After Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean last week, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello reminded the rest of America that his 3.5 million constituents are U.S. citizens.
But in a tweet Monday night, President Donald Trump reminded Puerto Rico of its massive debts “owed to Wall Street and the banks [that], sadly, must be dealt with.”
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Chicago) said Tuesday that it’s up to the federal government to make sure Puerto Rico has what it needs because the struggling territory’s financial trouble makes it difficult to handle the emergency efforts.
“If you see someone in need, don't you just supply the need if you have the resources and the wherewithal?” Gutiérrez said. “We have the capacity. We keep talking about how strong and how mighty our military is, but we don't send it to do peacetime efforts of saving the people of Puerto Rico.”
Gutierrez joined Worldview Tuesday to discuss the current situation in Puerto Rico and what he believes is Congress’ role in helping its residents.
On what Puerto Rico needs immediately
Luis Gutierrez: The citizens of Puerto Rico need water and they need food. The supermarkets are empty. Imagine your lights have gone out, there’s no electricity, there’s no gasoline for your car, your cell phone and TV don’t work, and there’s no food at the supermarket on the corner.
Restaurants can't stay open, so how do you survive in these conditions? Let’s respond with the full might of the United States of America. Congress says Puerto Rico is our colony — it belongs to us — well, guess what? With that comes newfound responsibility. Now, it is time for the federal government to respond.
On what Congress could do for Puerto Rico right now
Gutierrez: First of all, we can send resources. We should declare Puerto Rico a health disaster, and in doing so, send doctors. Just in the last 10 years, Puerto Rico has lost 5,000 doctors — that’s about a third.
Many hospitals were destroyed and no longer exist. And the hospitals that do exist very clearly are running out of medicine and petroleum in order to keep the generators going, so those hospitals will soon close down. That creates an even graver humanitarian crisis on the island.
On the financial benefit of suspending the Jones Act
Gutierrez: The Jones Act was passed in 1920 and it says anything that arrives in Puerto Rico or leaves Puerto Rico must be on a ship manufactured in the United States and manned by an American citizen. It’s the most expensive way to transport something and it doesn't necessarily mean it’s the fastest way. So, if you were to take away the cost to the consumer that the Jones Act adds, it would take care of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion of debt and help with long-term construction costs.
The Jones Act was suspended for Hurricane Irma, and now, we should get it suspended for a long-term basis for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. It stripped right through the center of the island, destroying anything intact. The electricity system, for example, is decrepit and old and was unreliable before this hurricane. Imagine what it’s going to take to re-establish electricity now?
If the Jones Act is suspended, it will take a lot less to reconstruct the island because you can get the cheapest ships from the closest destination and get to to the island as quickly as possible. If something happens in Illinois, our brothers and sisters from Indiana can send stuff to help us — and from Iowa and Wisconsin. The only way to get anything to Puerto Rico in a cost-effective manner is on ships that are 1,000 miles away.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. It was adapted for the web by Arionne Nettles. Click the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire segment, which also featured Yarimar Bonilla, a founder of the Puerto Rico Syllabus and an associate professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University.