Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to note that FEMA announced Wednesday it would continue food and water distribution in Puerto Rico, after pressure from lawmakers.
In the months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria wrecked Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz took on the U.S. President, calling him “disaster-in-chief,”—harshly critiquing Washington’s response. He retorted on Twitter, dismissing her as a “politically motivated ingrate.”
On Tuesday, she was in Washington, D.C., to remind the president—and rest of the country—that the work to repair her commonwealth and heal her community is far from finished. Cruz attended the President’s first State of The Union address as a guest of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, hoping that her presence would refocus the conversation on the many ways Puerto Rico is still lacking.
Cruz believes, however, that the Trump administration is disadvantaging Puerto Rico in ways that go beyond its failed efforts at disaster recovery.
“The botched effort of this administration really has caused lasting pain and even more havoc than the hurricanes themselves,” she said in an interview with CityLab. “Their tax reform was bad for the American middle class, but it is devastating for the Puerto Rican economy. It imposes a 20 percent tax on our imports into the states and a 12.5 percent tax on the intellectual property that is developed in Puerto Rico.
“It almost seems like a structured, concerted effort to ensure that our population dwindles, and that our economy does not recover. The question is: To what avail? President Trump has to know that Puerto Ricans are moving in great numbers to pivotal states, which are very important in the 2018 election and the presidential election. And we like to vote.”
Below are the highlights from CityLab’s conversation with Cruz about rebuilding efforts, privatized energy, and her vision for Puerto Rico’s path forward.
Mayor Cruz, what do you hope to achieve from attending the State of the Union?
I received an invitation from Senator Gillibrand from New York and it was very touching, because when she was asked why she had invited me she said, “I just want to make sure that we don't lose sight of the struggles that Puerto Rico is still having.” If in any way, my presence here helps shed a light on the fact that 35 percent of Puerto Ricans still do not have electricity; that about 500,000 homes need to be either redone completely or partially; that our children are not going to school… One of the main reasons that I want to be here is to remind the American people and the Republican Congress that things are not OK.
Just yesterday, from the private donations that we have been receiving in San Juan, I sent powdered milk and water to a school 45 minutes outside of San Juan that still doesn't have any water or any electricity or food—any milk—for their children. When a situation like this is taking place, it is appalling and, frankly, utterly disgusting that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] says that as of tomorrow they will be no longer be providing food and water supplies to those who need it in Puerto Rico. They say it's because they want to help the private sector [in Puerto Rico]. Well, we all want our economy to be jumpstarted but the issue is that 35 percent of the people do not have electricity; they cannot cook food at home. They are having great difficulties in maintaining their jobs. So it is quite unrealistic to think that just because you want to will something to change that it will change. [On Wednesday, FEMA reversed its position and said it wouldn't end food and water distribution to Puerto Rico, after pressure from lawmakers.]
The Army Reserve, rather than stay in Puerto Rico to build bridges and roads, left beforehand and and went off to other places where they could help. You know, we need that help and, frankly, we have earned it. In every conflict or war since 1970, Puerto Ricans have fought and fought bravely. We don't deserve this—this discriminatory, prejudicial, and racist treatment that we are getting.
The president hasn't complied with his legal imperative, but the American people have been complying with the moral imperative. American people have opened their hearts, opened their pockets—they have helped. We've got so much help from the American people that we have to open a foundation. We need a legal structure to channel the money.
What other things does Puerto Rico need at this time?
One, we need the money that was promised to Puerto Rico, not in the form of a $4.9 billion loan, but in the form of a relief bill. Most Americans probably think that we already see that money. We have not gotten one cent. [Trump signed a bill into law in late October to loan Puerto Rico the funds, but federal officials reportedly told Puerto Rico in January they would not disburse the money because of funds remaining in the island's cash balance.]
We also need the fiscal control board to be dismantled. [See an explanation of the board here.] Why? Because the transformation of Puerto Rico should be in Puerto Rican hands. Now, I understand that the Puerto Rican central government has made some mistakes, like the Whitefish contract and other contracts that were seemingly for the construction and rebuilding of roofs. But just because Watergate happened the United States didn't turn its back on democracy. Just because somebody makes a mistake—a bad mistake which cost us a lot of credibility—does not mean that the Puerto Rican people cannot be in charge.
That's why that bill that was introduced by Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Nydia Velázquez, and Luis Gutiérrez that talks about a comprehensive plan for Puerto Rico—it's very important. And Senator Gillibrand has also helped release a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico. These are complex problems which require comprehensive solutions.
The other thing that we need is a waiver for the Stafford [Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance] Act, which obligates you to rebuild and not transform. So if you have a home that's made out of wood and zinc roofs, you'd have to rebuild it to that specific standard. But guess what? The next hurricane is going to blow it off just like the last two hurricanes did. So we need to provide permanent and transformational solutions to the continued and recurrent problems in Puerto Rico. Otherwise, it is a waste of money. They are bandaids, which are not going to help mid-term and the longterm.
We also need municipalities to be at the center of this discussion. Some municipalities have already said that they may have to close down by mid-April [because of a lack of funds]. About 40 municipalities in Puerto Rico are expected to close down for the next fiscal year, which for us begins July 1. Some people may say, “Oh well, these are just government structures and so forth.” No. These are services that will not be provided. These are citizens that will not have their trash picked up and Head Starts that will not have their teachers. Even though the federal funding is there, somebody has to run the administration. If the municipalities shut down, nobody will be in a position to do that.
Since the president took office, many mayors have positioned themselves in opposition to him. Where do you see yourself in this confrontation going forward?
It's not a confrontation. Whenever injustice, prejudice, discrimination, and sheer incompetence put the lives of people in danger, those of us that believe in justice, in equality, in compassion, and in a government that serves the people need to stand up. One thing I've learned in this humanitarian crisis is that it doesn't matter which party they belong to, all mayors are in a way finding it very critical to deal with the issues at hand.
My job as a mayor is not to make people comfortable. My job as the mayor is to fight for what is fair. I know that makes people uncomfortable and I know that there's a price to pay. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why FEMA is taking so long with the reimbursements for San Juan. They always say, “Oh, politics does not concern us." Well, you know, Brock Long, the head of FEMA said, “Anything that comes out of the mayor of San Juan's mouth, we have shut out as political noise.” So, they do concern themselves with that. But people—and certainly some members of the Puerto Rican government—thought that if they were quiet they would get the help they need. Well, Rosa Parks said, “The more we obeyed them, the worse they treated us.” Enough is enough. The world needs to know, because the American people are better than the president they have.
Following the hurricane, and the federal government’s response, some Puerto Ricans suggested that statehood for the island would lead to a better future response—that it is a longterm fix. You don’t share that view. Why?
Well, if statehood was the fix for that, then why would Katrina have happened?
This is an opportunity to have a real clear discussion—an honest and frank discussion—about the subordination of and the colonialism in Puerto Rico. Now, more than pushing my personal agenda, which is sovereignty for Puerto Rico, the question is: What is a process we're going to use to ensure that all Puerto Rican voices are heard? And after a period of education and saying, “Yes, we will accept x, y, or z formula,” how do we how do we establish a process of self-determination, which will de-colonize Puerto Rico?
No political status is a magic wand to eliminate all issues and problems. This is why I always go back to the moral imperative. If the Trump administration cannot do their job and commit to their legal obligation, they need to commit to the moral obligation. That's what the world expects of him. We don't expect a world leader to be grading himself on relief efforts. We expect leaders to think that if one of us stays behind, the rest of us cannot be complacent about that.
One of the big discussions coming out of the hurricane has focused on Puerto Rico’s energy grid, which desperately needs an overhaul. Recently, the governor announced plans to privatize the power infrastructure. Do you agree that is the right way to go?
No, it shouldn't be privatized. We're 100 miles long and 35 miles wide. There are two things that PREPA does for Puerto Rico: It's like the artery of our economic development and of social justice. So the ownership of PREPA must always remain with the Puerto Rican people.
What is happening is what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.” The governor is now using a situation, which is very difficult—133 days or more without electricity—to privatize. Now the question is: When does it stop? Will we then say that because the schools are working partially because they have no electricity, charter schools are good? Of course not. Will we then say that the transit and road system need to be privatized? Of course not.
What will happen is that most likely the Puerto Rican people will keep that debt of PREPA and the monies to ensure there's an upgrade to the system will come out of higher tariffs or higher rates for the Puerto Rican people. I'm against the people of Puerto Rico losing ownership of their power authority.
Now, do we have to make it better? Yes. Do we have to migrate from fossil fuel to non-fossil fuel? Of course. But that does not mean at all that we should lose ownership of the power authority, because then it will respond to different interests than the social justice and economic development interests.
So what’s the alternative, according to you?
Generation has to come from the four cardinal points, and you have different grids that pump energy into those different areas. Micro grids must be developed as backup grids or primary grids depending on the community. We need to move a lot more into solar energy and green energy.
Are you learning from other mayors on this front, or generally, during the rebuilding effort?
One, we've seen a lot of support from Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York. In fact, he has been a very important collaborator for us in the city of San Juan. Two, I’ve had a few conversations with the mayor of Houston. I've had a conversation with the newly elected mayor of Atlanta. But also, San Juan has been fortunate enough to have had dealings with Oxfam and Operation Blessing and some disaster relief organizations that are nongovernmental, that have experiences from different parts of the world. We are also a member of a group of 100 Resilient Cities from the Rockefeller Foundation. So we'll be tapping into that as well.
In terms of microgrid and community climate justice initiatives efforts, there's no one way to do it. We have to get the community engaged in developing these and make theirs the best practices.