If the election for governor of Puerto Rico were to be held right now, or even in November of 2020, assuming the Financial Control Board hasn’t outlawed elections by then, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto would win by an overwhelming landslide for the way she stood up to Donald Trump in the aftermath of a killer hurricane that devastated the island.
In fact, as the first elected official from Puerto Rico EVER to publicly stick it to the President of the United States for his country’s typical indifference to the island’s concerns, Mayor Cruz Soto can probably be the first effing President of the Republic, if she wants to. She brilliantly grasped the historic significance of what getting hit with the most savage hurricane in almost 100 years means to a country that still remembers the last most savage hurricane as if it happened yesterday. And, God bless her, she’s seizing the moment.
The current governor, Ricardo Rosselló, on the other hand, is so utterly clueless that Mayor Cruz Soto may already be governor of Puerto Rico by default. His detachment from reality has ensured that he will come out on the losing side of this saga for as long as he lives and beyond, probably as long as his great great grandchildren live. Politically speaking, Ricardo Rosselló is a dead man walking.
He and his administration not only waited until the day after President Trump visited Puerto Rico to announce that Hurricane Maria had killed – oops -an additional 32 residents, but they have apparently reinterpreted the definition of a hurricane-related death in ways that keep the “official” totals ridiculously low.
As of Oct. 19, a full month after Maria ripped through the island, Roselló’s Department of Public Health has certified only 51 hurricane related deaths, which is fewer than the number of people who die in Puerto Rico on a normal day, hurricane or not. In reality, about 450 deaths of as yet undetermined causes have been recorded by hospitals and funeral homes since Maria hit and another 69 people have gone missing. The Roselló administration’s death count also conflicts vastly with on-the-ground estimates from experts, who say the real figure is several times higher. As if that weren’t enough, hospitals have also confirmed 76 cases of leptospirosis, including three deaths, a deadly bacterial disease that occurs when drinking water is tainted with rat urine.
Why the fuss with the death count, you ask? Because the higher the death count, the worse it looks for Trump, after he tried to cover up what is arguably the worst federal disaster response in history by heartlessly characterizing Puerto Ricans as a bunch of freeloaders, who want everything done for them. The higher the death count, the more that pathetic federal response looks like intentional genocide.
All of which may also explain why the hurricane relief charity set up by Rosselló’s wife, Beatriz, suddenly decided to give a significant portion of the funds it collected, not to help the people starving in the streets, but to help a bunch of wealthy private businessmen invest in the “rebuilding” the island – the same businessmen who will probably be expected to support his re-election bid against Mayor Cruz Soto in 2020, should there be one.
“They’re killing us with inefficiency,” the mayor said of FEMA’s mindlessly slow and ineffectual ability to deliver food and water to people stranded on a mere 35-by-100-mile island. She went so far as to suggest that the gridlock was deliberate by characterizing it as “something close to genocide.”
And when Trump shot back that she was “nasty” and showed poor leadership, she told reporters, “I don’t give a shit! . . . I’m through with being politically correct! . . .I think the president lives in an alternative reality that only he believes the things he is saying.”
Although Mayor Cruz Soto prudently refuses to entertain any speculation about her political future until the island has gotten back on its feet, she has certainly used her moment in the spotlight to say many of the things that Puerto Ricans, on and off the island, have been dying to hear for decades and, in so doing, has positioned herself as the voice and the face of those who call Puerto Rico home – all 9 million of them. That’s the audience that her comments were intense to reach, and she handled it masterfully.
When pressed, for example, by a really dumb reporter from Los Angeles to explain why on Earth she wouldn’t support statehood for Puerto Rico, as if statehood were the greatest thing anyone could wish for, Mayor Cruz Soto responded, “You don’t fight injustice by asking to become part of the system that created the injustice in the first place. That’s like a freed slave wanting to become a slave owner.”
That’s not all. Mayor Cruz Soto makes no bones about the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony that for 119 years has been economically pillaged through federal policies designed to further enrich the corporate interests that own Congress. For every dollar that the federal government spends on Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents, at least $4 are extracted and redeposited in the United States in the form of corporate tax-free profits and unreasonably high taxes and tariffs that the same federal government forces Puerto Rico to pay, under the Jones Act of 1920, to have everything it consumes delivered on American ships. Economists and financial analysts have created sorts of cerebral calculations to explain how the thievery of colonialism works, but, at the end of the day, those are the figures that paint the clearest picture.
Mayor Cruz Soto also turned her city out to celebrate the release of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera from prison, proudly calling him a patriot, and even offering him a job in her administration.
“I believe in sovereignty and I believe in dual citizenship,” Mayor Cruz Soto told the reporter from Los Angeles, which is not exactly what Lopez Rivera stands for, but close enough that it gets people’s hearts pumping.
In the past, Mayor Cruz Soto has petitioned the Congress to let Puerto Rico reorganize under U.S. bankruptcy laws to help clear the $72 billion that the island accumulated in a hopeless effort to reconcile what comes in with what goes out without disturbing the 4-to-1 ratio of wealth extracted to federal investment, which, at its core, is all that the government of Puerto Rico does. It was denied, of course. She also petitioned Congress to repeal the Jones Act and allow Puerto Rico to trade freely with foreign countries. That, too, of course, was denied.
“As long as our options are defined by the powers of this Congress, we will always be at your mercy,” she testified. “The measure of our success will be limited by the vastness of your control over our affairs.”
That vastness of Congressional control over Puerto Rico has also produced a long and sordid history of depraved U.S. government initiatives designed to keep its residents in check, such as the 10-year campaign to sterilize the entire female population; the injecting of unsuspecting hospital patients with cancer cells just for the fun of watching how the disease spreads; two outright massacres of unarmed protesters; the use of the populated islands of Vieques and Culebra as bomb testing sites; a gag law that made it a criminal offense for Puerto Ricans to wave their flag or sing their national anthem; and a host of other atrocities. If you are not familiar with at least some of them by now, you shouldn’t even bother reading this article.
Now, what Mayor Cruz Soto does with the mantle of leadership she has inherited, a pulpit that very few Puerto Ricans can legitimately lay claim to, remains to be seen. It’s one thing to say the right things. It’s quite another to actually move the needle and make them happen; and, as Puerto Ricans know only too well, the streets are littered with former governors and mayors on all sides of the status issue who talked a good game and then used their position to either do nothing or line their pockets with stolen money.
So far, Mayor Cruz Soto is walking a very fine line between being perceived as another opportunist politician, as the Trump administration has tried to characterize her, or the real deal.
She has said, for example, that the United States and Puerto Rico have to sit and talk about entering into a new, obscurely defined “non-colonial” political relationship, “when we don’t have people lining up for food and water,” which could take forever, depending on how you define lining up for food and water. Yet, she remains a loyal member of the Partido Popular Democratico (Popular Democratic Party) that is deeply rooted in the belief that being a doormat for the United States is the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico. It’s an awkward predicament that she must reconcile if what she proposes is ever going to be taken seriously and not a cleverly disguised version of the status quo.
Also, in taking on the president and not the whole United States, Mayor Cruz Soto validates the mainstream media’s portrayal of Trump as a freak of nature, like those white male loners who gun down masses of innocent people. Trump, of course, makes an easy target, but he is hardly an aberration. As Mayor Cruz Soto damn well knows, he’s the embodiment of everything the United States has always stood for but uses the Democrats to hide. Shaming the United States into a new political relationship by taking a high moral stand against colonialism is a pointless exercise – just ask what’s left of the native Hawaiian. You have to get nasty, Madame Mayor. The only things the United States responds to are political leverage – of which Puerto Rico has a strong but limited quantity thanks to those who live in the mainland’s violence, and anything that stands in the way of its lust for the wealth.
After all that Mayor Cruz Soto has said and done in the past month to unify the nation, it would be a crushing shame if she were to squander this golden opportunity to use that unity to secure a real measure of economic and political freedom for Puerto Rico.