Article and Photos by Alejandro Alvarez
Video by Ford Fischer
Dozens of activists, including Puerto Ricans, took to the Capitol on Wednesday amid mounting anger and frustration over the Trump administration’s handling of back-to-back hurricane disasters.
The “Unite for Puerto Rico” event, organized and attended by members of Congress, community leaders, and Puerto Rican lobbyists, was attended by about 50 people waving Puerto Rican flags and hoisting signs including “We are American” and “We are the people, too.”
The rally – the first significant gathering over the crisis in the three weeks since Hurricane Maria made its devastating landfall – came days after news the Trump administration elected not to renew its 10-day waiver of the Jones Act. The waiver enabled foreign products to be imported without hefty tariffs. That decision was a major source of anger and frustration for those gathered outside the Capitol.
“If we don’t get a break from the Jones Act, we’re not going to be able to recover from the hurricanes because everything is that we need to rebuild is going to be more expensive,” said Glenda Liz Correa, joining others in a call for the 1920 shipping legislation to either be waved again, or repealed altogether. “Puerto Rico is suffering, Puerto Rico is hurting, and people are starting to die … we really need Congress to repeal the act, or at least give us an extension. We started getting help, but it’s not enough … at this point, it’s a humanitarian crisis.”
There is a growing sense of desperation in the Puerto Rican community as conditions on the island degenerating into what some members of the community are calling a full-blown humanitarian crisis. It’s been three weeks since Category 4 Hurricane Maria swept through, and almost 90 percent of the island still lacks electricity and cell phone coverage, with access to clean water still scarce and the risk of disease rising as the territory simmers in the Caribbean heat.
As the death toll soars to 45 and some Puerto Ricans await news on friends and family, there are feelings that Congress and the media have moved on from the island’s plight – or forgotten altogether that there are Americans still in need.
“The double standard needs to stop,” said Jessica Galarraga, a physician of Puerto Rican descent who said she was angered by a different level of response to Maria than past disasters like hurricanes Harvey and Katrina. “We’re seeing a worse response with Maria, and there isn’t the same outrage. Trump needs to realize Puerto Ricans are American.”
“Unite for Puerto Rico” made an effort to reach out to both sides of the aisle in booking speakers, working not to politicize the island’s dilemma after a highly publicized spat between President Donald Trump and Mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz.
Sean Duffey, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, was booed by members of the audience while touting Trump’s $30 billion “down payment” to alleviate the crisis.
Not all members of the Puerto Rican community were happy with what they heard overall – one woman disrupted a speech by Zori Fonalledas, a Republican committee member from Puerto Rico, expressing her discontent over a recurring message from politicians about a solution which never seems to materialize. “I don’t have time for this, nothing gets done,” she shouted in Spanish, holding up a sign with the names of Maria’s victims.
Draft legislation up for a vote on Thursday would allow for $4.9 billion in direct loans to local governments throughout Puerto Rico, which, apart from two major hurricanes and a crippled power grid, is also contending with $74 billion in debt. Still, as was the general mood among demonstrators on Wednesday, not even that might be sufficient to fully relieve human suffering in one of the worst natural disasters in Caribbean history.