President Trump’s recent social media outbursts charging that reports that
Hurricane Maria caused 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico last year were inaccurate and politically biased have disappointed some Republican leaders within Connecticut’s Puerto Rican community, but it has however generally not shaken their support for him.
Ruben Rodriguez, a statewide Republican leader from Waterbury, said he was “saddened” by the president’s comments. Meanwhile, Carmelo Rodriguez, a Latino and Republican activist in New Britain suggested Trump would have been better served not to make the hurricane toll an issue. He also decried the use of the death toll controversy by Connecticut Democrats in the governor’s race.
Reuben Rodriguez, who identifies himself as a Republican leader and a Puerto Rican who has approved many of the president’s past decisions, was not on board with Trump’s tweets about the Maria death toll.
“It saddens me that he (Trump) has expressed himself like that about the island and the deaths that occurred in the island during that storm,” said Rodriquez, a Waterbury resident and former candidate for state representative. Rodriguez is a founder and leader of the Latino National Republican Coalition of CT, but stressed this views on this subject were strictly personal.
Carmelo Rodriguez, like Trump, questioned how many people died after the hurricane. “The amount of people that is being mentioned is a bit alarming,” he said. “The reason being that the conversation among funeral homes; their business would be booming.”
He went on to say, “I am proud that the best attempt was done with a Category 5 storm.” He added, “Could something been better? Maybe, there is always room for improvement. But the best effort was put forward.”
However, the New Britain Puerto Rican also observed, “I believe the President should have remained quiet to prevent the war waged against him.”
How many deaths could be attributed to Maria flared up as partisan issue when Trump, with Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolinas, used Twitter on Thursday morning, Sept. 13, to claim that “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes (Irma and Maria) that hit Puerto Rico” two weeks apart a year earlier, with the vast majority of deaths linked to the second Category 5 hurricane, Maria.
The president also tweeted that Democrats were focusing on this death toll, derived from an independent study, to make him “look as bad as possible” despite what he earlier had said was his administration’s “incredible unsung success” in Puerto Rico.
Researchers from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. had derived their estimate of nearly 3,000 hurricane-linked deaths in the six months since the storm hit by studying death records and comparing them to a similar non-hurricane period. This figure has been accepted by the Puerto Rican government that commissioned the study after criticism of its previous position that only 64 deaths were hurricane related.
On Friday evening, the president doubled down on rejection of the GWU numbers by reiterating that several months after Maria hit the government said the death toll had increased from 16, the number cited during his visit to the island a couple weeks after the hurricane, to 64. “Then, like magic, ‘3000 PEOPLE KILLED.”
The president also boasted in a Sept. 13 tweet that he successfully raised “Billions of Dollars to rebuild Puerto Rico,” a point supported by Carmelo Rodriguez. “Yes! The government under President Trump invested money towards the island,” he said.
Connecticut Democratic leaders were quick to meld the death toll controversy into the current governorship campaign. By Friday, the state Democratic organization had issued press releases from several prominent Hispanic leaders such as Rep. Chris Rosario, chairman of the state legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, Rep. Chris Soto of New London, New Britain council member Emmanuel Sanchez and Norwalk Council member Eloisa Melendez. The primary theme was that the Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski should condemn Trump’s comments about the Puerto Rican death toll.
“Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives–and the President of the United States is carelessly lying about the tragedy that occurred,” Rosario said. “There is no uncertainty here — the President is wrong, and Republican leaders in Connecticut shouldn’t be afraid to say so,” the Bridgeport Democrat said. “Bob Stefanowski has accepted his (Trump’s) endorsement and he owes it to all of us to say if he’s going to stand with Donald Trump or speak out against him.”
The injection of the Trump dispute over the hurricane toll into state politics brought a sharp rebuke from Carmelo Rodriguez. “I reject anyone who wants to use what happened in Puerto Rico for political reasons.” he said. “If anyone wants to make a difference for Puerto Ricans they should advocate for educational funding … job training … support more Latinos in government positions. Let’s not be hypocrites since recently, at the primaries. both parties had Latino candidates that they did not support.”
Carmelo Rodriguez also took a shot at the island’s leadership. “if some things went wrong we need to look at PR government, where many of the mayors are currently under investigation.”
Several stories were published online and on Fox News alleging that San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz was facing fraud charges related to misuse of federal relief funds. However, fact-checking websites clarified that it was the mayor of Sabana Grande who had been accused of misusing U.S. grants from 2013-16, well before the hurricane.
In addition, there were media reports that Cruz was being investigated by the FBI for alleged fraud, but this stems from a lawsuit filed by a former city employee alleging fraud by the city of San Juan and the suit does not mention federal disaster aid.