From the Left



The multi-plagued island of Puerto Rico, its expanding diaspora and the 2020 elections

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Puerto Rico is in the throes of a prolonged, seemingly unsolvable, multifaceted crisis. The catalogue of insular plagues is extensive: a $70 billion-plus unrepayable debt; periodic hurricane strikes (like Maria, on Sept. 20, 2017) and scores of earthquakes (almost unheard of before 2020); the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the last two decades; the concomitant mass exodus to the United States and contraction of the island's tax base; rising crime; and endemic political corruption. And let's not forget COVID-19.

The island has been losing population since the start of the century, with 3.2 million Puerto Ricans reside on the island and over 5.6 million on the mainland. Both populations travel back and forth and maintain tight transnational bonds.

Recent Florida polls showing a smaller-than-expected margin in Latino voter preference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, coinciding with the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, have shifted the eyes of both campaigns to the Sunshine State. Much of the attention targets the over 1 million Puerto Ricans who reside there (417,000 registered to vote), mostly along the I-4 corridor.

On the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15), Democratic nominee Joe Biden made his first visit to the state since his presidential nomination and gave speeches in Tampa and the Puerto Rican enclave of Kissimmee in the Orlando Metropolitan area.

Biden spoke on numerous issues of interest to Latinos and specifically targeted Puerto Rican voters, announcing the launch of his campaign's Puerto Rican agenda.

He took a few jibes at Trump's response to Hurricane Maria, vowing that he would not throw paper towels at hurricane victims, sell or trade Puerto Rico, or nuke incoming hurricanes, possibilities the president had seriously explored.

Three days later, 46 days before the elections and 1,094 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island, Trump surprised most observers with the promise of $13 billion worth of FEMA grants to rebuild the island's infrastructure -- infrastructure week again? He aimed over $9 billion for rebuilding the electric grid and the balance for school infrastructure. Lastly, he bowed to facilitate the return of U.S. pharmaceutical companies to the island, whose flight he unfairly blamed on Biden.

Whether Trump will deliver those goodies, or whether he will be in power long enough to do so, is unclear. Whatever the case, thus far, FEMA and HUD disaster relief funds have been purposely delayed. The corrupt and inept administrations of disgraced former Gov. Ricardo Rossello and his unpopular designated replacement, Wanda Vazquez, are also to blame, having spent (as of March 2020) only 0.1% of $1.5 billion disbursed for emergency housing reconstruction.

It is not surprising that Trump is promising tax cuts for pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturing corporations to incentivize their return to Puerto Rico. I do find suspicious, however, his multibillion-dollar allocation to rebuild an electrical grid owned and operated by a public corporation, and the reconstruction of public schools.


Trump is ideologically inclined to privatization and reducing the size of government, and the island's pro-statehood party, which has been in power since 2016, encourages the privatization of utility companies and the transformation of public schools into for-profit charter schools. Will American taxpayers be paying to refurbish infrastructures that will end up in the hands of corporations and investors?

Biden's Puerto Rican agenda is equally opportunistic but far more coherent and comprehensive. Like Trump, he promises federal disaster funding for the electric and school infrastructures, and facilitating the return of good-paying pharmaceutical companies. Biden's plan is broader, including the reconstruction of roads, bridges, ports, utilities and implementation of clean energy projects. Moreover, he promises some form of debt relief.

In line with Trump's penchant for self-congratulation, he claims that his response to Hurricane Maria has been "an incredible, unsung success" that he is "the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico" and that his recently announced funding constitutes the "largest emergency relief award in history."

The president is entitled to his self-opinion, but his 11th-hour relief package pales in comparison with the New Deal's comprehensive Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Administration and Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration.

Trump is no Roosevelt -- neither is Biden, for that matter -- and the current insular political leadership bears no resemblance to the selfless men and women who joined efforts with former Gov. Luis Munoz Marin to rid the island of its manifold plagues, pull it out of the Great Depression and turn it into a prosperous modern nation.


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