Tanzina Vega: Last week, the Biden administration announced it would be removing restrictions on $1.3 billion in aid to protect the island of Puerto Rico against future climate disasters. The Biden administration will also loosen Trump-era restrictions on an additional $4.9 billion in aid to the island. While President Biden's steps to make more of these funds available could finally mean more progress post-Maria, a number of other long-standing issues indicate that Puerto Rico's economy will continue to struggle under the new administration. Joining me now is Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Latino studies professor at Columbia University. Frances welcome back to the show.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: Thank you.
Tanzina Vega: Frances, Puerto Rico was supposed to get $20 billion from Congress initially; the figures that we're talking about only add up to 6.2 billion. What happened to the rest of the money?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: Part of it was that a number of restrictions that were placed on it and also claims that they should not be dispersed because of Puerto Rico's government corruption and other reasons, but basically the money has not gotten to Puerto Rico and the money that has gone to Puerto Rico has also faced increased scrutiny and added layers of documentation on reporting so it has been very difficult to spend overall.
Tanzina Vega: We mentioned that the Trump administration had placed restrictions on this aid and part of the reason we understand that they were able to do that is because Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and not a state. What's your assessment of that?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: I think there were other reasons why the Trump administration refused to release the funds that were necessary and already approved by Congress. I would boil it down to three of them. One was the stated view that Puerto Ricans were not really Americans or under-serving in some way. As you recall, Trump said at some point that people in Puerto Rico presumed that the US would stay there for a long time, aid in recovery and that they were just waiting for them to be helped. By the way, FEMA and other government organizations and entities actually stay in locations affected by hurricanes for years, sometimes more than 10 years. That was actually a view that was not supported by the evidence.
Another thing is that it seems like punishing or being cruel to Puerto Rico seemed to be something that Trump was using to excite the base who shared that view that the US should not be helping Puerto Rico as if Puerto Rico was a foreign country. The third thing is that if you remember, there was also a lot of antipathy between Trump and some members of the Puerto Rico's political leadership that played out in the media. All in all, the Trump administration was bent on not supporting Puerto Rico's recovery process.
Tanzina Vega: When we compare Puerto Rico's recovery from Hurricane Maria to states like Texas and Florida who were also struck by natural disasters in 2017, how would we assess that? Puerto Rico appears to still be way behind in its rebuilding.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: It's an interesting question because definitely, the federal government acted very quickly, let's say in Houston that was affected by Hurricane Harvey. At the same time, if you look at three years later, you'll see a lot of people in Houston saying that they feel abandoned by the government and when you look closer at who is saying that you'll notice that it's basically low-income Black and brown people, the same kind of people that the administration thought or thinks lives in Puerto Rico.
Tanzina Vega: Do we know how the delay in recovery is affecting people on the island post-Maria so far, and we've got about 30 seconds, but we can pick this up in the next segment.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: Yes, tremendously. Think about that Puerto Rico has a $70 billion debt and had a $90-billion damage from the hurricane. If we're talking that Puerto Rico has received or spent only a few million dollars, you see a huge disproportion between the need and the fund. That translates into much higher rates of poverty, people still living in houses with tarps, and so forth. Yes, the situation is still dire and you can see that symptomatic that people keep leaving the island. There's still blackout in the island and other symptoms of the ongoing process.
Tanzina Vega: Frances, at the end of January, Biden's signed an executive order that emphasized his support of the Jones Act. What's the Jones Act mean for Puerto Rico?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: Basically, what it does is that it forces Puerto Rico to use the Merchant Marine to transport everything that goes in and out of Puerto Rico, which makes everything more expensive and also curtails the ability of Puerto Rico to trade more favorably with other places. The direct hit that people get from that is that much higher cost of living and that's a symptom of something that we can summarize as releasing the fund is good and it should happen, but at the same time, it's far from enough. What would be a more robust approach to the fact of this tremendous amount of need?
I think one of the things that the administration has to look into is to support the auditing of the debt and explore the ways that the debt can pretty much be eliminated. There are so many signs that this debt is illegitimate and also linked to a very long process of colonial extraction on the part of the US and its corporations.
Repealing the Jones Act, or at least accepting the Jones Act for Puerto Rico would also greatly help. Creating a public Puerto Rico-led process of decolonization and addressing the debt, and eliminating PROMESA would give back Puerto Ricans governance over its own island and there is precedent for this, Prince of Parody with Medicare and Medicaid and other federal programs, so-called Marshall Plan to rebuild Puerto Rico in a better way.
These are all proposals that are contained in legislation that has been proposed by Sanders and Warren, also a recent Ocasio and Velasquez legislation called Puerto Rico Self-determination Act. These are not necessarily new ideas; they just have not been picked up by Obama's administration or Trump's administration and today, not Biden's administration.
Tanzina Vega: These ideas are also sort of teetering at the edges of what Puerto Rico is, its status, whether it is in a colonial relationship, as it stands right now, which is this strange binary of free-associated state or whether it becomes an independent nation or whether it becomes a state. Last September candidate Biden at the time released a plan saying that as president, he would, "Work with representatives who support each of the status options in Puerto Rico." Frances, do you think there is momentum right now around statehood or independence and whether or not the Biden administration will lead into that either way?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: My impression so far is Biden's not going to get too deep into it. The things that he has said specifically has been one, that he personally favors statehood. He has also said that he favors the creation of yet another task force to study the matter. There have been so many task force to study the matter. I don't think we need more of that and I don't think we necessarily need the president to support one thing or the other. I think what we need is Puerto Ricans to be able to set-up a process through which they lead their own self-determination and--
Tanzina Vega: How realistic is that given everything that's happening on the island though, Frances?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: There's a lot of signs that people are ready for that. Immediately after the protest of 2019 against the Ricardo Rosselló that culminated into his expulsion, basically, from the governor's mansion, there were assemblies that took place in many places of the island where people gathered to discuss the problems that Puerto Rico had and attempted to bring some consensus to how to address them. There are also a number of proposals in Puerto Rico to create a constituent assembly, which would follow a similar process of people getting together, creating a roadmap for this process.
I do believe people are ready. What I also think though, is that people in Puerto Rico or a lot of them are not necessarily thinking that binary independence or statehood but really want to go into a process where people have an opportunity to think through what has been the experience, what are the opportunities, what are the options? What is the best for us? That process has never really happened and in a way, I think it's as important the process to happen as the outcome is.
Tanzina Vega: In terms of, you mentioned Obama's administration, obviously President Biden was then vice president Biden. Was there anything that you saw under the Obama administration that you would recommend the Biden ministration steer clear of or lean into in how it dealt with Puerto Rico?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: I think the Obama administration was very harsh on Puerto Rico either by what it did do and what it didn't do. On what it did do was PROMESA which has created a seven-member control board that has veto power over decisions made by elected officials that by and large is working on behalf of bondholders, not the people of Puerto Rico and there's many signs of that; the closing of hundreds of schools, the war on the University of Puerto Rico and public education more generally.
Also, Obama's investment in Puerto Rico minimal. The only thing he did during his time was visit Puerto Rico for a few hours to raise money in a place that couldn't even vote for president. I would say that Biden needs to move away from the Obama administration's attitude toward Puerto Rico and be closer to the type of work that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and [unintelligible 00:10:14] are doing.
Tanzina Vega: President Biden has met with people who he expects to work with on the issues regarding Puerto Rico right now, is there any indication that he might be doing that move away from PROMESA and others?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: I have not seen that yet, but I certainly hope that that's what happens and to make it happen people need to continue to press for their concerns and mobilize. I don't think it's going to happen any other way.
Tanzina Vega: Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a Latino studies professor at Columbia University. Frances, always great to have you on the show. Thanks so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.