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San Juan Mayor Calls for End to Puerto Rico’s Colonial Status Amid Slow Hurricane Maria Recovery

StoryFebruary 19, 2018
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Five months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, swaths of the island still have no electricity, while food and water supplies have been slow to arrive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA, has been hit by a series of scandals, after it was revealed that only a fraction of the 30 million meals slated to be sent to the island after Hurricane Maria was actually delivered. FEMA approved a $156 million contract for a one-woman company to deliver the 30 million meals. But in the end, FEMA canceled the contract after she delivered only 50,000 meals, in what FEMA called a logistical nightmare. This came after FEMA gave more than $30 million in contracts to a newly created Florida company which failed to deliver a single tarp to Puerto Rico. For more, we speak with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

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

AMY GOODMAN: As Puerto Rico marks five months since Hurricane Maria battered the island, we continue with our interview with the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. Democracy Now!'s Juan González and I spoke to her on Friday. I asked her if she's opposed to the privatization of PREPA, the Puerto Rican power authority, the largest power authority in the United States.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Yes, yes. And I’ve been opposed ever since I was a member of the House of Representatives nine years ago now. And I’ll tell you why. Electricity isn’t only about getting the lights in your house turned on. Electricity is about providing people access to equal services. So, a private company, which is moved by profits, as it should be, may decide that in this very remote urban area of Puerto Rico, it is not worthwhile for them to put money into the system, it is not worthwhile for them to replace the light poles. So, all of a sudden, some Puerto Ricans will be looked at with a different lens than other Puerto Ricans. I am against privatization of public schools for the exact same thing. There is a reason why essential services are handled by the government in an island nation that’s a hundred miles long by 35 miles wide.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mayor, I wanted to ask you, on another issue, the issue of the role of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States. There are about more than 5 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican descent living in the mainland United States. Their role, since this crisis has started, in being able to provide support and assistance to their fellow Puerto Ricans on the island?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Yes. And, in fact, I think we are now the diaspora. There are 5 million Puerto Ricans in the United States. There’s about 3 million Puerto Ricans in the island nation of Puerto Rico. But the diaspora has been the echo of our voices. So many times, they have, in the past, been at the forefront of very big fights—when we, you know, did what we had to do in order to get the Navy out of bombing the island of Vieques, the municipal island of Vieques, when we joined together in all different forces to get the release of Oscar López Rivera a year ago. So, the diaspora has been essential in ensuring that our voices are heard and magnified.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, as you speak to us from San Juan, you just recently returned from Washington, where you were the guest of New York Senator Gillibrand at the State of the Union address of Trump. You certainly had run-ins with President Trump after Hurricane Maria. When he finally went down to the island and tossed rolls of paper towels at hurricane survivors, he also attacked you and Puerto Ricans. He said, “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.” You responded by talking about his utter statement of hypocrisy. Have you changed your views of President Trump? What is your assessment of how he responded to the crisis, the hurricane in Puerto Rico?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, you know, this has never been about President Trump or myself. This was always about saving lives and ensuring that the people of Puerto Rico got what they needed and still continue to get what we need in order to move forward.

Now, you know, when you sit there in Congress with all that power right there, it is—the activity itself has a magical ring to it. But then, when you start hearing the president talk about and using language that is divisive, using language that disrupts the ability of the American people to join forces together, then sort of the magic starts fading away somehow.

I was very honored that Senator Gillibrand took it upon herself to invite me. It gave us, again, another opportunity to use various platforms to ensure that the American people and the powers to be know that this is not “mission accomplished,” as it was said the Tuesday before, the day before the State of the Union. FEMA said, “Mission accomplished. We’re stopping all the deliveries of water and food to Puerto Rico now.” It allowed me and the senator and many others the opportunity to use different platforms to call FEMA out on that. And, lo and behold, they decided not to do that.

So, what I really want the American people to continue to understand is that, look, I would want nothing more than to stand on Democracy Now! and say, “Thank God, things are happening, and federal agencies are stepping up.” But yesterday, the Department of Labor of the Puerto Rican government—and, of course, you know, the secretary was appointed by Governor Rosselló—was saying, “No, we haven’t been able to pay, because we haven’t gotten the money from FEMA.” And most of the American people probably think that out of that $4.9 billion that was approved between November and December, that we’ve gotten some of that money. We’ve gotten zero. Just because you throw millions of dollars at something, it doesn’t mean that you’re fixing the problem. It doesn’t mean that you’re fixing what is wrong.

And again, I think that what happened in Puerto Rico—and some people, you know, say, “Well, if Puerto Rico was a state, this wouldn’t happen.” Well, I have one word for you: Katrina. You know, when people don’t put their heart and soul into what they are doing, things go wrong. When they don’t see the magnitude of the suffering of the people and just look at it from 10,000 feet above or a thousand feet above in a helicopter, things go wrong.

So, I think Puerto Rico should be studied from the standpoint of the federal agencies to ensure that what happened in Katrina and what happened in Puerto Rico does not happen again. I had a short conversation with the mayor of Houston, and we were both saying we don’t understand why the money that comes to the municipalities from FEMA has to go first to the state—through the federal level, then to the state level, then it’s provided to the municipalities. And, you know, here’s the mayor of Houston, and here’s the mayor of San Juan, thinking exactly the same. So, it isn’t a political issue. And I think that’s what many people in the Trump administration fail to understand. It is a human issue. It is a humanitarian crisis. It wasn’t handled properly. And that mishandling of it has led to many other things.

Now, did we have problems before that? Yes. Have the problems increased after Irma and Maria? Indeed they have. And people say, “Well, you know, we have a credibility issue.” Yes, we do. The Whitefish situation gave the central government of Puerto Rico a credibility issue. The situation about a program called Tu Hogar Renace, which, again, it was giving a very small company, that didn’t meet all the requirements, a multimillion-dollar contract, which was just taken back a few days ago—all of that provides a credibility issue.

But the governor of Puerto Rico went to Congress and asked for $94 million. So he thought we needed $94 million. And a few days ago, they were celebrating $16 billion—$94 billion and $16 billion. Will that be enough? If you ask for 94, now you can’t be celebrating 16. Are they important? Of course they are. Are they needed? Of course they are. Will that be enough? Well, from the account of the central government, it will not nearly be enough.

And I think this is also the time now to look at the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States and ensure that Puerto Rico stop being a colony of the United States once and for all.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Yulín Cruz, the FEMA issue, this—you mentioned the Whitefish contract, which was canceled. Then you had the $156 million contract for a one-woman company to deliver 30 million meals. She delivers 50,000. FEMA approves a $30 million contract for tarps. Not one is delivered. Should there be criminal prosecutions here? And how are you dealing with these issues now? Are you somehow recouping the money?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, number one, there should be investigations. And if they result in the fact that people have not done what they’re supposed to do and they committed criminal acts, they should be prosecuted, because we cannot allow disasters to be the breeding ground of what Naomi Klein, of course, has called “disaster capitalism.”

So, what we are seeing is that the acts of central government and some acts of FEMA have made this a breeding ground for inappropriate behavior and, in fact, have made this a breeding ground for people to suffer. And what does that open the path for? Privatization. Fifty percent of our schools, as of two weeks ago, were not energized. Let say it’s 60 percent now. The majority of our students with special ed are not back at school yet. The majority of the schools are still going on a part-time basis. So, what does that mean? Well, of course, the governor finds a breeding ground, because people are dissatisfied, to privatize the school system. But the school system is about so much more than just what you learn in books.

And let me pause here for a second and say that the hearts of the people of San Juan go out to the people of Parkland school in Florida, and really, this cannot continue to happen in the United States. Lives cannot continue to be lost because of gun violence. And that’s an issue that has to be dealt with in a swift and appropriate manner and in balancing all of the criteria that you can balance. But as mayor of San Juan, I want to extend our condolences and our wishes that this finally sets a fire on the hearts of people in Congress and on the Trump administration to ensure that something gets done to finish them.

Going back to education in Puerto Rico, what has happened is that then the governor has introduced basically a privatization bill, where he says, and part of the piece of legislation says, that only those companies or programs or groups that are approved by the central government are going to be able to bid. So what the central government is doing is using the desperation of people, which, in some sense, has been brought upon by the botched effort, to ensure that public services that are there to ensure that everyone gets treated the same are privatized. And in the short run and in the long run, that is a recipe for disaster, for discrimination and for inequality.

AMY GOODMAN: Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, speaking to us on this fifth-[month] anniversary of Hurricane Maria hitting the island. We’ll continue to cover the crisis in Puerto Rico and the push to privatize PREPA, the largest publicly owned power utility in the United States.

This is Democracy Now! Happy birthday to Brendan Allen and Neil Shibata.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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