Opinion

Trump is still botching the Puerto Rico crisis

His response to Hurricane Maria is leading to mass flight out of Puerto Rico

Americans are fleeing Puerto Rico in droves. The reason is that a grinding economic crisis became a full-blown humanitarian disaster after the Trump administration utterly botched the response to Hurricane Maria. At the time of writing — over two months since the hurricane struck — nearly 10 percent of the population is still without water, and well over half is still without electricity. A CNN survey of funeral homes found 499 hurricane-related deaths — almost 10 times the official casualty figure.

As a result, some 168,000 Puerto Ricans have fled the island to Florida alone since the hurricane, by far the fastest out-migration in its history, with another 100,000 booked on flights to Orlando through the end of the year. It is nothing less than an internal refugee crisis created by the bungling and inattention of the American government — most of all the Trump administration.

Puerto Rico has been suffering for well over a decade. As I've written before, the island experienced a huge debt build-up due to misguided tax loopholes, Wall Street swindlers exploiting them, and some irresponsible governance, with everything made a bit worse by odd shipping regulations. All that was seriously exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis, and things came to a head around 2015. The years and years of poor economic performance probably go some distance toward explaining why the island has a far lower birthrate than any American state.

In 2016, the Republican Congress and President Obama put Puerto Rico under the control of an unelected "PROMESA" dictatorship of technocrats. And instead of realizing the obvious, they placed the island into a classic austerity trap, mandating gigantic tax hikes and service cuts that worsened output, hemorrhaged residents, and probably even made the debt problem worse.

Now two months after Maria, the island remains more or less in ruins. The stream of people fleeing the island has become a flood — and because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the only barrier to leaving is money.

As Lyman Stone details, this combination of factors — low birthrate, high emigration, and little immigration — is going to lead to an epic demographic collapse in Puerto Rico, perhaps worse than that of the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s.

What Puerto Rico needs was and remains obvious. It needs a huge debt cancellation, coupled to a large rebuilding and investment package. Indeed, the hurricane was in some ways a golden opportunity to fix the aging and inefficient infrastructure there — particularly its power plants, which mostly use heavy fuel oil that not only produces tons of greenhouse gases, but also has to be imported at great expense. It's nuts for such a sunny and windy place to have such a paltry supply of renewable energy.

But fundamentally, only by first returning to economic health can Puerto Rico possibly repay even a fraction of its debts. Conversely, continuing to pummel the island with austerity will only worsen background conditions and make its debt that much more unpayable.

Finally, immediate U.S. statehood is also a good idea. Like colonies throughout history, Puerto Rico has been continually jerked around by the American government. It's long since time Puerto Ricans got elected representatives who could advocate and vote for their interests in Washington.

Yet there is little to no chance of any of this happening so long as Republicans control Congress and the White House. The Trump administration did recently submit a new request for $44 billion for hurricane relief, but most of that is earmarked for purposes other than Puerto Rico, and wouldn't even come close to what is needed. Nor does it even match the $88 billion in relief that Florida and Texas, still recovering from their own hurricane disasters, have asked for. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are desperately trying to pass their tax bill, which shovels billions upon billions of dollars into the suppurating gullets of the idle rich. A few million American citizens in desperate straits barely registers by comparison.

So it's a safe bet we're going to have an indefinite internal refugee crisis in places with significant Puerto Rican populations — like Florida and New York City.

But it's also worth emphasizing that putting Puerto Rico back on its feet could be accomplished quickly and easily. All that is needed is money, sustained attention, and some concern for one's fellow citizens. If and when Democrats take back political power, they should immediately do so — and earn themselves some new congressmen and senators in the process.

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