It is Time to Acknowledge Puerto Ricans as American Citizens

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In the past month, a series of hurricanes have ravaged the Caribbean, and all the Greater and some of the Lesser Antilles have been affected by these consecutive weather hazards. One of the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico, a U.S. unincorporated territory, was severely damaged by the category-four Hurricane Maria. Homes were destroyed, electrical grids demolished and telecommunications interrupted. Despite being in a bizarre statehood limbo, federal agencies such as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are obligated to treat the island as if it were a state of the Union. However, unlike Texas and Florida, the aid to Puerto Rico has been sluggish.

FEMA’s relief work has been greeted multiple times by Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosello. However, according to the Puerto Rico government’s webpage Status.pr, only 10.7 percent of the population has electricity, 55 percent have functioning sewage, 42 percent of communication services have been restored, 68 percent of the hospitals are working and only 25 percent have electricity, and 73 percent of the island supermarkets are open. A closer examination of these data might reveal that Puerto Rico’s basic needs have been restored, but only a relatively small percentage of Puerto Ricans have access to them, if we consider that the world power is helping the island cope with its reconstruction. Bearing this information in mind, it is inevitable to ask if the federal government considers Puerto Ricans as second-class American citizens due to their different culture.

Puerto Rico’s slow recovery can be attributed to two reasons: its infrastructure was completely ruined by Maria, and the reluctance of President Trump to expand the emergency relief measures on the island. Of these two reasons, the second seems the least surprising, given the short but substantial history of Trump’s presidential controversies.

On Sept. 28, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement that “It is critical to get the island’s infrastructure in working condition as soon as possible so relief supplies and other assistance can be delivered to the people of Puerto Rico.”

Without roads, whether they are paved or not, the relief effort is going to be unable to reach remote communities. At this moment, most of the aid has to be delivered by plane or boat. The reconstruction of the island’s infrastructure might last some months according to Philip Bump, a national correspondent for the Washington Post, who would later call it “a constant reminder of how much work the administration still has to do before Puerto Rican society has been restored to where it was before Hurricane Maria hit.”

The constant stream of President Trump’s tweets that saturate the political arena are, as always, complicating the already complex Puerto Rican panorama. Few days after Maria’s violent pass through Puerto Rico, President Trump tweeted, “Texas and Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure and massive debt, is in deep trouble,” which is cynical as he prioritized emergencies according to the fiscal health of the state or territory.

As usually, media and Puerto Ricans bashed Trump’s tweet as out-of-place and insensitive. Vann R. Newkirk II, a staff writer at The Atlantic, considered Trump’s attitude toward the island as reminiscent of one of the first imperialistic American governors of the island in 1899, who saw Puerto Ricans as inferior as they lacked the “Anglo-Saxon energy to face a gloomy outlook.”
Several universities and politicians around the country have expressed their solidarity toward Puerto Rico and pressured the president to prioritize Puerto Rico’s emergency. Unfortunately for Puerto Ricans, UCI’s chancellor office seems to be echoing the statements of President Trump as the office has not issued an statement on the devastation that took place on unincorporated American soil. Furthermore, the silence of our university — and hundreds of other nationwide — is a clear sign that the American people do not really know how to feel about Puerto Rico.

Sebastian Suarez is a fourth-year political science major. He can be reach at ssuarez1@uci.edu.

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