Hurricanes Irma and Maria shattered Puerto Rico, plunged the islands into darkness and caused the deaths of almost 3,000 Puerto Ricans three years ago; the islands’ residents and the Boricua diaspora remember it as if it happened yesterday.
Hurricane Maria alone inflicted an estimated $90 billion in damage, for which Congress allocated only $42.5 billion in disaster relief. The Trump administration allocated a mere $26 billion of that money; much of it has yet to be disbursed.
On Friday, however, the president declared: “I have to say in a very nice way, very respectful way: I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico,” even though 100 schools remain closed as a result of hurricane damage from 2017, thousands of homes have yet to be repaired and the physical infrastructure of the islands remains in disarray.
That was the nominal reason for his statement: He was promising nearly $13 billion in federal disaster funding to repair the electrical grid and educational infrastructure — only 1,095 days after the hurricane and years after Congress had appropriated nearly three times as much, which his administration has not yet distributed. “No one even close.”
He had, however, previously protested that the disaster had messed up his budget, saying during his only visit in 2017: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. But that’s fine, because we’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Over the next three years, Trump consistently blocked disaster funding for the archipelago, saying Congress had “foolishly” spent $92 billion of aid money for Puerto Rico (it was less than half that amount), which had mostly been “squandered away or wasted.” And Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff, recently said Trump asked him and other officials whether the U.S. could swap Greenland for Puerto Rico, because, in Trump’s words, “Puerto Rico was dirty and the people were poor.”
So why did Trump suddenly come out as Puerto Ricans’ best friend forever and unblocked billions of dollars in federal disaster aid? Perhaps the fact that the election was then only 46 days away had something to do with it.
A recent poll found that 49 percent of likely voters in Florida favor Joe Biden, while only 46 percent are likely to vote for Trump — and the White House needs Florida, and the Latino vote in Florida, to win.
And Puerto Ricans living in central Florida may very well decide the election. The region has one of the largest concentrations of Boricuas from the islands on the mainland — around 50,000 of whom are among almost 200,000 people who left the islands after first Maria and then Washington’s neglect tore their lives apart. Biden has a strong lead among the state’s almost 1 million Puerto Ricans.
Trump’s shameless backpedaling on Puerto Rico came just two days after Biden went to South Florida — for the start of Hispanic Heritage Month — and announced a comprehensive plan for Puerto Rico. He promised accelerated access to reconstruction funding, infrastructure investments, parity in health care and nutritional assistance, and “efforts” to reduce an unsustainable debt.
Puerto Ricans are not fooled by the president’s timing.
As Kristian Bob, a singer from San Juan who is popular on social media, wrote in a new song: “You think you got it made / ‘Cuz you made us get paid / You bought us an umbrella three years after it rained.”
Or, in more political terms, “this was a last-minute political move!” Nuria Sebazco, a well-regarded Puerto Rican journalist, told me. “It was probably motivated by Biden’s campaign to attract votes.”
Trump wants us to believe that he is doing something for Puerto Rico — but he is a bit late to the party. We Puerto Ricans are proud people with long memories — and both might help make Trump an ex-presidente.
Wouldn’t that be poetic justice?