Disastrous Missteps on the Presidential Walkway

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Walkway of the Presidents
Photo by Gilberto Vigo

Along the sidewalks of the Avenida de la Constitución, behind the Capitol of Puerto Rico (a smaller scale replica of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.), is a collection of statues called the “Walkway of the Presidents”. There you can see the statues of the presidents of the United States who have visited the island of Puerto Rico.

Each of them holds a distinctive pose. Gerald R. Ford appears carrying a pipe in his hand, John F. Kennedy is framed with his open coat and a fist at his waist, Dwight D. Eisenhower stands saluting, Harry S. Truman has one of his hands in his pocket, Franklin D. Roosevelt is in a wheelchair accompanied by a statue of his dog, Herbert Hoover is remembered with a hat in his hand, Theodore Roosevelt can be seen with one hand resting on his right side, Lyndon B. Johnson can be seen with a right bearing to the military style. The most recent statue, that of Barack Obama, appears extending his left hand.

Near the statues lies a plaque that reads:

The people of Puerto Rico honors those that, while holding the Office of President of the United States, were so moved to visit the island and its people while recognizing that those that hold this office leave their impact upon the lives and affairs of our nation and our world. The values that represent them were deliberately commissioned and made to represent the figure of each president as a citizen called upon by the nation to serve an individual, as persons, whose human side seems to beckon us to come closer where before we see only their figures without pedestals not ornaments as they seem to walk up to meet us, the people of Puerto Rico at the house of laws. This walkway of the presidents has been conceived to honor those that enjoyed our hospitality in the past, as well as those that may do so in the future.

NGOs in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Photo by Edwin Gonzalez-Castillo

Today, after six months of Hurricane Maria, I wonder how we will remember President Trump’s visit 13 days after the disaster—similar to the amount of time President Bush took in visiting New Orleans, but much longer than the 4 days it took President Trump to visit Texas and Florida after they suffered weather-related disasters. His excuse is that Puerto Rico is an island—which, admittedly, does demand a different logistical response. But this does not excuse the many belated or negligent actions by the government of the United States towards one of its territories—and it is a territory, because in 1953 the United Nations changed Puerto Rico’s colony nomenclature to that of territory. However, Puerto Rico retained all other colony characteristics. And Trump’s excuse is just that, an excuse—not a sufficient difficulty to justify his inadequate response. Because while Puerto Rico, at eight days after the hurricane only had 4,400 US soldiers and 40 helicopters, our sister country Haiti, at twelve days after the 2010 earthquake, had 22,000 US troops and more than 300 US helicopters. One could also use the political difference as an excuse, with limitations of the army in an American territory, except that Florida had 17,567 guardsmen the day after the hurricane in contrast to the 2,000 in Puerto Rico weeks after.

This is not a criticism based on any political-partisan position. After all, President Obama’s visit to Puerto Rico in 2012 had no other reason than to participate in a fundraising dinner…and before Obama, 35 years had passed since the visit of a president. So, this criticism should not be read as a comparison between presidents. Instead, it speaks directly to a conglomerate of actions and inactions on the part of this President of the United States and his administration to the more than 3 million American citizens who still suffer the ravages of one of the worst disasters in US history.

One disturbing irony is that while the President was writing tweets about NFL players, in Puerto Rico hundreds of thousands of people were looking for access to the Internet to fill out a FEMA claim form. Yes—on an island where a small percentage of its inhabitants had electricity and a smaller number had access to the internet, FEMA maintained that the only way to apply for available aid was by accessing the form via internet. In addition, if you lost internet access while filling out the form, which is very detailed and consists of several steps, you had to start the process all over again. The result is that, from over 1 million applications received by FEMA, more than 300,000 have been denied. One in three people who have successfully completed the FEMA application have been denied assistance or have been referred for loans. That is, in a country where the unemployment rate exceeds 12 percent and where more than 40 percent of its inhabitants live below the poverty level, FEMA denies assistance to a third of the people in need, or else invites them to apply for loans.

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The company received a large sum of money to send 30 million meals to PR and only sent 50,000 within the time frame allocated to send 18.5 million of those meals.
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Additionally, the contracts established by FEMA to feed millions of people who had no access to electricity or water included major failures. The New York Times reported on February 6th that one such contract was granted to Tribute Contracting of Atlanta, who in the past had breached canceled several government contracts. The company received a large sum of money to send 30 million meals to PR and only sent 50,000 within the time frame allocated to send 18.5 million of those meals. Other companies have passed off candy bars and chips as “meal modules,” though FEMA claims they were intended as supplementary “snack packs”. And while some people in Puerto Rico had to settle for eating dog food, thousands of pounds of food rotted in wagons in the ports or were thrown to the garbage because there was nowhere to store them.

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This could have been avoided if Homeland Security had lifted the Jones Act with higher priority and for a longer period, as they did with Texas and Florida.
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The contrast is remarkable, of seeing a President travel on a weekend holiday to play golf while an entire island was in darkness, without water, without communication and with endless lines of people in search of gasoline and supplies. But what is worse is that this could have been avoided if Homeland Security had lifted the Jones Act with higher priority and for a longer period, as they did with Texas and Florida. The Jones Act was lifted for 8 days, a week after the hurricane, under pressure from senators of both parties and at the written request of the Governor of Puerto Rico governor. The Jones Act, established in 1920, is intended to restrict the entry of products and materials between U.S. ports to ships made and owned by U.S. citizens. This restricted transportation meant a longer wait for Puerto Rico to receive resources such as gasoline, but worse, an additional cost in the purchase of products and materials of first necessity.

Of course, the crisis in Puerto Rico is not just due to hurricanes. Long before the arrival of Irma and María to Puerto Rico, the island faced an economic hurricane that affected all its inhabitants, especially the most vulnerable communities. The debt of more than $70 billion, the imposition of a Fiscal Control Board, whose interests were clearly aligned with the bondholders, and the lack of a true audit of the debt have been winds that have lashed at Puerto Rico for years. Faced with this sad reality, the response of the United States government to one of its most vulnerable possessions has been the imposition of an additional tax. Because of the tax reform at the end of 2017 approved by the United States Congress, Puerto Rico is now treated as a foreign country. This means the imposition of a 12.5% tax on any income generated by patents and licenses maintained in Puerto Rico. Previously, Puerto Rico was exempt from any foreign tax; now companies in Puerto Rico are treated as foreign corporations, even if their original company is located in the mainland United States and their employment is comprised of American citizens. If this new tax would have been hard for Puerto Rico before the hurricane, doing it after the devastation becomes an affront added to the difficult possibility of recovery of our island.

Just recently, a news report from Politico came out that contrasts the response from FEMA and Trump to Puerto Rico with their response to Texas:

“Nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims. During the first nine days after Harvey, FEMA provided 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to Houston; but in the same period, it delivered just 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and roughly 5,000 tarps to Puerto Rico. Nine days after Harvey, the federal government had 30,000 personnel in the Houston region, compared with 10,000 at the same point after Maria.”

It took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, compared with 43 days for Puerto Rico. And if for a minute you think this is some “fake news”, the answer to that will be to invite you to go to Puerto Rico, go to the mountains, stay with one of the tens of thousands of families that are still without power or water, that are still waiting for a first time visit from FEMA, and whose houses get flooded every time it rains because the only roof they have is the tarp that should be used only for a few months and is leaking water all around. Make this an invitation for you to talk with the hundreds of families who lost a family member because of suicide, a number that increased by 29% in the latter part of 2017. Or with thousands of families that had to leave the island because they needed medical treatment and could not receive it in the island.

When next I pass by the Walkway of the Presidents in Old San Juan, I will imagine the Trump statue that may one day be there. Maybe the way to remember his visit to the island will be by putting a statue of him with his cellphone, tweeting about how “Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure and massive debt, is in deep trouble …”. Or maybe, just maybe, he will be remembered with a statue of him throwing a roll of paper towels when he went to visit one of the least affected parts of our island. (Because, of course, for people suffering hunger, thirst, and medical need, a paper towel must be the best solution).

Regardless of what happens with that imaginary statue, the phrase in the plaque that reads “those that hold this office leave their impact upon the lives and affairs of our nation and our world. The values that represent them were deliberately commissioned and made to represent the figure of each president” will definitely have a new meaning to the more than 3 million citizens who, by the account of a tweet from the President, “want everything to be done for them.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Responding to an overture from its three Puerto Rican presbyteries, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) addressed the financial crisis at its 2016 General Assembly. In April of 2017, the Interim Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Tony De La Rosa, spoke to the church’s continuing response and mission engagements on the island.  A number of mainline Protestant churches cooperate with the Jubilee USA Network in supporting a critical audit of how the several components of the debt burden were accumulated and who has profited from them.

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Author Bio: The Rev. Edwin A. González Castillo is a Presbyterian pastor and Coordinator of Youth Ministry in Springdale Presbyterian Church, PC(USA), in Louisville, Kentucky. Edwin holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences from the University of Puerto Rico and a Master’s Degree in Divinity from the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. He has taught religion, ethics, and human development at the middle and high school levels, and has been a teaching assistant at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico in Greek and New Testament courses.

Edwin has also served as a translator for several PC(USA) agencies, and until recently served as pastor and Stated Clerk in the Presbytery of San Juan. After Hurricane María, he participated in relief projects in Puerto Rico in coordination with the Presbytery, local government, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and various NGOs. Currently, Edwin lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he works with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as a Consultant for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Edwin is happily married to Flor Vélez-Díaz. He loves salsa music, reading, and going to the movies.

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