The U.S. military has begun operations to withdraw its troops from Puerto Rico, claiming that the island is no longer in a recovery phase, despite over half the island surviving without power or access to clean water. Lieutenant Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the Pentagon’s liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said that troops would be pulling out of the island just six weeks after Maria hit saying, “I think we’re in the right place to transition.”
The U.S. recovery efforts on the island had been slow. Buchanan explained that resources were lacking, but added that it wasn’t the military’s fault.”We didn’t have ports open,” he said. “In retrospect, we could have conducted an airborne operation — flown troops in and have them jump out of an airplane. But that’s not really what those guys are designed to do.”
That response isn’t enough for Pedro Falto Aizpurua, 33, a business analyst and Puerto Rican American living in the D.C. area. His immediate and extended relatives were directly impacted by Maria but with no way to connect to them due to the amount of destruction, he felt helpless. Also knowing that people were suffering and without any help added to that sense of helplessness.
“It is very frustrating to see the actions of the American forces, who above anything are logistical experts. They are able to deploy hundreds of thousands of people, resources, and supplies to war zones in days,” Falto Aizpurua explains. “The response was inadequate because it does not recognize the magnitude of the effects of the storm in the island. Once the effects were visible, the federal government did not seem to care and only prioritized their efforts in zones that were not severely affected. ”
He’s not the only one who feels frustrated by the government’s lackluster effort. Thousands marched on Capitol Hill on Nov. 19 to remind lawmakers that Puerto Rico and its some 3.4 million residents are still a priority. The Unity March for Puerto Rico included “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Puerto Rican American. He reminded the island that they “are not forgotten,” and that “we can keep raising money, but it’s not gonna do any good if the government doesn’t help us.”
Meanwhile, the island’s governor, Ricardo Rossello said that 80% of the island will have power by the end of this month and 95% by the middle of December, other figures aren’t backing it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers puts that number at 75% – at the end of January.
However, in that time residents are stuck finding their own ways of bringing electricity to their homes, and it’s not cheap. According to a report from Bloomberg, “Generators are selling at a premium, and plugs that once sold for $16 now cost about $60.” Not to mention that prices for basic food items and water have skyrocketed. Even the capital San Juan puts up with blackouts on a regularly, despite having more accessibility to power.
Many have noticed that recovery efforts post-Maria seemed to be less prioritized than those of Harvey and Irma. For some, it’s a slap in the face reminder of Puerto Rico’s inconvenient colonial-esque status as a U.S. territory. Meanwhile, the rest of the diaspora is wondering if their status as a territory needs to be re-evaluated after feeling forgotten by the country.
This sense of abandonment from the Trump administration is real. “There is definitely a racial tinge to this. The colonial matter is seen in the way government reacts, but the racial issue is much more prevalent because it pushes political ideas to become actions,” Falto Aizpurua said. “An island full of Hispanics, with a political status unknown to most Americans, will not get the attention, the support and the aid from the general population, especially the Republican party with its negative record of dealing with minorities.”
There’s another long-term political implication of the U.S. response to Maria: the 2020 presidential election. After the hurricane some thousands of Puerto Ricans took advantage of their American citizenship and left to move to the mainland, mainly going to the red state of Florida. This could potentially swing the traditionally Republican battleground to Democrat. And if conditions don’t improve, some “30 percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents” will leave Puerto Rico according to San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz.
As for what the Puerto Rican community should do know, Pedro says it’s the time for reflection, discussion and debate. “This is an excellent moment for the Puerto Rican people and its political class to reorganize and develop new priorities for how the island deals with its own economy, infrastructure, and the relationship it holds with the US.,” he said. “It is an opportunity for the diaspora in the mainland to become more involved in the political process and vote, using this as a reference point to understand how politicians react to our tragedies.” However, he reiterates that this awareness is critical not solely for the Puerto Rican diaspora, but also for “the general population of the US, to be aware of our existence, and to understand that we are also Americans with the same wishes and aspirations.”