Despite being granted U.S. citizenship by President Woodrow Wilson more than a century ago, Puerto Ricans continue to be treated as second-class Americans—especially in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
With Puerto Rico’s economy in tatters and hundreds of thousands of residents still without power, business leaders, progressive leaders, academics, and members of Congress gathered at a Capitol Hill conference to assess the disaster and propose solutions to revive the commonwealth.
Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, warned against recent attempts to privatize large parts of the island’s educational system and denounced the federal government’s shambolic response to the worst natural disaster to ever hit Puerto Rico.
“If the state of Connecticut, two months after a hurricane, still had more than two-thirds of its population without electricity, there would be rioting in the streets,” Blumenthal said. “I would be tarred and feathered.”
The Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act, written by Sanders and co-sponsored by Blumenthal and Warren, would provide $146 billion to jumpstart the island’s economy, boost public education, and launch a transition to renewable power sources like solar and wind energy. The bill would also require Congress to retire the island’s massive public debt (attempts by Puerto Rican leaders to restructure the island’s debts were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2016; a financial oversight and management control board now steers the island’s finances).
The senators described the recovery plan as an initiative similar to the Marshall Plan that allocated billions in financial aid to rebuild Western Europe following World War II. The bill has languished since Sanders introduced it in November.
“By working together on these steps, we have a chance to help the people of Puerto Rico turn a devastating catastrophe into a triumph,” said Warren. Her comments were met with applause from attendees at the day-long event, hosted by American Federation of Teachers, its Albert Shanker Institute, and the Hispanic Federation. But for there to be any real movement on Puerto Rico, Warren and other Democrats will need to first convince their Republican colleagues. That’s no small task: President Trump and congressional Republicans have been largely unwilling to provide extensive relief for Puerto Rico.
The island got the short end of the stick from Congress in a $36.5 billion disaster relief bill in October, receiving a paltry $4.9 billion in the form of loans instead of the large grants that went to states like Texas and Florida without any strings attached.
It took an astronomical increase in defense spending for Republicans to agree to include additional disaster relief in last month’s congressional spending deal. Puerto Rico expects to receive only $16 billion ($1 billion short of the amount needed for electrical grid repairs alone) of the nearly $90 billion dedicated to disaster relief for areas still suffering from hurricanes last year. That’s a pittance compared with the $94 billion that Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló estimated would be necessary for recovery.
The loudest support for Puerto Rico among GOP senators comes from Marco Rubio, who has voiced regret that Puerto Rican residents would not be eligible for a $2,000 child tax credit under the new Republican tax law. In the House, Florida Representative Carlos Curbelo has been another rare Republican proponent for Puerto Rican interests. However, the overall attitude of the Republican Party is clear: There is little appetite for providing long-term assistance to the island.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Maria also created an opportunity for Puerto Rican leaders looking to privatize the island’s education system. Rosselló proposed in a January a fiscal plan that would close 305 out of 1,100 public schools on the island. The governor, who has sought advice on school reform from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the past weeks, is all in for more charter schools and using private school vouchers.
"The proposal in Puerto Rico to transition to charter schools and the use of private school vouchers is one that mirrors what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” Sanders said, referring to the controversial push by Louisiana’s state government to reform schools in New Orleans in the wake of the natural disaster. Today, 92.5 percent of public school students in the city attend charter schools.
Puerto Rico remains in the grips of a decade-long recession that has caused historic levels of migration from the island to the mainland. The territory’s population has declined every year since 2006, dropping by more than one percentage point per year for the last five years. The last time a state’s population fell by that much in a single year was in 2005, when 6 percent of Louisiana’s population fled the destruction left behind by Hurricane Katrina.
Between 2006 and 2016, Puerto Rico’s economy shrank by 15 percent, while total employment fell by nearly 29 percent. An aging population, a growing brain drain of young talent, a withering tax base, and shrinking investments in key public sectors—these were all pressing issues before Hurricane Maria hit.
“It will not be good enough to go back to the status quo,” an impassioned Sanders said. “A status quo which left the island in poverty, severe underdevelopment, and with a totally inadequate electrical system.” So long as Congress and the White House remain indifferent to Puerto Rico’s plight, it’s difficult to imagine a better status quo for these American citizens.