Trump lashes out at rav­aged Puerto Rico

Times Colonist - - Business - KEN THOMAS and AN­DREW TAY­LOR

WASH­ING­TON — U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump lashed out at hur­ri­cane-dev­as­tated Puerto Rico on Thurs­day, in­sist­ing in tweets that the fed­eral govern­ment can’t keep send­ing help “for­ever” and sug­gest­ing the U.S. ter­ri­tory was to blame for its fi­nan­cial strug­gles.

His broad­sides trig­gered an out­cry from Democrats in Wash­ing­ton and of­fi­cials on the is­land, which has been reel­ing since Hur­ri­cane Maria struck three weeks ago, leav­ing death and de­struc­tion in an un­par­al­leled hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

San Juan Mayor Car­men Yulin Cruz, with whom Trump has had a run­ning war of words, tweeted that the pres­i­dent’s com­ments were “un­be­com­ing” to a com­man­der in chief and “seem more to come from a ‘Hater in Chief.’ ”

“Mr. Pres­i­dent, you seem to want to dis­re­gard the moral im­per­a­tive that your ad­min­is­tra­tion has been un­able to ful­fil,” the mayor said in a state­ment.

The de­bate played out as the House passed, on a sweep­ing 353-69 vote, a $36.5-bil­lion US dis­as­ter aid-pack­age that in­cludes as­sis­tance for Puerto Rico’s fi­nan­cially strapped govern­ment. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Re­pub­li­can, said the govern­ment needs to en­sure that Puerto Rico can “be­gin to stand on its own two feet” and said the U.S. has “got to do more to help Puerto Rico re­build its own econ­omy.”

Forty-five deaths in Puerto Rico have been blamed on Maria, about 85 per cent of Puerto Rico res­i­dents still lack elec­tric­ity and the govern­ment says it hopes to have elec­tric­ity re­stored com­pletely by March.

Both Trump and Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence vis­ited the is­land last week to reaf­firm the U.S. com­mit­ment to the is­land’s re­cov­ery.

But Trump’s tweets Thurs­day raised ques­tions about whether the U.S. would re­main there for the long haul.

He tweeted: “We can­not keep FEMA, the Mil­i­tary & the First Re­spon­ders, who have been amaz­ing (un­der the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances) in P.R. for­ever!”

In a se­ries of tweets, the pres­i­dent added, “elec­tric and all in­fra­struc­ture was dis­as­ter be­fore hur­ri­canes.” He blamed Puerto Rico for its loom­ing fi­nan­cial cri­sis and “a to­tal lack of ac­count­abil­ity.”

The tweets con­flicted with Trump’s past state­ments on Puerto Rico. Dur­ing an event last week hon­our­ing the her­itage of His­pan­ics, for ex­am­ple, the pres­i­dent said: “We will be there all the time to help Puerto Rico re­cover, re­store, re­build.”

White House chief of staff John Kelly, speak­ing to re­porters, said the mil­i­tary and other emer­gency re­spon­ders were try­ing very hard to “work them­selves out of a job.” Re­as­sur­ing the is­land, Kelly said the U.S. will “stand with those Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens in Puerto Rico un­til the job is done.”

Democrats said Trump’s tweets were de­plorable, given that the three mil­lion-plus U.S. ci­ti­zens on Puerto Rico are con­fronting the kind of hard­ships that would draw howls of out­rage if they af­fected a state. One-third of the is­land lacks clean run­ning water and just eight per cent of its roads are pass­able, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment sta­tis­tics.

“It is shame­ful that Pres­i­dent Trump is threat­en­ing to aban­don th­ese Amer­i­cans when they most need the fed­eral govern­ment’s help,” said Mary­land Rep. Steny Hoyer, the sec­ond-rank­ing House Demo­crat.

Af­ter years of eco­nomic chal­lenges, Puerto Rico was al­ready in the process of re­struc­tur­ing much of its $74 bil­lion in debt be­fore the hur­ri­cane struck.

The fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion is more com­pli­cated than Trump’s tweets sug­gest.

Puerto Rico lost pop­u­la­tion and jobs af­ter Con­gress elim­i­nated spe­cial tax breaks in 2006, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to re­pay its debts. Yet lenders con­tin­ued to ex­tend credit to Puerto Rico de­spite its eco­nomic strug­gles, while pen­sion costs strained Puerto Rico’s govern­ment and its in­fra­struc­ture de­te­ri­o­rated.

The leg­isla­tive aid pack­age to­tals $36.5 bil­lion and sticks close to a White House re­quest. For now, it ig­nores huge de­mands from the pow­er­ful Flor­ida and Texas del­e­ga­tions, which to­gether pressed for about $40 bil­lion more.

A steady se­ries of dis­as­ters could put 2017 on track to ri­val Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and other 2005 storms as the most costly set of dis­as­ters ever.

Ka­t­rina re­quired about $110 bil­lion in emer­gency ap­pro­pri­a­tions.

The bill com­bines $18.7 bil­lion for the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency with $16 bil­lion to per­mit the fi­nan­cially trou­bled fed­eral flood in­sur­ance pro­gram to pay an in­flux of Har­vey-re­lated claims.

An ad­di­tional $577 mil­lion would pay for western fire­fight­ing ef­forts.

Up to $5 bil­lion of the FEMA money could be used to help lo­cal gov­ern­ments re­main func­tional as they en­dure un­sus­tain­able cash short­falls in the af­ter­math of Maria, which has choked off rev­enues and strained re­sources.

Ryan planned to visit Puerto Rico on Fri­day. He has promised that the is­land will get what it needs.

“It’s not easy when you’re used to liv­ing in an Amer­i­can way of life, and then some­body tells you that you’re go­ing to be with­out power for six or eight months,” said Res­i­dent Com­mis­sioner Jen­nif­fer Gon­za­lez-Colon, who rep­re­sents Puerto Rico as a non­vot­ing mem­ber of Con­gress.

“It’s not easy when you are con­tinue to suf­fer — see the suf­fer­ing of the peo­ple with­out food, with­out water, and ac­tu­ally liv­ing in a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.”

Whole­sale de­struc­tion of com­mu­ni­ties in Puerto Rico is ev­i­dent af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria, as seen in this aerial view of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Toa Alta (pop­u­la­tion, 74,000).

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