Hurricane Maria Exposed the U.S.’s Long Neglect of Puerto Rico

The United Nations’ poverty expert will visit Puerto Rico today to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the structural issues it unveiled. The storm exposed the brutal and historic neglect of the island and its 3.5 million U.S. citizens.

The ACLU and other organizations advocated for the U.N. to visit the island and submitted a letter urging them to do so back in early October. The U.N. poverty expert will meet with communities, local groups, and government officials on the ground in Puerto Rico. He will report back his findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

While Puerto Rico “belongs to but is not part of” the world’s richest country, its poverty rate is almost double of Mississippi’s, the U.S.’s poorest state. Fifty-eight percent of the island’s children live in poverty. The unemployment rate is 10.1 percent, twice as high as the U.S. and more than any other state, and has continued to grow after the devastation. Since 2008, over 34,000 homes have been foreclosed on, and a record-breaking 5,424 families lost their homes in 2016.

Puerto Rico’s legal status is complicated, and it helps exacerbate circumstances that lead to poverty and civil rights issues. And these have only worsened since the hurricane. Since the Supreme Court in the Insular Cases determined that Congress owns Puerto Rico, the U.S. can rule over Americans living on the island without granting them the full constitutional rights enjoyed by those living in the states. This affects health care programs like Medicaid and Medicare, fair access to government resources that help vulnerable communities, and many other issues.

How and when Puerto Rico recovers from Hurricane Maria is important for these 3.5 million U.S. citizens’ civil and human rights. Without adequate assistance and support from the United States, the country that “owns” them, these American citizens won’t be able to fight to fully participate in our democracy.

In an effort to understand the importance of the U.N.’s visit and get a sense of what post-Maria life is like on the island, I interviewed William Ramirez, the executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Why is the United Nations’ poverty expert visiting Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico is generally invisible to the world. Most of the time it feels like we don’t exist in the collective consciousness. We’re not a part of the United States, and we’re not our own country. That puts us in a difficult position. You can see that in how the federal government and the Trump administration have responded to us after Hurricane Maria. We got such a cold response because we are not seen as part of the states even though we are U.S. citizens.

Being recognized by the U.N. for this visit is key to keeping up the public and media attention we need to bring forward action to help us recover as soon as possible. We’re going into 4 months now. There are many people that are sick and have died unnecessarily because of post-hurricane conditions.

I’m hopeful that the visit will highlight and put into perspective the fact that what Hurricane Maria really did was unveil the extreme poverty that has been growing in Puerto Rico due, in part, to austerity measures imposed by an unelected fiscal control board and as a consequence of unequal treatment and attention from the federal government and Congress.

What is life like in Puerto Rico right now?

There’s a lot of sadness and trauma right now. Everyone has to get used to a new normal. Days are for preparing for the night, and nights are longer. You can make a list of all the things you want to do, but then there’s a massive power outage that will disrupt your plans. Every day is an improvisation. We don’t have the luxury of thinking about tomorrow.

Small things you take for granted have a big impact. Stoplights don’t work, and not all streets have cops directing traffic. There are longer traffic jams than normal. With so many folks and businesses without power, it gets very dark at night and it’s dangerous. You can’t even see people when you are walking, you bump into them.

You can’t trust all restaurants because how do you know that their food is fresh or that they didn’t lose power at some point? There are a lot of diseases going around. A lot of businesses are closed and will not open their doors again.

Can you see and feel the federal government’s presence on the ground? If so, how?

I don’t see them in the way you’d expect. For instance, I see the federal government in the militarization of the police. There are officers with military gear out in the streets. They’re not local police. You’d think that what happened here was not a catastrophe but an insurrection. They will stop you at traffic stops, and they are carrying automatic weapons and will search you or your car without warrants or cause.

The government imposed a mandatory and indefinite curfew that appeared to be targeted to certain segments of the population — especially the poor. People without power can’t cook at home, so they have to go out to get food after curfew. Who is most likely to be in this situation? Someone poor or with limited resources that cannot afford a power generator, for example.

The population of a federal prison here went without water for four days. Homelessness is becoming an even bigger problem. Some schools are still closed.

Health care was a mess before the hurricane. It’s even more of a mess now. Hospitals aren’t equipped to service patients and doctors are leaving. There’s an even greater exodus of doctors now.

These are just a few examples of the civil and human rights issues going on now on the island.

Is the federal government providing the help people need?

For some people they are. Some communities that are well off got food and supplies, but there are poor areas the government hasn’t visited. Our office was closed for a month, so we worked from my house and would go out to devastated communities and try to help get them what they need.

Is reporting about Hurricane-related deaths accurate? Has the government been transparent about this important figure?

The local government tries to play down how bad things were. They were not counting many deaths they should have. Some people died because hospitals had no electricity or didn’t serve patients well. Or they didn’t have medications available. The government reported them as deaths due to pre-existing conditions. It’s probably closer to 500 deaths, and the number will keep growing.

President Trump also played it down. But one death is a tragedy. Thousands of people shouldn’t have to die to know that something is wrong and that things need to change. Trump didn’t see the real situation when he was here. He went from the airport to a church and to a press conference. The same goes for Vice President Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan. They didn’t meet with the real people who were affected.

Where do we go from here? What does Puerto Rico’s future hold?

We could claw back to normal, but that wasn’t good to begin with. Puerto Rico is a love affair. You love it, and because you love it, you take it for better or worse. You love it for what it is. It’s hard to leave it behind.

What can people in the U.S. do to advocate for the 3.5 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico?

Contact and tell your representatives in the House and Senate to assist Puerto Rico in this time of need.

These U.S. citizens are having a really hard time. It’s a lot worse than people think. It’s not just the physical destruction, but the soul of Puerto Rico that has been hit hard. We can’t lose the spirit to fight, but it’s heartbreaking.

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Anonymous

I am from the states and I live in one of the poorest areas in PR. Its true that things here are worse than what people realize. We are still without power but are blessed to have water. Many are still without water. Few red lights work. It is true that the federal government is not providing the help that is desperately needed. The schools in our community did not reopen until last week and many schools still remain closed. It is the children, the sick, the ederly, and the poor who are suffering the most.

Memarie

Mr Anonymous. I was hoping to read something constructive posted here. Your hate, rant and slum filthy mouth proved me right. PRicans can't be taken any where, like you.

Yes, we stole everything from PRico even Jennifer Lopez intellect and moral values. And the manly values of Lin whatever. PRicans are known for family. If you are the role model for your family, you should be arrested. Go back to your slum and illegal drugs.

Like all PRicans, you don't know how humanly control your temper and filthy mouth. We visited PRico 20 years ago. It was a slum from San Juan to Mayaguez, Ponce whole island. Just like Tijuna Mexico. Yet we were told this was part of America.
Mr potty mouth, I'm a lady, real woman and I carry a fire arm.
Marry Christmas.

Anonymous

Probably a real fat old white lady that fears the world. It’s that firearm that will kill you if your diabetes doesn’t First fat ass

Anonymous

Dr. Joseph Goebbels and Ms Memarie, your nasty words written while your hiding behind a keyboard are disgusting and vile! People like you both are the reason this country is in the state its in. You both are a disgrace to the human race. Real woman, I doubt that seriously. Your both trolls!

Memarie

You have all those problems bcuz you vote blindly for crooks. A lady on tv said she voted for current governor bcuz he s cute. You may be citizens but mostly speak a foreign language Spanish which is not our USA legal language.

You also know zero about our Constitution, laws and Heritage. I doubt you know our Pledge of Allegiance or our National song. So you are not really a citizen or American. You are fakes with your hand out.

Your form of government is socialist just like Venezuela. Non of USA states follow Venezuela doctrine. That is why no matter how much money, millions we waste in PRico, you'll never change.
You have no appreciation for the privilege of being under the wing of the USA. You have no respect for our country or our President. Our President authorized 90 percent aid for PR instead of the 50 percent by law. He understood that the island was totally destroyed and was penniless. You owe our President a big apology and get on with your indendence.
God bless.

Me Marie is a PUERCA

You and your president can choke on a dick you racist pig. You get on here to kick people when they’re down, how miserable you must be. There is no official US language. You know nothing, but biased, hateful, made up news about Puerto Ricans. You demean then throw in a God Bless, Fuck you, you fake Christian. Go crawl back under your hateful, sad rock.

Freebird

I cnt believe the cruel n evil humanity im seeing displayed here by some. Is your words n actions the way they would be for jesus? Cause whatever u do for puerto rico, you would be doing for our Lord Jesus Christ too. Who said any of you got to play God and decide who matters n who dont? You should be ashamed of yourselves. Jesus died for puerto ricans too n God created them n designed them too. Your in my prayers puerto rico. U need to look into cloud seeding being a global business on youtube and man made hurricane also. U may wnt to hold trump responsible for the hurricane n depopulation thts been going on. Check out depopulation 2017 on youtube also n dr santjay frm cnn confirming it. There killing the poor off.

Araminta ...

I AGREE ONE HUNDRED PERCECT THE UNITED STATE TREAT US )ike THE outsider

Araminta ...

I AGREE ONE HUNDRED PERCECT THE UNITED STATE TREAT US )ike THE outsider

Anonymous

Dr. Joseph Goebbels - you would think that by holding the title of "Dr." you would have a little more class and dignity! But then again, if I am correct you are of German descent and therefore RACIST by nature... look at yourself in the mirror before speaking.. you are a true immigrant as your ancestors... Puerto Ricans are born American citizens but wait you may already know that, being a Dr. and all...

Memarie - please, you don't even have the knowledge of what Puerto Ricans are capable of... is nice to hide behind these posts but if you were face to face with one you won't dare say such things...

Have a blessed day...

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