President Donald Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday showed a deep disconnect between his vision of the federal disaster response to the territory’s devastation after Hurricane Maria and the reality being reported on the ground.
Beyond his odd insistence that everything is going great, Trump’s lecturing tone struck a nerve. He actually had the gall to complain about the financial costs for a ravaged island still struggling for basics like food, energy and electricity: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
That’s in the same week the president is touting a “massive” tax cut plan that most analysts say overwhelmingly favours the wealthiest Americans.
What the self-proclaimed “king of debt” should be delivering to the 3.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico is hope of a better future, or just any future, backed by the full faith and credit of the US government. To begin with, Puerto Rico needs some relief from the hefty debt payments to Wall Street that have been holding back its economy for years.
“Trump might try to marshal the experience he gained in his six business bankruptcies to help Puerto Rico’s fiscal situation,” John Podesta, campaign manager for Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “With 80% of electric distribution and 100% of electric transmission infrastructure damaged or destroyed on the island, it’s time for the power authority’s hedge-fund-vulture bondholders to take a long-overdue haircut.”
What exact form debt relief takes is less important than a strong commitment to rebuild and fortify the island, without which many analysts expect a mass exodus to the mainland. Let the president’s advisors get as creative with their Puerto Rico deficit maths as they have with the dubious arithmetic backing their tax cut plan.
Yet after a notable five-day silence following the storm, Trump took to Twitter in a deeply unsympathetic fashion, reminding Puerto Ricans their government owes “billions of dollars” that “must be dealt with.”
“Instead, we should consider forgiving Puerto Rico’s debt and federally fund its reconstruction,” Wenonah Hauert, executive director of Washington non-profit Food & Water Watch, argued in an opinion piece for Common Dreams, a liberal website.
“It’s important to demand federal funding for our precious water infrastructure before disasters happen as well; indeed, this funding was cut off to Puerto Rico because of its debt, making a bad situation much worse when the hurricane hit,” Hauert wrote.
For her part, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, attacked by Trump for pleading for more help on national television, has demanded a 10-year moratorium on public debt repayment as the territory tries to rebuild from the historic storm.
Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
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