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Friday, January 19, 2018

Puerto Rico's plight

Dollops from Dixie by Jason Stuart

Let’s take a moment and pause to consider the plight of Puerto Rico, a slice of America floating in the Caribbean Sea which apparently isn’t American enough for the President of the United States or many congressional leaders to care about or even have much compassion for as its citizens — Americans all — struggle mightily to put their lives and their island back together in the wake of a devastating direct hit by a hurricane.

If anything has been proven during the debacle that is the federal government’s response to this disaster on American soil, it is the utter shamefulness of the Donald Trump presidency, as the Tweeter-in-chief has seemed to take every opportunity to belittle and demean the people of Puerto Rico and the island’s elected officials instead of holding out the helping hand they so desperately need. 

Rather than compassion, Trump has spewed mostly vitriol. Rather than assuring Puerto Ricans that their government is going to do everything they can to help them get back on their feet, Trump has repeatedly taken to criticizing the island for its financial crisis and infrastructure deficiencies from before the hurricane hit, laying the blame for those issues solely on Puerto Ricans and almost seeming to use them as an excuse for why the federal government shouldn’t help Puerto Rico recover. 

If that isn’t meanspirited, I don’t know what is. It’d be like a doctor telling someone who just got a cancer diagnosis but who recently filed for bankruptcy that, “Hey, we could cure your cancer, but since you went bankrupt and I think it was all your own fault I don’t think you’re worth curing.”

Trump struck at Puerto Rico again this Thursday morning, tweeting again blaming its people for its problems and then going on to say “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders ... in P.R. forever!” It has been less than a month since Hurricane Maria hammered Puerto Rico.

If that doesn’t strike you as outlandish coming from the President of the United States then consider this — Florida and Texas are both still recovering from hurricanes, and if Trump said something like that directed at those states, would the public outcry and outrage not be universal across virtually all political, racial and socioeconomic divides?

The people of Puerto Rico, however, are at a distinct disadvantage compared to the people of Florida or Texas when it comes to eliciting care and compassion from this President.

Unlike those other locales, Puerto Rico is not a state, and so is neither treated the same by the federal government nor has the political leverage at the federal level that a state would. Perhaps most importantly in this equation of mean, most Puerto Ricans are Hispanic, and the vast majority speak Spanish as their first language, so far too many Americans, including, apparently, our current President, don’t believe they qualify as Americans at all.

Except, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Puerto Rico has been American soil since we took it from Spain in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. As for its people, they are full-fledged U.S. citizens — though, ironically in this situation, they are barred from voting for president due to the island’s territorial status — and have been so for exactly 100 years. Since that time, Puerto Ricans have fought, bled and died for their country in every war from World War I on, with the island earning a reputation for sending a disproportionately high percentage of its young men (and today, women) to serve in the armed forces.

The problem is that these simple, absolute truths appear to be lost on far too many mainland Americans, with far too many others apparently believing that Puerto Ricans’ ethnicity and language disqualifies them somehow from being considered true “Americans.”

I have actually experienced that belief first-hand. Back when I worked in the U.S. Senate, during 2009-10 when Puerto Rico was in the process of planning a referendum on statehood, our office was inundated for a while with letters from constituents adamantly opposed to Congress ever taking up the question of Puerto Rico statehood. The language of those letters still stands out as shockingly clear — and full of ignorance — as it did then, with Puerto Ricans variably described in those letters as “foreigners,” “immigrants,” and, perhaps most laughable, “Mexicans.”

That kind of attitude from  far too many mainland Americans towards our countrymen in Puerto Rico is exactly why Trump has been able to get away with being as dismissive of them and casually cruel to them as he has. It is only the latest iteration of our government’s increasingly shameful attitude toward this American territory and the Americans who call it home.

Twice in the last five years, once in 2012 and again this June, Puerto Ricans have voted for statehood. Though voter turnout was low in both referendums, the results still stand. Yet Congress has ignored those results. No American territory with a population suitable for statehood has ever been stuck in territorial status for as long as Puerto Rico, and never has any territory twice voted for statehood and not seen Congress at least take up the debate on its admission to the Union. 

So Puerto Rico has been left in territorial limbo, with Congress turning a deaf ear to its petitions for full, equal status within the Union, and now that limbo has deepened as Trump and his supporters turn a tone deaf ear to the catastrophe gripping the island. 

That Trump is treating the people of Puerto Rico not just like second-class citizens, but like non-citizens, only serves to further illuminate how shameful his and our government’s treatment of our fellow Americans inhabiting the jewel of the Caribbean has become. After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine declared the new United States “an asylum for all mankind,” not just for English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But under this President, even people already Americans apparently do not qualify for help from or protection by the U.S. government unless they look the “right” way or speak the “right” language.

What a plight for Puerto Rico indeed.

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