In ways that Puerto Ricans are just now appreciating, Hurricane Maria, the storm that ripped across the island at 155 miles per hour and has so far taken the lives of 16 people, appears more and more like a blessing in disguise.
Why, you ask? Because it has offered Puerto Ricans around the globe a golden opportunity to look themselves in the face and see what they are made of.
Most significantly – and this did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world – it seemed to turn all 9 million of them into a powerful self-preserving single organism.
Knowing in advance that the Category 5 hurricane would leave almost the entire population with life-threatening shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel, medications, shelter and at risk of death and disease, the nation mounted its own rescue effort, rather than wait for the perniciously inadequate support they’ve grown accustomed to receiving from the United States.
It has been a true wonder to behold. Jason Ortiz, the activist executive assistant to Hartford City Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez, best captured the sentiment of the moment, when he posted all over Facebook: ALL HANDS ON DECK!
Those with money sent gobs of it to charitable organizations, such as the Hispanic Federation, ComPRmetidos, Unidos Por Puerto Rico, and Direct Relief, that were more familiar with the island’s terrain and engaged in the purchase, shipment and direct, on-the-ground distribution of food, medicine, water, cots, tarp roofs, batteries and generators. Jennifer Lopez, perhaps the most recognizable Puerto Rican on the planet, publicly pledged $1 million to the effort, not so much to grandstand, but to set an example for how deeply everyone else should commit to the island.
Those with clout at the corporate and governmental level called in every IOU they were holding, a reach that went remarkably far. Not surprisingly, the response from individual state and municipal governments in the United States varied in direct proportion to the degree to which Puerto Ricans had a say in keeping the officials who run those governments employed. New York City, New York State and Florida, for example, went all out in sending direct aid and resources. Others used their positions to raise funds and collect provisions. Others, as mentioned earlier, pontificated a lot about what everyone else should be doing for Puerto Rico.
Media coverage followed the same pattern. One notable exception has been Correspondent David Begnaud of CBS News, whose insanely sensitive, johnny-on-the-spot reports on television and social media became a must-see for mainland Puerto Ricans. In addition to multiple images of the devastation in far out areas that were hit hardest, they included visual examples of government neglect and ineptitude, information on what volunteers who get down to Puerto Rico can physically do to help, and the best ways to communicate with isolated relatives.
Those with roofs over their heads opened their doors to homeless strangers. Neighbors who had never exchanged more than a few words suddenly shared their belongings and became family. Entire neighborhoods fed themselves on backyard avocados and plantains and storekeepers gave away whatever inventory they had left.
Of course, there were exceptions to all this positive behavior. On the low end, there have been reports of looting in the poorest areas. On the high end, there are families in spacious homes with backup generators, and stockpiles of food and fuel, who have selfishly barricaded themselves from the agony surrounding them.
All in all, however, most everybody stepped up to the plate with a clear understanding that the restoration of Puerto Rico, even to what it was before Hurricane Maria, which wasn’t much, is going to take years. As you’re reading this, whole segments of Puerto Rico still have no electricity to power the sewage treatment plants, dialysis machines, the lights, the refrigerators and the telephones. Only about half the gas stations are open because they need electricity to power the pumps. Even if you make it to an open gas station, you are going to wait on line for hours to purchase fuel. Nearly all of the cell phone towers were downed. People in remote outlying municipalities have yet to receive relief aid or even to be heard from. Homeless people all over are sleeping in piles on hard tile floors in balconies, hallways and underneath bridges. Others have stood on line for hours to get two bags of ice for keeping what little food they have fresh. Some people have buried dead family members in makeshift graves on their front lawn. Children in difficult-to-reach areas are drinking out of creeks and splashing around in flood waters tainted with their own feces. The likelihood of more deaths and disease is imminent. The nation is in for a very long, difficult haul and everyone knows it.
Nevertheless, Hurricane Maria can still be seen as a blessing in that it pushed the United States to show its true colors, not that it was a big secret before Maria and publicly express what it really thinks of the American citizenship it imposed on Puerto Rico in 1917. Not only has the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) been cumbersomely slow and bureaucratic in responding to the disaster, it took a write-in petition to get U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis to dispatch the U.S. Navy hospital ship, Comfort, from Virginia to Puerto Rico a full nine days after the hurricane hit.
Meanwhile, as the storm sawed its way through Puerto Rico, Donald Trump, whose entire presidency is an homage to racism, was busy calling on the National Football League to fire any athlete who refuses to stand during the playing of the U.S. national anthem as a protest against police brutality toward blacks. Then, when he addressed FEMA’s foot-dragging and bare-bones support for Puerto Rico, he blamed it on Puerto Rico’s broken infrastructure and massive debt. His response prompted the editors of the Catholic publication ‘America’ to write, Hurricane Maria is a reminder that this two-tiered system of American citizenship is neither democratic nor tenable.
Trump even went so far as to deny requests to temporarily lift the provisions of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920- also known as the Jones Act – that prohibit foreign vessels from delivering goods and services directly to Puerto Rico. The act basically established a criminal enterprise by giving U.S. shipping magnates monopoly control over all the ports on U.S. territory, thereby stifling foreign competition that could ship goods for far less and creating another vehicle for Congress and the president to peddle their influence. As a result, anything bound for Puerto Rico from a foreign country must be off-loaded in Jacksonville, Florida, and reloaded on to American ships before it reaches the island. The expense of all this unnecessary loading and off-loading is passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer who pays as much as 50 percent more for everything he or she purchases than he or she would pay in the United States. That cost, over time, has amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars.
Fortunately, Trump reversed his decision and suspended the Jones Act a few days later, when someone with a brain apparently pointed out to him that it would be inhuman, not to mention positively genocidal, to be negligible in his response to the disaster, while blocking other countries from helping out. Trump limited the suspension of the Jones Act to only 10 days, however, shamelessly citing pressure from the shipping industry goons, as his grounds for doing so. Ya gotta love this country.
As you also read this, now about two weeks after the disaster, the same U.S. Congress that passed the Jones Act has yet to even consider passing a bill to send supplemental relief funds to Puerto Rico, similar to the $8 billion aid package it approved within four days for the states affected by Hurricane Harvey. Trump said a comparable relief measure for Puerto Rico may take weeks to pass, even though Harvey’s trail of destruction pales by comparison to what has happened in Puerto Rico. As the hurricane’s death toll increases, Puerto Ricans have been getting quite an education in what their American citizenship is really worth.
The whole Trump scenario made Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello’s whose party is under the delusion that the country that put Trump in the White House is going to grant statehood to Puerto Rico and San Juan’s Mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, whose party endorses changing nothing and leaving Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States exactly as it is, look all the more humiliating when they got on television and pleaded for federal aid on grounds that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. It is extremely difficult to imagine how either Gov. Rossello or Mayor Cruz Yulín can go back and urge the residents of Puerto Rico to support either of their political preferences after this experience with the federal government, especially after Trump responded to their pleas by essentially characterizing Puerto Ricans as a bunch of shiftless beggars.
Trump wasn’t the only one who showed his true colors. The Democrats weren’t much help either. No, I take that back. The Clintonistas were very good at trying to score political points by going on television and ranting about the way Trump handled the disaster, without doing much of anything else themselves. These are the same Democrats, who, in 2016, voted overwhelmingly to resolve Puerto Rico’s debt crisis by installing a fascist dictatorship, dressed up as a Financial Control Board, that has slowly stripped the island of the very resources it now needs to recover from Hurricane Maria. And, yes, the same Democrats who turned tail and abandoned Puerto Ricans when they chose to pay tribute to their patriot, Oscar Lopez Rivera, at their national parade.
By far, the strongest argument for why Hurricane Maria should be seen as a blessing, however, is that it has given Puerto Ricans a glimpse into what it’s really like to be a free, sovereign people, left to fend for themselves, with no one else to rely on for survival. And, we are discovering that a free Puerto Rico looks nothing like the idyllic paradise that has inspired tens of thousands of paintings, and songs and literary works since the first rebellion against the Spaniards in 1868. Real independence, we are learning, is not pretty. It’s a difficult, muddy, sweaty, smelly mess. It requires extreme risk and an uncompromising, continuous commitment to hard work and sacrifice, even your life, if necessary, to preserve the cultural principles that form the basis of your society. Independence also requires that you join in providing and securing your own food, your own water, your own sources of electrical power, your own shelter, your own fuel, health, education and welfare. Finally, freedom requires a willingness to face a ton of failures before you finally get the hang of it.
Many Puerto Ricans, who harbor the dream of freedom for their country, are probably asking themselves whether this freedom they want so badly is worth a lifetime of recovering from the effects of Hurricane Maria. Oh, hell yeah!
As they say in Puerto Rico, “Mejor andar solo, que mal acompañado”