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Could Trump Actually Cancel Puerto Rico’s Wall Street Debt After Devastation of Hurricane Maria?

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Puerto Rico officials say the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has increased from 16 to 34, though the Center for Investigative Journalism reports that number could still rise. The announcement came after President Donald Trump visited the U.S. territory on Tuesday and repeatedly praised his administration’s response to the storm, comparing it to George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. During Trump’s visit, protesters also gathered outside the convention center in San Juan. On Tuesday evening, Trump shocked observers by suggesting that he might seek to cancel Puerto Rico’s $74 billion debt. We get response from Democracy Now!’s Juan González.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today in Puerto Rico, where officials say the death toll from Hurricane Maria has increased from 16 to 34, though the Center for Investigative Journalism reports that number could still rise. Governor Ricardo Rosselló said Tuesday that 19 people died during the storm, while 15 more died from indirect causes related to its aftermath.

Rosselló made the announcement after a short visit by President Donald Trump to the U.S. territory, where nearly three-and-a-half million residents remain without electricity. At one point on the trip, Trump handed out supplies to hurricane victims and tossed rolls of paper towels into the crowd, an action that drew online condemnation for being out of touch, considering the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Trump and first lady Melania also met with residents of the neighborhood of Guaynabo near the capital of San Juan. On the way, their motorcade passed streets still strewn with trash and at least one protester who held a hand-lettered sign along the road that read “You are a bad hombre.” This is Trump’s exchange with a storm survivor.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: How long have you been in the house?

SURVIVOR 1: In this house? About 20 years.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And how long have you lived in Puerto Rico?

SURVIVOR 1: Well, we’ve come and gone for most of our lives, but most of it in Puerto Rico.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But you always come back, right? You always come back.

SURVIVOR 1: Puerto Rico is Puerto Rico.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So let me ask you, though: You’ve never seen anything like—

SURVIVOR 1: No, no, no.


SURVIVOR 1: And we were in Hugo.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Never been anything like—

SURVIVOR 1: Exactly. But Maria was the best.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Did you feel safe in the house during the hurricane?

SURVIVOR 1: Well, since it’s concrete, we were safe, yeah.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Not a lot of movement? Did you feel vibration, movement?

SURVIVOR 1: No, no.


SURVIVOR 2: No, but only a window was—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Looks solid. The windows, yeah.

SURVIVOR 1: Yeah, yeah. So we have a good house, thank God.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And in the meantime, here you are, right?

SURVIVOR 1: Exactly, exactly.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to help you out.

SURVIVOR 1: Thank you.


SURVIVOR 1: Thank you, Mr. President.

SURVIVOR 2: Thank you very much.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much. Great to see you.

AMY GOODMAN: During his visit, Trump shook hands with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who had earlier pleaded with the federal government to end the inefficiency and bureaucracy that prevented aid from being distributed. But Trump did not call on Cruz during his meeting with officials at Muñiz Air National Guard, where he praised his administration’s relief efforts.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack, because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the—every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overpowering—nobody’s ever seen anything like this—and what is your—what is your death count as of this moment? Seventeen?”

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: Sixteen certified.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people, working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.

AMY GOODMAN: The mayor of San Juan, who Trump had tweeted against, when they were shaking hands, said, “This is not about politics. It’s about lives.” Trump just pulled away and publicly said, “Thank you. Thank you.” This comes as Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, who’s credited with turning around the Bush administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, has criticized the Trump administration’s relief operation in Puerto Rico. During Trump’s visit to the island, protesters gathered outside the convention center in San Juan.

MARIANA NOGALES MOLINELLI: My name is Mariana Nogales Molinelli. I am the president of the Working People’s Party of Puerto Rico. We are here denouncing the presence of the president of the United States, Mr. Donald Trump, in Puerto Rico. We are denouncing the presence because, first of all, it is ineffective. Second of all, his mere presence, with his racist, classist, homophobic and misogynistic views, is not welcome here in Puerto Rico.

SONIA SANTIAGO HERNÁNDEZ: It’s a good opportunity for him to show to the world that he’s visiting the colony, the territory of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. But in reality, he’s not going to solve anything. What we’re seeing is that the Puerto Rican people is strong, and we’re together, helping ourselves. What we see in our communities is a military occupation. We are not really seeing the so-called help that the military are supposed to be providing.

AMY GOODMAN: Protesters standing outside the convention center in San Juan. Juan, talk about the significance of this trip, what happened and didn’t happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, obviously, coming two weeks after the hurricane, this is very late for the president to come out to Puerto Rico. The images of him tossing paper towels to the crowd, when what people really need at this point is electricity and is water, the basic—the basic needs that they have that should be supplied.

AMY GOODMAN: Ninety-three percent of the island does not have electricity?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. It’s amazing that we’re talking here, two weeks later, and still the vast majority of the people on the island do not have electricity.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump called them “lucky.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, he made these wild comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, as if saying this was nowhere near as bad as Hurricane Katrina, where, obviously, many more people died in the flooding in Hurricane Katrina. But he doesn’t really grasp the severity of the crisis, that is still continuing and will continue for months on the island because of the failed infrastructure situation that people are dealing with.

The other interesting thing, though, I think, is his remarks that he made in an interview on Fox News on Tuesday. President Trump said his administration would help Puerto Rico wipe out its debt to help it recover from extensive damage caused by Hurricane Maria. And here’s what he said.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, we’re going to work something out. We have to look at their whole debt structure. You know, they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out. That’s going to have to be—you know, you can say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that. We have to do something about it, because the debt was massive on the island.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, he was speaking here, of course, to Geraldo Rivera of Fox News, who’s actually a personal friend of Donald Trump. They know each other very well. And he’s obviously aware that Geraldo is of Puerto Rican origin. So he made these astonishing comments, which, of course, he has no ability to actually implement, because the bankruptcy case of Puerto Rico is now before a federal judge, Judge Laura Taylor Swain. She’s in charge of what happens to the debt. And unless the president all of a sudden is going to come up with money and assume the debt, this is now a case that’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Right. Could he bail out Puerto Rico?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, he would need to get congressional approval to come up with that kind of money. And I doubt that the Republicans in the Congress are in a position right now to say, “We are going to finance $70 billion in debt for Puerto Rico,” or try to get a huge amount of that wiped out, because, again, this is now before a federal judge. It’s the courts now that are trying to decide this, not Congress, unless Congress comes in with money, an appropriation, to be able to deal with the situation. So I think this is more Trump bravado, speaking to his friend Geraldo, which he knew would get some kind of attention in the Latino community across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: But if held to it? I mean, the significance of this? How was the debt accrued?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re talking about roughly $73 [billion], $74 billion in debt that is owed to the bondholders. But there is another $45 billion or so that is owed in unfunded pension liabilities. So, really, the total debt of Puerto Rico is more between $120 [billion], $130 billion. And the talk about forgiving part of the bond debt, without also dealing with how are the pensions of the Puerto Rican public, government employees, both those who are already retired and those who are still working—how are they going to be funded, because the government has no money available to fund the existing pension obligations that it has. So, it’s a much more complicated situation than the president saying we’re simply going to look at possibly wiping out the debt.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, the military bases in Puerto Rico?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, there were at one point an astonishing number of military bases, as about 13 percent of the total land area of Puerto Rico was taken up by military bases, including the famous Ramey Strategic Air Command base in Aguadilla; the Sabana Seca naval base; the Roosevelt Roads, which was at one point the largest naval base in the world of the United States; Fort Buchanan, which was a major base for training of the Puerto Rican National Guard and other Army troops.

But most of those bases have been closed down in the aftermath of the protests against Vieques in the early—in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Once Washington decided to close the Vieques training facility, it was almost as if the military, in revenge for these protests, began, one by one, closing all the bases, including closing Roosevelt Roads. So, basically, most of the military bases are no longer functioning bases.

AMY GOODMAN: And Vieques is now a Superfund site.


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, they hit it so hard, the U.S. Navy, bombing it, hitting it with napalm.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, for 60 years, 60 years of almost daily bombing practices on the island of Vieques.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump met with officials at Muñiz Air National Guard Base.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. Well, some of the facilities have been turned over for the National Guard use, but most of the former military bases now have been decommissioned, for the most part. And so, actually, the role that Puerto Rico played as a military outpost of the United States in the Caribbean and Latin America has ceased to exist now for at least several years.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, his meeting with the governor and then the San Juan mayor, though he clearly, shaking her hand—she says this is not about politics, it’s about lives—he pulls away, moves away, and very loudly saying to other people, “Thank you. Thank you.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. Well, I think that is—the governor, of course—people do not understand, the governor was elected in November. He has been in office as long as Donald Trump has been in office. He’s a very young governor, inexperienced, largely was elected because his father was the governor several years back. In fact, his father played a big role in creating the debt crisis that Puerto Rico now is dealing with.

And so, he is a very conservative, pro-statehood governor, while Carmen Yulín Cruz is from the radical wing of the Popular Democratic Party, the sovereignty wing of the Popular Democratic Party. So, the governor had a direct interest in playing up to President Trump, in trying to get resources from him.

But the governor himself—my sense is, from what I’ve seen of the work in Puerto Rico, the local government did not do a good job in preparation for this hurricane. And so, there is some blame to be put on the local—on that governor and on his Cabinet, his relatively inexperienced Cabinet, in some of the problems in being able to respond quickly once the hurricane hit.

AMY GOODMAN: And that sign that was held up as the presidential motorcade went by, the woman holding a sign, “You’re a bad hombre,” obviously referring to President Trump saying that about Mexicans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, saying that about almost any other Latinos who he thinks are criminal of one kind or another. That’s one of his favorite phrases, “bad hombres.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we’ll continue to follow the crisis in Puerto Rico.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, President Trump heads today to Las Vegas, to the massacre site. This is Democracy Now! We’ll talk about that in a minute.

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