Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico devastated—and a poor federal response is compounding the suffering of residents of the U.S. territory. That’s where Carmen Yulín Cruz comes in.
— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) October 1, 2017
With 150mph winds, the Category 5 storm left 100 percent of Puerto Rico without power. Winds ripped the roofs off buildings, decimated homes, knocked down cell-phone towers, destroyed agricultural land and dangerously limited basic access to clean water and food. Entire homes and neighborhoods were destroyed—and, due to the widespread destruction of island infrastructure, many Puerto Ricans have been unable to communicate with loved ones. Now, almost two weeks later, people on the island remain without food, clean water, adequate shelter, fuel, power and functioning technology with which to coordinate rescue efforts. 16 people have died, but that number is expected to rise to triple digits within the next few days.
The federal government has the capacity, funds and responsibility to fully support recovery efforts throughout all of its colonial territories; however, the Trump administration’s response has been languid and half-hearted at best—not to mention laden with layers of racism, sexism and colonialism. While Puerto Ricans wrote S.O.S. signs in the dirt, the President went golfing. When initial recovery missions failed because of a century-old merchant maritime law, Trump blamed the island for being surrounded by water and then reminded the country, on Twitter, of the “billions of dollars” they “owed to Wall Street,” implying that the territory did not deserve aid because of its “massive debt.” (It took Trump an entire week to waive the Jones Act, clearing some of the obstacles that were stopping aid deliveries from reaching ports in Puerto Rico.) And only today—nearly two weeks after the storm—is he finally visiting the island.
Despite all this, Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke applauded relief efforts last week as a “good news story” and told the press that she was “very satisfied” with the federal government’s response. Echoing this, Trump tweeted his praise for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and military personnel that have been deployed on the island and critiqued “fake news” for tarnishing the “amazing job being done in Puerto Rico.”
Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, heard of the comments for the first time during an on-air appearance on live television. She responded with shock. “This is not a good news story,” she declared. “This is a people are dying story.” In a later press conference, Cruz condemned the administration’s inadequate response and asserted that, if the federal government fails to provide ample support, “what we are going to see [throughout Puerto Rico] is something close to a genocide.”
“I have no time for distractions,” Cruz declared. “All I have is time for people to move forward. This isn’t about me, this isn’t about anyone. This is about lives that are being lost.” With her city nearly destroyed and many residents barely surviving, Cruz also issued a plea to the federal government: “I will do what I never thought I was going to do,” she said. “I am begging. I am begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying. And you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy.”
While the San Juan mayor pleaded for help, Trump tweeted from his exclusive golf resort in New Jersey. Continuing his legacy of harassing women online, the president lashed out at Cruz. In addition to contrasting what he called “a fantastic job” by federal workers with Cruz’s “poor leadership,” he alleged that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them,” and that Cruz had been “told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.”
These abhorrent remarks—rife with barely coded racist and sexist language—told far from a true story. While Trump was accusing Cruz of “poor leadership,” the mayor was wading through the flooded streets of San Juan—through water and sewage—attempting to rescue anyone stranded in the wake of the storm.
— Jason Kander (@JasonKander) September 30, 2017
And while Trump was utilizing racist tropes to paint Puerto Ricans as lazy and undeserving, community members and university students across the island were—and still are—working tirelessly to organize relief efforts for themselves.
Ellen these women got together and are cooking for their entire community. As the song goes “sisters are doing it for themselves”. pic.twitter.com/LyUURNIZpT
— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) October 2, 2017
On Saturday, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) asserted that “although unsurprising and quite predictable, it is pathetic that the President has decided to attack–with the not so subtle veil of racism and sexism–those desperately begging for his help in their hour of need.” Senator Kamala Harris also acknowledged the racialized scope of the U.S. relief efforts, tweeting that “a natural disaster in Puerto Rico should be treated no differently than a natural disaster anywhere else in the United States.”
Today, Trump’s attacks on Cruz continued. He marked his arrival on the island by insisting that folks should be “proud” of the relief efforts and administration’s response, also remarking to residents and officials that “you’ve thrown our budget out of whack.” He also staged events with various officials from the island—but journalist Andrea Mitchell tweeted that Trump shook hands with Cruz, then “didn’t answer” and “pointedly ignored her” when she told him “it’s not about politics.” Even though she was given no information about his visit prior to his arrival, he tweeted that he had extended an invitation to her to meet with him. And a day before his visit, when she accepted an offer to be part of a conference call on the administration’s response to the storm, she was not given the space to speak—and instead, was only allowed to listen.
Trump’s behavior is unsurprising. What is more remarkable—and certainly more impressive—is Cruz’s persistence. She remains committed to helping Puerto Ricans recover from Hurricane Maria, and is launching a non-profit, The Somebody Help Us Foundation, to give those on the mainland United States an opportunity to directly support those in need on the island. And as for challenging Trump, she has no regrets.
“I think that the Trump administration really doesn’t reflect [American] values, by tweeting that we should have paid our debt, by tweeting that we want everything done by others, by tweeting that we are ingrates,” she told The Independent. “This is the reality, it is not hyperbole. This is not a ‘let me see how I can dress the up to exaggerate’ thing and it pains me that some people can’t see it. And it pains me that some people refuse to provide whatever they can provide. Just to spite us.”