In 1898 the United States provoked a war with Spain, called the Spanish-American War, in further pursuit of its expansionist policies. In the aftermath of the imperialistic war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico and other of its colonies to the United States. Since the beginning of its association with the United States, many US officials (beginning with military and presidential-appointed governors) have long expressed derisive, racist views about Puerto Ricans.
A version of this racialized discourse persists today, and President Donald Trump has been one of its exponents. This is evident in Trump’s controversy with San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Cruz Soto.
Since the summer of 2017 President Donald Trump and San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz Soto have clashed twice over the adequacy of the Federal Government’s response to the catastrophic damage inflicted by hurricane Maria that year. At that time the Mayor voiced the views of many Puerto Ricans when she stated that the situation in Puerto Rico was desperate (lack of power and shelter in many areas, hospitals that had to be evacuated, limited access to water, etc.) and the Federal Government was slow in its response. Trump took her comments personally, accusing Cruz Soto and unnamed Puerto Rican officials of “poor leadership” and criticizing Puerto Ricans for
not doing enough to help themselves [and] wanting everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. (Sounds familiar?)
She explained that she was simply asking for help, not saying “anything nasty” about Trump but as we will see shortly, her explanation did not seem to have had an effect on him.
The second encounter occurred this year, when tropical storm Dorian was perceived as a possible threat to Puerto Rico. Trump tweeted:
Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico. Will it ever end? Congress approved 92 Billion Dollars for Puerto Rico last year, an all time record of its kind for “anywhere.”
Cruz Soto was indignant at Trump’s tweet because of its inaccurate facts and racist undertone:
We say to the president of the United States, will his lie ever end? Will that ever end? Will his racism and vindictive behavior towards the people of Puerto Rico ever end? . . . The president continues to spread lies because the truth really does not suit him. As you said, it is not $92 billion. It’s close to 42 Billion. It’s close between $12.6 and $14 billion that’s come to Puerto Rico, and still, things have not worked appropriately. Things continue to change. Different attitudes and different laws and restrictions are brought upon Puerto Rico that are different from any other jurisdiction.
She added these strong words:
3,000 Puerto Ricans [who perished when hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico] did not open their eyes this morning because this racist man did not have it within him to do his job.
As was the case in 2017, Trump reacted to the Mayor’s remarks vociferously:
The crazed and incompetent Mayor of San Juan has done such a poor job of bringing the island back to health.
Then he proceeded to insult Puerto Rico as well when he took a swipe at the Democrats’ attitude toward helping Puerto Rico. The funds they want to send to Puerto Rico, Trump opined, would take “dollars away from our Farmers and so many others.” In other words, Puerto Rico, which is not a foreign country but a US territory, has taken away money that rightfully belongs to American farmers and so many other Americans.
Trump took the opportunity presented by these events to insult Puerto Rico further:
Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good.
As Cruz Soto stated, Puerto Rico has been a victim of Trump’s racism, which unfortunately has been evident in Washington’s dealings with Puerto Rico over the years. Trump, however, has been one of the most vocal in expressing these attitudes. His cutting criticism of San Juan’s Mayor, his labeling Puerto Rico (without evidence) one of the most corrupt places on earth, his lamenting that funds that would go to aid Puerto Rico take dollars away from Americans (Puerto Ricans are US citizens!), all add up to manifest instances of racism.
Among the comments Trump made is the assertion that he is “the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico.” How is that? After insulting Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican officials, after speaking of aid to Puerto Rico as if it were foreign aid? Trump has a knack for denigrating areas heavily populated by people of color in the periphery of as well as in the US proper (Baltimore, for example) when their leaders are at odds with him.
One can only conclude that Trump’s reaction does not augur well for Puerto Rico. Racist episodes are likely to occur again.