Federal Power, Neglect

My 74-year-old mother arrived from Puerto Rico on Thursday night, a week after she had begun to run out of food and drinking water because of Hurricane Maria. Every time we spoke on the phone, she asked me when I was going to pick her up and bring her to the safety of my home.

I have watched with horror as the Trump administration and large sectors of the American public neglected the humanitarian crisis in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the two territories inhabited by U.S. citizens in the Caribbean. All the while, federal government officials continue to argue that Puerto Ricans will assume a growing share of the financial burden to reconstruct a U.S. territory controlled by Congress.

The elephant in this room is what comes next. In cases like Harris v. Santiago-Rosario the Supreme Court affirmed the power of Congress to enact discriminatory economic legislation for citizens in Puerto Rico. During the summer of 2016, Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, imposed an undemocratic fiscal control board on Puerto Rico. The board adopted a financial austerity program for the island, which echoes Kansas' failed economic policies. According to this control board, Puerto Rico's economy will not grow for another 10 years. Yet somehow Puerto Ricans are expected to fix their problems.

Rebuilding Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will be expensive. Estimates say that just turning the lights on will cost at least $2 billion dollars, fixing the roadways another $1 billion. Who knows how much it will cost to make clean water universally available.

Conservative estimates suggest that it will cost upward of $10 billion dollars to make Puerto Rico functional. Federal laws and policies as well as the disastrous hurricane will push Puerto Ricans off the island to spend time with their friends and relatives in Puerto Rican communities in states like Connecticut.

Connecticut should prepare to receive more U.S. citizens who will need public health, housing, education and basic welfare transition resources. The question is whether Connecticut will treat Puerto Ricans in a more humane way than the federal government.

Charles R. Venator-Santiago is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the El Instituto: Latino/a, Caribbean & Latin American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut.

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