Puerto Ricans have limited autonomy to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration’s neglect is slowing the island’s response.
Traumatic memories of President Trump’s previous lack of support for Puerto Rico has returned to the collective mind as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is beginning to be felt on the island.
The arrival of the novel virus in mid-March is the most recent step of a series of unfortunate events that the island has had to live through in the past years. In 2017, the already shaky economy suffered a severe blow when two hurricanes hit the island in a dramatic way, especially Hurricane Maria that caused severe damage.
Since then many Puerto Ricans have had the image in their minds of Trump throwing paper towels to people during a one-day visit he did to the island in October of 2017.
On several occasions Trump has tweeted that Congress had “foolishly” sent $92 billion of aid money to Puerto Rico, which “squandered away or wasted” it. But the truth is that the island received less than $14 billion.
Based on Trump’s behavior, Democratic lawmakers turned to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the administration’s coronavirus task force, to see how the administration plans to address the pandemic in Puerto Rico.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Reps. Raúl Grijalva, Nydia Velázquez and Joaquin Castro sent a letter to Pence asking for the specific plan the administration has for Puerto Rico.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic hits Puerto Rico, these economic and public health risks will grow and risk exacerbating the crisis. The Trump administration’s actions to delay and impede the island economic and health care disaster recovery will result in further grave harm to the island’s residents amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the letter.
Puerto Ricans fear too that they will not get help, especially after starting the year with earthquakes that caused damaged mainly in the southern region of the island, but have seismic sequences still felt today.
Puerto Rico Can’t Close the Borders Without Federal Authorization
Puerto Rico can’t close airports or piers without the federal government’s permission. The first positive case of coronavirus confirmed on the island was an Italian woman that came on a cruise ship. Sick people have also arrived from New York. They managed to sidestep the National Guard security screening at the airport, seeking medical attention in local hospitals with more capacity than those in New York, the epicenter of COVID-19.
“There is no power to decide who enters and who leaves the country. We have four million Puerto Ricans in the United States, mainly in New York, Connecticut, Boston. If a rebound of the pandemic occurs, as some doctors have warned, many of those Puerto Ricans will want to return here, if they do not get medical help there,” said lawyer Eduardo Villanueva, who is president of Pro Human Rights Committee.
In order to prevent more sick people from arriving, Gov. Wanda Vázquez asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to cancel flights to the states with higher rates of positive cases like New York, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Illinois, but the agency is still reviewing the petition.
The Jones Laws Limit the Capacity to Buy Medical Equipment
The Jones Laws stipulate that Puerto Rico can only receive merchandise from the United States merchant marine. In addition to making the products more expensive, the country does not have the power during this emergency to buy medical equipment and material from countries that have it available.
“In Puerto Rico the problem regarding free trade is that as a colony, we do not have much to say there. The United States does and prohibits business with whoever it wants. We are subject to the commercial dictatorship that the federal system imposes as an unincorporated territory, as we are as a product of a colony. And there is a whole legal scheme that until now has allowed them to make the decisions they want about the unincorporated territory, however discriminatory they may be and which is still revoked at the level of law that says that they can economically discriminate against unincorporated territory without being unconstitutional,” explained Villanueva, who has spoken on several occasions at the United Nations on the issue of the decolonization of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans in Distress Are Facing Delays on Receiving Economic Incentive Checks
Another disadvantage Puerto Ricans face in this emergency is that unlike thousands of U.S. citizens who began receiving their economic incentive checks this week, theirs have no date.
“The local Department of the Treasury estimates that once the federal Treasury approves the distribution guide for these funds, submitted on Wednesday of last week, if it is approved this week, they could be issuing those deposits between the last week of April and the first week of May. This obviously depends on the Treasury approving it,” said Resident Commissioner in Washington, Jennifer González, during a Facebook Live.