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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Dr. Joseph Goebbels

What? I did not say anything really bad about Puerca Rico like some of the other people here did.

AnciNovik

It very pointless for someone (very small minded if i may say), who does not live in PR, to talk about it. First thing: why are you bashing on a small island, you know nothing about? Second: Puerto Rico actually has alot to offer when it comes to giving to the U.S., like basic moral standers, self respect, and pride. Last: We invite you to come on over to our Universities or PR (UPR) and maybe educate yourself on our culture and history and why things are the way they are.
If it has not been made clear here this message was an answer to all the comments made by Dr. Joseph Goebbels
P.S. Hard to believe your a doctor with such low standers for human life.

Anonymous

Nobody should be surprised that this is occurring...
This is nothing to do with neglect, it has everything to do with the fact that the Federal Government just isn't capable of responding effectively to natural disasters. Completely incapable of learning from its past missteps... Puerto Rico is just another example of what the Federal Government just isn't capable of.

But, make no mistake, I'm going to be pissed if Trump blows off California and complains about helping us recover or slacks off with help from the fires and the subsequent damage from landslides. We Californians can make his life living hell by kicking out Republicans off our Congressional delegation. Don't mess with the worlds 6th largest economy in the world...

Also Anonymous

AnciNovik, thank you for your inteligent comment. The majority of the other comments show the lack of knowledge regarding the history of Puerto Rico and the US. Ignorance is a very dangerous thing. So much hate... I do not understant. :'(
Thank you again and be well.

Mrs Proud Puert...

From the hearts of all us Puerto Ricans may the Lord Jesus Christ forgive you for your lack of empathy and compassion. And may the devil ASS FUCK YOU right back to the Hell you came from..Buenas tardes.

suman

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Anonymous

Puerto Rico is NOT a state and doesn't want to be a state thus they do not have the same benefits of a state. We only own the land and they are solely responsible for there well being both in laws, taxes and government. They were really in bankruptcy before the storm and it is even worse now

U.S. territories are islands under the jurisdiction of the United States which are not States of the United States. U.S. possessions can be divided into two groups:

Those that have their own governments and their own tax systems (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands)

a territory, legally and under the U.S. Constitution, is simply a piece of land belonging to the United States. It is not a state, and it is not a country. It is a possession of the United States, a piece of land owned by the nation. A territory doesn’t have the rights, responsibilities, or powers of a state or a nation. It has no sovereignty of its own. It’s just a possession.

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ClareB

Wow! I can't believe the hatefulness and attacks of Americans on this site, demanding that we clean up your island???!!!! With such ungratefulness, why should we be motivated to help you? I went to PR one time, about 15 years ago, with my husband, his company had an office there, and thought that the beaches and water was fabulous but couldn't believe how dirty and poor the island was. The people seemed very lazy and slow paced, preferring to party instead of working hard. We were in a restaurant in Old San Juan, with our young son, and a lady was humping and rubbing herself on a man at the bar, it was gross! I thought that the display of porn in a public place, with small children there, was unbelievable. Also, about the laziness, we all like to socialize, but a country does not become wealthy and independent when all of your time is spent being idle and partying. There is a time for both and Americans are hard workers, even though we have too many dependent, entitled, welfarers, at least 50% of us work very hard and pay taxes. We also support a lot of other countries. Furthermore, I noticed that American owned companies in PR were very neat and tidy, such as they are in America, but the PR companies were blighted. We stayed in a 5 star resort that was grimey and very average, probably a 3 star in the US. But the worst thing was when flying back to our home state at the time, Florida. I sat next to a lady from PR and all she did was put down America and talked about her hatred of us. I could not believe it; I will never go back there, ungrateful people never get ahead, all they do is complain and blame others for their mistakes and problems.

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