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Op-ed pieces for Maelstrom Media

With Puerto Rico, Congress Has No Leg to Stand On

Puerto Rico officials came under the cosh last week as Congress criticized their attempts to get the territory back on its feet in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Speaking at hearings conducted by the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chairman Rob Bishop lambasted the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) for its mismanagement of re-establishing the island’s fragile grid – a turn of events which has ultimately led to the resignation of the body’s executive director.

While the criticisms themselves may be founded on solid ground, the condescending and condemnatory tone taken by Congress appears to disregard their own sluggishness in addressing the crisis. Despite two months having passed since the biggest disaster in Puerto Rico’s history, still less than half of the island’s population – almost two million US citizens – are without electricity, and the government’s failure to act must surely shoulder a portion of the blame.

“A competence deficit”

Both Ricardo Ramos (the now former head of PREPA) and Ricardo Rosselló (the territory’s governor) were grilled over their roles in the most recent debacle which has held up Puerto Rico’s rehabilitation. When Maria knocked out the island’s power lines on September 20th – plunging its whole population into complete darkness – the territory had been expected to fall back upon a network of mutual aid utilities, as states and municipalities normally do when such disasters occur.

Instead, Gov. Rosselló announced a private deal with a tiny Montana-based contracting company named Whitefish Energy, which was later found to be inadequate in terms of its fine print and subsequently scrapped. As a result, Bishop labelled PREPA responsible for “a legacy of dysfunction” that had led to “a competence deficit” and called for new administrative powers to be given to the Financial Oversight Management Board (FOMB) in order to regulate the territory’s transactions.

While Ramos has since stepped down from his role, Gov. Rosselló has resisted the calls for FOMB interference, which he sees as contrary to the principles of Puerto Rico as an autonomous territory and an overreach by Congress. He also claimed that the deal was made with Whitefish due to the difficulties posed by the island’s unique geographical position, the fact he was already in talks with the company to conduct reconstruction work in the wake of Hurricane Irma and the inefficiency of the Army Corps of Engineers, who had been tasked by the government to lead reconstruction operations on the island.

Pot and kettle

This last point is particularly salient; Rosselló alleges that he was only forced to seek a private agreement due to his disillusionment with the aid provided by the state – and that’s an all too familiar theme. When the hurricane first struck, it took President Trump five days to tweet about the matter, let alone act upon it (this coming from a man who normally tweets more times in a weekend than most people do in a calendar year), and even then his words were more critical than compassionate, citing Puerto Rico’s fiscal responsibilities while US citizens lay dying.

While a $10.5 billion relief package was announced for New Orleans just four days after Hurricane Katrine hit the city in 2005 and a $7.9 billion one was approved for Texas shortly after Hurricane Harvey earlier this year, it took more than two weeks for Congress to do the same for Puerto Rico – and even that has been given begrudgingly. The dragging of heels over the Jones Act, as well as its suspension for a paltry two weeks (to address a crisis that will require at least a year of committed aid) shows congressional complacency, while the half-hearted commitment of aircraft to deliver supplies and evacuate stranded citizens is further evidence that the government has phoned in its response to the disaster.

It speaks volumes that popstars like Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez have done more to help the citizens of Puerto Rico than Trump’s administration; in one particularly touching story, a Santa Monica civilian showed the authorities how it was done by chartering multiple flights to ferry hundreds of pregnant, sick and injured people to safety. When viewed in the context of its own lethargy, Congress’ criticisms smack more than just a little of hypocrisy; it’s like the pot calling the kettle inefficient while its own water has yet to even reach a gentle simmer, let alone a full rolling boil.

A missed opportunity for the GOP

While private initiatives have been key in alleviating the stress placed upon the Puerto Rican people until now, long-term solutions will require leadership on the ground and federal engagement overseas. Congress may have a point about the flimsiness of the former, but they’re every bit as culpable for not picking up their own slack with regards to the latter. Tragically, this is having a direct and incalculably detrimental effect on real people struggling in the territory.

With that in mind, a mass exodus to the mainland is not out of the question – and this is where it feels like Trump and the GOP have really dropped the ball. With Puerto Ricans generally favouring Democrats in the past (Democrat congressman Darren Soto believes Puerto Ricans helped deliver Obama into office twice), a mass influx into the country could tilt Florida back into the blue come next election. All the talk of building walls and belittling Latinos has already alienated a significant segment of the country to Trump and the GOP; Maria could have been a chance to build bridges. Instead, the President and his party don’t even seem to be capable or willing of helping to begin rebuilding the lives of 3.4 million of their citizens.


Jonny Sweet

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