the time to create a viable, robust and independent island economy without the shackles of the Jones Act.
Trump could also ask Congress to make a special test case of the administration’s tax plan — a place where corporate and personal taxes get slashed and set right where the White House wants them. If the plan is as good as Trump claims, corporations should flock to the island and bring jobs with them.
The right mix of private-sector incentives, plus a dose of hype from our brand-promoting President, might be just what Puerto Rico needs to go from wreckage to renaissance. But here again, the key will be getting buy-in from the president.
When he travels to the island next week, Trump should look past the immediate disaster and the bright future that could lie ahead.