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By Dennis J Bernstein and Randy Credico
The federal response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico has come under harsh criticism, including President Trump’s delay in even recognizing the extent of the catastrophe and then his foisting blame on San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto, who literally has been waist-deep in working against the flood.
“We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,” Mayor Cruz said Friday at a news conference, directed at Trump. As a contrast to the undelivered promise of federal aid, she lauded the donations from major corporations, including 200,000 pounds of food donated by Goya.
In response, Trump angrily blamed the Mayor for the failure to organize and activate a clean-up on the local level. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They … want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job. … The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.”
The Trump administration’s slow response to the Puerto Rico clean-up is being compared to the breakdown in President George W. Bush’s response after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005.
Meanwhile, the island is still struggling to meet even basic needs, with the electric grid for the entire island hobbled and cell phone service barely operating, leaving many residents unable to reach emergency workers.
“This is what we got last night,” Mayor Cruz said on Friday at the press conference: “four pallets of water, three pallets of meals and 12 pallets of infant food — which I gave to the people. … I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles,” she said.
“If we don’t get the food and the water into people’s hands, we are going to see something close to a genocide. … I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives,” Cruz said. Trump announced that he plans to visit Puerto Rico this week.
I spoke late Friday with Puerto Rican-born New York State Assemblyman Jose Rivera. Rivera, 80, is deeply engaged in seeing that the rescue and clean up in the wake of Maria picks up speed. Rivera is outraged at Trump’s lack of action and his attack on those at ground zero trying to save lives. I also reached frontline independent rescue worker, Ronald Rosario, in San Juan. Rosario said the situation is “absolutely dire.”
Dennis Bernstein: Welcome Assemblyman Jose Rivera, joining us from the State Capitol in Albany New York, and Ronald Rosario, who joins us live from a very flooded San Juan, Puerto Rico. Let me begin with you Ronald Rosario. Tell us about the situation there on the ground in Puerto Rico.
Ronald Rosario: The situation here is absolutely dire. People are dying in the streets. The response by the federal government to our situation here has been completely negligent, to the point of being almost criminal. More than 9,000 freight containers are being held in port by FEMA. There are towns that are completely unable to communicate with the outside world. People are dying due to lack of fuel to power their generators.
The average person has to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to stand in a line to get $20 worth of gas so they can drive and wait in another line for food. Just to withdraw some money from an ATM can take five or six hours. This is in the capital of San Juan. But in the center of the island you don’t even have that benefit.
People have no water and no food. The whole country is paralyzed. There is no power. Only 40% of water sources are available, mostly in the big cities. A sense of desperation has spread throughout the island.
It took nine days for the military to finally step in. So on top of everything we now have a militarized situation as well. A curfew is in place from 9:00 pm to 5:00 am. It makes no sense because, as I said, you have to get in line earlier than that in the morning to get gas and eventually food.
Dennis Bernstein: Assemblyman Jose Rivera represents the Bronx in the New York state legislature. I know this isn’t the first report like this you have heard. What have you been able to find out in terms of what is going on and how that might change?
Jose Rivera: Back on September 22 of 1989, when Hugo hit the island of Puerto Rico, we were able to get two airplanes to land there. It doesn’t surprise me that FEMA has not acted yet because they didn’t act in 1989. It took weeks before they acted. But the state of New York under Governor Cuomo took charge on our request and sent a National Guard aircraft there. But only two planes landed in Puerto Rico. FEMA did not react until a couple weeks later.
Their behavior now is criminal. It is an attempt to force people to leave the island in order to eliminate us as a people on our own island. They are trying to do what they did to Hawaii, when they reduced the native population to one percent so that they could do what they wanted with the islands.
We met with Governor Andrew Cuomo and within a couple days he mobilized the National Guard and we sent two aircraft to Puerto Rico. We were the first responders. But the aid we took there has not been distributed. The mayor of San Juan has taken issue with the governor, who is a puppet and goes along with everything Trump is saying.
Three days ago I received a very desperate call from the island of Culebra, which, like Vieques, was used by the navy for target practice. Former SEIU president Dennis Rivera called me to say that they have no drinking water because a purification plant there has been destroyed. Puerto Rico desperately needs the help of the American federal government.
Dennis Bernstein: Ronald Rosario, say a little more about your concerns if you don’t get the kind of help you need soon.
Ronald Rosario: The number of deaths reported so far is only sixteen but we all know that in fact the number is much larger. We know that people are dying in hospitals because they don’t have the diesel needed to fuel their generators. Some hospitals and elderly homes don’t have water or power. This instability has already created a social tension which has given rise to an increase in crime. People are stealing diesel from hospitals.
Dennis Bernstein: Do you agree with the assemblyman that part of this is an attempt to cleanse the island and turn it into a vacation paradise?
Ronald Rosario: Absolutely. Puerto Rico is a very important colony within the American empire. The United States waits eight days to respond to an emergency on one of its colonies. Three days before Trump is scheduled to come here, the Marines show up and say they are going to make sure the supply lines are restored.
Dennis Bernstein: Vieques was extensively used as a bombing range. Is there a chance that some of the pollutants that haven’t been cleaned up are going to present another kind of problem?
Ronald Rosario: The people of Puerto have had a long struggle with a company that is producing electricity with coal in the south of the island. They are depositing huge piles of toxic ash there. In the case of a large hurricane, those ashes are spread all over the place. Actually, there are many forms of toxic waste that we have not accounted for. At this point we are just working on getting water and food to people in dire need. The next step will be to take account of what is left.
Randy Credico: What is preventing these containers from being distributed?
Ronald Rosario: Of course, they are blaming the truck drivers. However, we know that a number of freight companies have presented themselves to the main government command center, telling them that they are willing to deliver this freight free of charge, and they have been turned away. Puerto Rico is without communication. You can only receive a phone call in San Juan. There is no internet because the power is down.
This crisis is manufactured. True, the island suffered an immense blow, but the response has made the crisis worse.
Randy Credico: Have any other Caribbean nations offered help?
Robert Rosario: Yes, they have, as they always do. Cuba offered to send four brigades of electricians and one brigade of medics with a mobile hospital. Unfortunately, the Jones Act of 1917 forbids Puerto Rico from receiving freight from any ship that does not fly a US flag. This means that all freight must come from the US, at a cost of three times the international market cost. We are demanding that the US free us from this restriction.
Dennis Bernstein: I guess they have lifted it now for ten days.
Ronald Rosario: But do you know how long it takes for any vessel to come from any part of the Caribbean at this point? At least six days. It is just cynicism.
Randy Credico: Have the Cuban medics been deployed at this point?
Ronald Rosario: No, they have been refused.
Randy Credico: It seems that the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, is not as tied to the US establishment.
Ronald Rosario: No, we have a progressive mayor who believes in Puerto Rican sovereignty and the right of self-determination. She is the only one at this point who is advocating for the truth, for uncovering the lies of the colonial and federal governments.
Randy Credico: How has Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) been received by the average Puerto Rican?
Ronald Rosario: Half of Puerto Ricans reside in the United States. This is the only real political power we have. We see them as our allies, we are all Puerto Ricans. We count on them to advocate for us. They are the only ones who can.
We want all our friends in the United States to understand that we are experiencing a huge humanitarian crisis. This is not a crisis to come, it is already happening. We need people to mobilize and to demand that the United States take responsibility for its colony.
We did not ask the US to invade us in 1898, we did not ask the US to force citizenship on us in 1917. This was US imperial policy. Today we demand that the United States government take responsibility, not because we are US citizens but because we are human beings.