Forum

Puerto Rico deserves more respect from the U.S.

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A study has found that Puerto Rico received drastically less federal disaster aid post-Hurricane Maria than Texas post-Hurricane Harvey and Florida post-Hurricane Irma in terms of both dollar amount and efficiency, even accounting for the geographical differences between island and mainland.

According to the study, while Texas and Florida received about $100 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds in the nine days after Harvey and Irma, Puerto Rico only received about $6 million in the same amount of time post-Maria.

Around the same time, Department of Housing and Urban Development Deputy Secretary Pam Patenaude left her post after allegedly clashing with the White House over funding for Puerto Rico. One of these incidents apparently occurred when President Trump tried to divert funding Congress had appropriated for the island to Texas and Florida. Trump was angry at Puerto Rico because he believed — with no factual basis — that Puerto Rico was using disaster money to pay its debts, even telling then-chief of staff John Kelly and budget director Mick Mulvaney that he did not want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico.

In a similar vein, Politico has reported that the White House has been cutting food aid for Puerto Rico’s poor, and gave another reason for Trump’s treatment of Puerto Rico: the fact that he was angry at Ricardo Rossello, the governor of the island, for endorsing Democrat Bill Nelson in Florida’s 2018 Senate race.

While we can have an endless debate about the exact amount of dollars that should go to each aspect of disaster recovery and welfare programs — which are, after all, complicated operations — the inequity cited in the study, Trump’s alleged comments, and his general treatment of Puerto Rico post-Maria led me to think about a broader theme: empathy in leadership. Whether in schools, in workplaces, or in the country at large, we all want our representatives to have empathy for their constituents. When those in charge become too insulated in their bubbles and stop caring about who they are leading, the anger at being forgotten is almost guaranteed to bounce back, and may eventually get strong enough to push out the leader.

Puerto Ricans certainly felt forgotten and dismissed by politicians in Washington, particularly the president, whose lack of empathy was sharply reflected in his comment, “I don’t want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico.” To Puerto Ricans, it fundamentally displays modern-day American colonial attitudes. Because of a quirk of history, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can freely travel to the mainland and back, but cannot vote in general elections and do not have voting representation in Congress — only a non-voting representative in Washington. Politicians, on the other hand, are very xian shi, a Chinese word meaning “practical” but with a negative connotation, and won’t bother themselves with the interests of non-voting citizens since they don’t affect reelection chances. Ideally, we would like representatives to have empathy for all citizens, voting and non-voting alike. In reality, many seem to reserve their “empathy” only for the voters they rely on each election cycle. This seems to be the case in past elections, where Puerto Rico’s problems were absent or barely mentioned on the stump; no voice means the group is left out of the conversation and ignored by those in power. This was apparent in President Trump’s slow and cruel response to the needs of Puerto Rico; he makes it obvious that he doesn’t care about the island, likely because he knows he won’t have to answer to them, or at least those still living on the island, in 2020.

President Trump’s background wasn’t exactly helpful in nurturing an empathetic heart either. There is another Chinese saying to describe this: xian zhe jin tang chi chu sheng, translated as “born with a golden spoon in his or her mouth”. In Trump’s case, money and fame didn’t teach him to care about the struggles of the left-behind, and seems to have had the opposite effect. Because his background led him to think that he deserves everything he has and more and that struggling people deserve their suffering, the challenges of poorer people are ignored. The president sees no problem in being verbally mean to Puerto Rico despite the island’s many struggles because he sees everything through his own lens, colored and distorted by the Washington bubble and his own wealthy background. In that lens, like the evil magic mirror in the Snow Queen fairy tale that shatters to pieces and corrupts people by entering their eyes and heart, what is right becomes wrong and what is wrong becomes right.

I’m not an expert, and I don’t pretend to know whether statehood or independence is best for Puerto Rico, nor the ins and outs of disaster aid and welfare policy. But Puerto Rico deserves so much better than petty verbal assaults and federal feet-dragging whenever it gets hit with a natural disaster, and that starts with politicians on the mainland showing more empathy towards the island. Perhaps if leaders everywhere could open their hearts just a little wider, the light of compassion and empathy would shine farther and light up more people’s lives.