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Profits vs. Puerto Rican Lives: Trump Admin Blocks Aid from Reaching Devastated Island

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One week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump says he will visit the island next Tuesday, even as most of the 3.5 million U.S. citizens who live there remain in the dark, without access to power, clean water, food and fuel. Facing withering criticism, Trump held a press conference Tuesday and denied he has neglected the disaster. His administration also denied a request from several members of Congress to waive shipping restrictions to help get gasoline and other supplies to Puerto Rico as it recovers, even though the Department of Homeland Security waived the Jones Act twice in the last month following hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit the mainland United States. We speak with Democracy Now! co-host Juan González and with former New York State Assemblyman Nelson Denis, who wrote about the Jones Act in The New York Times this week in a piece headlined “The Law Strangling Puerto Rico.” His book is called “War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: One week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump says he’ll visit the island next Tuesday, under withering criticism. Maria was the most powerful hurricane to strike the U.S. territory in nearly a century, coming just after Hurricane Irma, and destroyed the island’s entire electrical grid, caused severe flooding, widespread damage to homes and infrastructure. Most of the three-and-a-half million U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico remain in the dark, without access to power, clean water, food and fuel. It took President Trump five full days to respond to the plight of Puerto Rico. He did not tweet about it over that period. Over the weekend, he tweeted 17 times about athletes protesting police violence and refusing to visit the White House. Facing criticism, Trump held a news conference Tuesday in which he congratulated himself on his response to Puerto Rico’s disaster, repeating nearly a dozen times that he was doing a “great,” “amazing,” “tremendous” and “incredible” job. He denied he had neglected Puerto Rico.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL. I was ashamed of what was taking place, because, to me, that was a very important moment. I don’t think you can disrespect our country, our flag, our national anthem. To me, the NFL situation is a very important situation. I’ve heard that before, about was I preoccupied. Not at all. Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work. And to be honest with you, that’s an important function of working. It’s called respect for our country. …

The governor of Puerto Rico is so thankful for the great job that we’re doing. We did a great job in Texas, a great job in Florida, a great job in Louisiana. We hit little pieces of Georgia and Alabama. And frankly, we’re doing—and it’s the most difficult job, because it’s on the island. It’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s out in the ocean. You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states. And the governor said we are doing a great job. In fact, he thanked me specifically for FEMA and all of the first responders in Puerto Rico. And we’re also mentioning with that the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was devastated. So we are totally focused on that.

AMY GOODMAN: But many Puerto Ricans are criticizing the U.S. government and saying aid has not been arriving fast enough. Nongovernmental organizations are even reporting charter planes that brought donations for them to distribute never reached the groups, because the government decided to centralize all distributions. This is San Juan resident Joselyn Velazquez.

JOSELYN VELAZQUEZ: [translated] The aid is too slow. They say it is coming from the United States, but who are they giving it to? Because I haven’t received any at my house. No one has knocked on my door and said, “Here’s some rice.”

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Trump administration denied a request from several members of Congress to waive shipping restrictions to help get gasoline and other supplies to Puerto Rico as it recovers. The decision came even though the Department of Homeland Security waived what’s called the Jones Act twice in the last month, following hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit the mainland United States. Republican Senator John McCain called the decision “unacceptable” and called on the agency to reconsider.

For more, we’re joined by two people. Nelson Denis, former New York state assemblyman, he wrote about the Jones Act in The New York Times this week in a piece headlined “The Law Strangling Puerto Rico.” His book is called War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. And we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Democracy Now! co-host Juan González, who’s author of, among other books, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America and Reclaiming Gotham, just out this month, Bill De Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities.

Juan usually would be sitting right here in the studio, but he’s under the weather, and, Juan, as so many people are now in Puerto Rico. But if you could just first respond to the catastrophe on your island and how the U.S. government—the majority of Americans do not realize Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens—how the U.S. government has responded to the climate catastrophe?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, so far, Amy, it’s been too little, too late. As you mentioned, this whole issue of the Jones Act, which Nelson wrote a fabulous piece in The New York Times just this week, is one of the key problems still bedeviling Puerto Rico. You mentioned that the Jones Act was suspended just this year for—to benefit Texas and Florida during the hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But there’s actually been previous suspensions of the Jones Act. During Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration waived the Jones Act for a period of time to help the people of New Orleans, as well as during Hurricane Rita that occurred that same year, in 2005. And during Superstorm Sandy, the Obama administration suspended the Jones Act for a period of time to allow other foreign vessels to come in and assist the people of the East Coast of the United States. So it’s not unusual for the federal government to waive the Jones Act in times of major crisis. Yet, for some unexplainable reason, the Trump administration has said that, for Puerto Rico, which has always suffered from the Jones Act, it will not happen this time around.

AMY GOODMAN: Nelson Denis, you wrote this piece, “The Law Strangling Puerto Rico.” Most people don’t understand this law. Explain exactly what it is, what it does when it comes to getting things into Puerto Rico—of course, it’s to do with the whole country, as well—around price and even access to that all.

NELSON DENIS: Well, and that’s precisely the case, Amy. Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 was initially promulgated to protect the United States from German U-2 boats. This was in 1920. But you fast-forward nearly a hundred years later, there’s no U-2 boats lurking off the coast of Puerto Rico.

What it does, however, is it creates an international price-rigging environment. The only way that foreign registry goods can enter Puerto Rico, under the auspices of the Jones Act, is one of two ways. The goods, all goods—food, water, medicine, oil for the electrical grid, which runs entirely on oil—all of it has to come one of two ways. If it comes directly into Puerto Rico, it has to pay fees, duties, taxes, import quotas, all sorts of costs that are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer. The other alternative, the only option, is to reroute to Jacksonville, Florida. The foreign registry vessel goes to Jacksonville, they offload the goods, reload onto a U.S. vessel, then that vessel reroutes back to Puerto Rico. It’s the equivalent of digging a ditch to fill it again. The net result of this is that everything on those ships is then priced 15 to 20 percent higher because of all that activity, because of all those duties and because of what they pay in Puerto Rico or because of the rerouting from Jacksonville. That then creates a price-rigging environment where U.S. corporations can just slightly underbid. The same automobile costs $6,000 more in San Juan than it does in Miami. Food costs twice as much throughout Puerto Rico as it does in the mainland United States. And yet, Puerto Ricans—the per capita in Puerto Rico is about $17,000, less than half of that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union.

So, we have a tremendous dysfunction going on. It’s extremely profitable for the Jones Act carrier companies and for the consumer goods. There’s more Walgreens and Wal-Marts per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else on the planet. Puerto Rico is the fifth-largest market in the world for U.S. goods, all under hyperinflated prices due to the Jones Act. That’s why right now there has to be a tectonic shift in this relationship. We have to eliminate the Jones Act so that Puerto Ricans can afford to live.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what about them saying, this time around, I mean, when this just affects Puerto Rico, oh, and the Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands—how do you respond to Trump saying he will not lift it now? I was just listening to Governor Rosselló this morning, and he said, yes, it must be—well, he said, suspended for seven days.

NELSON DENIS: Right. And it doesn’t fly. As usual with Trump, you know, the devil isn’t even in the details, because they don’t make sense. They’re saying that, “Oh, well, there is—we don’t have increased port capacity. The ports are what—are the bottleneck in Puerto Rico, so, therefore, the Jones Act won’t make any difference.” Well, this doesn’t make sense. You had Florida ports involved, and they suspended it a week before Hurricane Irma hit. They already suspended the Jones Act for Florida, and the Florida ports were involved.

I did some just quick research last night and found out that the British Ministry of Defense can rebuild ports within 27 days. So, by the time Trump gets to Puerto Rico, they could be halfway to rebuilding the port structure that he’s supposedly talking about. It has nothing to do with the capacity of the ports. It has to do with the prices. And that’s what, clearly, they’re looking to avoid, because what we’re going to get is public-private partnerships that are going to now own the ports and the rebuilding effort for everything to do with the Puerto Rican waterfront. And that’s just about making money, not about saving Puerto Rico. So there is no reason why the Jones Act couldn’t be lifted. And it’s just plain doubletalk to say it won’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: An email—a viewer wrote in and said Mitch McConnell’s wife—Mitch McConnell, of course, the Senate majority leader, and Elaine Chao, of course, the secretary of transportation—her family probably benefits from the odious Jones Act that keeps aid out of Puerto Rico and keeps Puerto Rican residents poor. Her family owns a shipping company.

NELSON DENIS: Yeah, yeah. And so it’s a virtual monopoly. You have carrier companies, Sea Star, Trailways, Crowley. There’s just a small group of usual suspects that benefit enormously from this status quo, in addition to the consumer goods companies. As I said, cars—the same car will cost $6,000 more in San Juan than in Miami. So there’s a very tight knot of vested interests that are coming under the auspices of Citizens United, that are going to be lobbying intensively right now to do whatever they can to keep the Jones Act on the neck of Puerto Rico. But hopefully, the human values and the humanitarian crisis that is basically exploding right now will basically offset those lobbying efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, have you heard from your sister in Puerto Rico at this point?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: No, I have not, still. She’s in the town of Cayey. I’ve been trying to reach out to other people, and even journalists in Puerto Rico who I know. But there’s been no phone communication. She hasn’t been able to text. She and her husband have not been able to text message or to, obviously, get to any kind of working internet connection to be able to get messages out. We’re hopeful that she’s fine.

But I want to bring up another issue about this. There’s been reports that the entire 911 system in Puerto Rico has not been operating. And I think that this is important to understand, not just for Puerto Rico, but for the rest of the United States. After the Twin Towers attacks in 2001, the federal government, because of the communication problems that the firefighters and the police had during the attacks on the World Trade Center, the federal government spent billions of dollars to create a new emergency response system for police forces and for public safety personnel throughout the United States. It’s called FirstNet. And it vowed that, within a few years, all of the police departments and emergency responders across the country would have it. We are now more than 15 years later, and the FirstNet system is still not operational in times of natural disaster. In fact, it was only in March of this year, 2017, that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross finally awarded a contract for $47 billion to AT&T to basically operate this system, because, for the early years, there was all kinds of conflicts of interest between the officials who were named to the FirstNet board, and so it took a long time to get this contract awarded. It was just on August 31st that the governor of Puerto Rico announced that it would buy into the FirstNet system, because all of these local governments are now going to have to pay AT&T to create this emergency response system. So Puerto Rico basically has an antiquated 911 system. And now, when the people need it most, it’s not functioning. But more importantly, the federal government has taken all this time, since the attacks on the World Trade Center, to come up with a workable 911 system in cases of natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Naomi Klein for a minute. We’ve had her on a lot, but years ago, when she wrote The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, she described how governments often introduce radical free market reforms after disasters—again, when she’s talking about The Shock Doctrine.

NAOMI KLEIN: What I mean by “the shock doctrine” is the ways in which large-scale shocks to societies, large-scale crises, economic crises, wars, coups, natural disasters, have systematically been used by right-wing governments, using the disorientation and the panic in society, to push through a very radical, pro-corporate agenda. You know, and I have been on the show many times talking about examples of this, like Hurricane Katrina and how that tragedy and the dislocation of the residents of that city was used to privatize the school system, attack public housing, introduce a tax-free free enterprise zone under George Bush’s administration.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Naomi Klein, years ago. Nelson Denis, your thoughts on what she’s saying and what could happen with Puerto Rico now?

NELSON DENIS: Well, there’s tremendous historical precedent there, when the United States—when, in 1898, the very next year, the most devastating hurricane of the century, of the 19th century, Hurricane San Ciriaco, flattened the island. It was actually worse than Hurricane Maria. And the response of the United States the following year, 1900, was to devalue the Puerto Rican currency by 40 percent. So that was the shock doctrine in its earliest application. And it worked. Within 30 years, the United States owned 80 percent of the arable agriculture in Puerto Rico.

Well, you fast-forward now, you have the PROMESA legislation, the financial control board, the Jones Act and a dilatory president, who’s going to do a sort of a New Orleans flyover and photo-op over Puerto Rico and then basically create public-private partnerships that will own public infrastructure in Puerto Rico rather than redevelop it. And so that’s where it’s headed at this point. And it is, basically, the shock doctrine on steroids in the Caribbean. But this is a—this isn’t time for fun and games. This is not an abstraction. These are human lives, three-and-a-half million people that don’t have electricity and are projected to not have it for up to six months. And that electricity runs entirely on imported foreign oil that’s brought in under inflated prices from the Jones Act. This is—it’s almost an international crime if you don’t address this.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Nydia Velázquez, I know, is, right now, as we speak now, drafting legislation around the Jones Act, Juan. You are an expert, Juan. You speak around the country on the Puerto Rican debt, the devastation, talking about what’s happened to this American colony. How does that play in here? And do you see, even as the crisis is in full gear right now, I mean, with people, the entire island in the dark, the pieces being sort of reorganized?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Amy, I’ve always maintained, you’re—there was mention of the continual blackout that is occurring in Puerto Rico. The crown jewel of Puerto Rico today is the Puerto Rico electric company. It is the largest publicly owned utility in the United States. It generates billions of dollars in revenue. And there has been a longtime desire by the electric power industry of the United States to privatize the Puerto Rico electric company. And so, the longer the blackouts continue, the greater the public cry will be to do something radical in terms of the Puerto Rico electric company. I noted in a piece I wrote for the Daily News earlier this week—I’m sorry, last week—that in the month of June alone, 60 percent of the municipalities in Puerto Rico had blackouts. That’s before the hurricane season. There’s been a constant—years and years of disinvestment in the Puerto Rico electric company. And now I think the—the private industry feels now is the time to actually move forward to basically privatize this company, and so that the profits from the company can flow to American investors, obviously, instead of generating revenue, as the Puerto Rico electric company did for so many years, for the Puerto Rican government.

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, Nelson Denis, this issue of how the U.S. is treating Puerto Rico now and its status as a commonwealth? For example, if it was an independent island right now, countries like Cuba, which has sent 750 doctors and health professionals around the Caribbean to help out in these storms, they could get aid from anywhere. But they can’t get aid, given that they are a U.S. commonwealth, a territory of the United States.

NELSON DENIS: Yeah. And they’re completely under the plenary jurisdiction and exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress, which was affirmed in the Sanchez Valle case last year. And Juan really hit the nail on the head. We’re in a situation right now, they’re called P3s—public-private partnerships. But in Puerto Rico, they’re P5s—public-private partnerships for the plunder of Puerto Rico. And it’s going to happen under an accelerated basis. And there’s the public and the private component. The public is the Jones Act. If we don’t see any of the Jones Act relief—that Juan is right on top of that—that means that it’s a run-up, that it’s a precursor to the privatization of the public infrastructure of Puerto Rico, because that is what will happen next if we don’t suspend the Jones Act.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we’ll continue to follow this. I want to thank you both for being with us. Nelson Denis, former New York state assemblyman, we’ll link to your piece in The New York Times, “The Law Strangling Puerto Rico.”

And, Juan, I hope feel better. I hope you’re able to reach your sister in Puerto Rico. Juan González, Democracy Now! co-host. His latest book, Reclaiming Gotham. Juan, you’re headed to Kansas City on Friday night, is that right?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, yes. I’ll be there doing a—participating in a fundraiser for KKFI, one of the radio stations there. And then I’ll be moving on to University of Maryland on Saturday.

AMY GOODMAN: In College Park. Thanks so much, Juan. Thank you so much, Nelson Denis.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a call for an international inquiry into the devastation of Yemen, the mass killings both from the U.S.-backed Saudi bombing and the cholera outbreak. We’ll speak with the first Yemeni civilian to address the U.N. Security Council. Stay with us.

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