Mainland Perceptions toward Puerto Rico & Disaster Relief By Shannon Milligan
President Trump gave himself a 10 in grading government efforts responding to Puerto Rico’s devastating Hurricane Maria. His visit afterwards involved one of the more unusual moments in U.S. politics this year, as the president shot paper towels into a crowd of victims like they were basketballs.
A month later 3 million people were without power (out of population of 3.4 million), while 1 million lacked access to clean drinking water. Now power companies, such as Whitefish Energy, are stopping repair work due to outstanding bills not paid by the island’s power authority.
The President’s response to Puerto Rico differs from his response to storms in U.S. states. For instance, Trump downplayed the damage from Hurricane Maria, stating it “wasn’t a real catastrophe like Katrina.” FEMA had been in Florida for longer than Puerto Rico, when Trump stated that the American government couldn’t keep them in Puerto Rico “forever,” three weeks after the hurricane hit.
So, why is Puerto Rico different?
Puerto Ricans are not entirely embraced as American citizens because of their territory status. Some of this stems from misunderstanding. Trump recently stated that he met “with the President of the Virgin Islands,” which is . . . himself.
Trump is not alone in his lack of knowledge about U.S. territories. Only half of Americans surveyed in March knew that Puerto Ricans are American by virtue of birth.
Differences in understanding correlate with U.S. attitudes toward aid. Mainland Americans were twice as likely to support disaster relief aid to Puerto Rico if they knew the territory was part of the United States.
Puerto Rico was originally a Spanish territory, until the end of the Spanish-American war and signing of the Treaty of Paris when it became an American colony. It wasn’t until the Jones–Shafroth Act was passed in 1917 that Puerto Ricans were viewed as American citizens.
Even then, some believe the American government at the time only did so to draft Puerto Ricans into the World War 1 army, and indeed, 16,000 Puerto Ricans served in the First World War. Puerto Rico officially became part of the American commonwealth in 1952.
Puerto Ricans pay taxes to the American government, yet cannot vote in any elections unless they have residency in one of the 50 U.S States. They have no voice, and scant representation in American politics. The Resident Commissioner, Puerto Rico’s only representative in the legislature, can’t vote on bills. Lack of electoral influence also helps explain the underwhelming response by U.S. the federal government. The situation would likely be different if the 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico were constituents.
In 1980, the Supreme Court decided in the case Harris v Rosario that Congress may treat Puerto Rico differently from states as long as there is a rational basis for its actions. As a result, this meant that Congress can set a lower monetary level to those receiving aid from government programs.
Puerto Ricans don’t have access to certain government aid, like federal Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) for the disabled. Their Medicare support for the lowest earners is far less than mainland Americans.
There have been suggestions that Puerto Rico should become the 51st State in America. Without this, or increased political representation, Puerto Rico will always be seen as “less than” and will never have true political equality in the United States.
Shannon Milligan is a student of politics and journalism at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.