The Trump administration says it won’t remove first responders from hurricane-beleaguered Puerto Rico until the people of the island have recovered enough to begin the process of rebuilding on their own. This is laudable.
And yet, the president has been sending different messages. In recent days, he has tweeted that he “cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders in (Puerto Rico) forever!” He also tweeted, “Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.”
These come on the heels of the president telling Puerto Ricans on a visit there that the hurricanes sent the federal budget “out of whack.” For Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens, these messages must be demoralizing.
In reality, many Puerto Ricans have not yet survived the hurricanes. What they need now is emergency care and the basic supplies necessary to sustain life. According to Deseret News' reporting, people on the island face a daily battle to find food and clean water, even though almost a month has elapsed since Hurricane Maria. Power remains out for much of the island. USA Today reports that 40 percent don’t have good drinking water and 85 percent do not have electricity.
Maria was especially strong and damaging. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper, has sent supplies to Puerto Rico, as have other charitable organizations. But government support remains vital, as well, especially in terms of morale and tackling the magnitude of the problem.
Wilfred Rosa, president of the San Juan Puerto Rico stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said people on the island worry that mainland Americans will begin to forget about Puerto Rico as other news stories dominate daily coverage.
President Trump’s criticisms about Puerto Rico’s financial crisis also deserve some perspective. Yes, the island is restructuring due to some horrible political decisions, but Washington is not entirely without blame for the situation.
Years ago, Congress approved tax breaks meant to spur investments in manufacturing and pharmaceutical enterprises in the commonwealth. But, this was little more than an artificial prop that started collapsing when those tax breaks expired more than a decade ago. When they disappeared, many of the businesses that had been attracted to the island left for the mainland, depleting a tax base the island had come to depend upon for schools and infrastructure.
That’s when the island’s leaders began making dismal fiscal decisions. Rather than dealing with the problem head-on, they borrowed money to pay debts, starting a destructive cycle that continued until the island could no longer borrow.
While the president chides Puerto Rico for these decisions, it’s important to note that Washington’s own decisions have put the rest of the nation on a similar collision course with a looming debt disaster. Runaway entitlement spending threatens Social Security and Medicare unless difficult political decisions are made. Indeed, continual deficit spending, which shows no signs of abeyance, makes the long-term health of the dollar uncertain.
As a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico has sent a fair share of its young people off to fight wars as part of the U.S. military. Its suffering people now deserve help. Troubling questions about its financial future should be kept separate from the effects of hurricanes that can’t be blamed on human decisions, and that have created a humanitarian crisis. They should also serve as a reminder to government leaders that unfettered debt and deficit spending can have real consequences.