Donald Trump couldn’t resist taking the opportunity of his visit on Tuesday to lecture the people of Puerto Rico about how grateful they should be — to him, of course — and how horrible they are for daring to suffer.
Unbelievably — or perhaps all too believably, considering who we’re talking about — Trump declared that the island’s 3.4 million inhabitants, who are still trying to survive without basic necessities two weeks after being hit head-on by Hurricane Maria, aren’t enduring a “real catastrophe.”
“Every death is a horror,” Trump actually said, “but if you look at a real catastrophe like [Hurricane] Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and what happened here with a storm that was just totally overbearing…Sixteen people certified…You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together.”
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Of course, the official death toll of 16 doesn’t include hundreds, probably thousands and perhaps more who haven’t been counted yet because many regions remain cut off, and bodies lie in morgues without any way to identify them or enter them into government tallies.
As this article was being written, the official death toll hadn’t been updated in six days — a sign, as Vox’s Elizabeth Barclay pointed out, of just how severe the government collapse is at this point.
And that doesn’t take into account the many more who may die in the coming days and weeks as hospitals continue to go without power and supplies, and the population is threatened with epidemics as a result of the lack of potable water and other necessities.
Lorainne Goytya, a 20-year-old college student, told NPR that 10 people at a Boys and Girls Club shelter where she was working nearly died when the shelter’s diesel generator ran out of gas, threatening the oxygen supply and dialysis machines that they were relying on.
By now, most people are familiar with the news reports showing the horrendous suffering in Puerto Rico.
As this article was being written, some 95 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity customers remained without power, a number of hospitals among them. Just 47 percent of the population had running water. Twelve of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities have not been able to go to designated distribution centers to get necessary supplies, according to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
Rosselló estimated that one-quarter of residents would have power — by November. Restoring full power will likely take six months or more.
Yet Trump, strengthening to a full Category 5 shithead, blamed Puerto Ricans for not doing more. Residents “have to give us more help,” he stated.
“What more do they want us to do?” Ray Negron, asked the Associated Press, as he rested in the shade of a church after a morning spent collecting debris. “Nobody’s come.”
Lorainne Goytya’s 8-year-old brother, Yan Anthony Hernandez, had a blunt message for the president: “Stop sending tweets, and come help the people.”
That an 8-year-old knows more about basic human decency than Trump isn’t shocking. To anyone paying attention, the administration’s relief efforts are woefully inadequate.
There’s a deep irony as well: the world’s largest military power — with a government that spends billions on wars and occupations around the globe — can’t seem to coordinate minimal relief efforts to alleviate the catastrophic suffering of a nearby US territory.
The Trump administration defends its efforts, of course. As of September 28, it claimed that 10,000 government workers, including some 7,000 troops, were helping in disaster relief.
According to NBC News, however, as of October 1, there were just over 1,000 active personnel on the ground in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and another 2,000 aboard Navy ships off the coasts. By way of comparison, “Katrina had 20,000 active troops and 40,000 National Guard,” one Democratic congressional aide told NBC News.
To polish its image, the administration announced last week that it was sending Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, commander of US Army North, “to assess the situation so that the military can provide the highest possible level of support,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
But so much of what is being done — like the deployment of the Navy amphibious assault ship the USS Wasp, which is involved in “response operations in and around Puerto Rico,” according to a Pentagon spokesperson — begs the question: What does this have to do with meeting the needs of the Puerto Rican people for things like food and water?
“The federal response has been a disaster,” Jose Enrique Melendez, a member of Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party, told the Associated Press. “There are people literally just modeling their uniforms.”
Naturally, calls are increasing — from the US political establishment at the top on down to ordinary people in Puerto Rico and beyond — for the Trump administration to marshal the vast resources of the US military toward relief efforts, especially with a new round of severe storms looming that threaten increased flooding and the stability of the already cracked Guajataca dam.
After all, for decades, the US Navy used the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for bombing practice, polluting it with depleted uranium and other toxic munitions that have contributed to some of the highest sickness rates in the Caribbean. As one online commenter wrote: “The US Navy dropped bombs for 60 years on Puerto Rico, and they can’t figure out how to drop some food and supplies where it’s needed?”
After touring the island on October 1, Illinois’ Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez said the people of Puerto Rico “need military intervention, they need the Army Corps of Engineers…The Army has to go in there and build temporary bridges so that people can be evacuated.”
In any rational society, the vast expertise and resources of an organization as large and powerful as the US military machine would be directed in other ways — including being marshaled before the hurricane to prevent the current disaster from being so bad.
But under the circumstances, calls for the US military to take the lead in disaster relief need to be treated with caution — especially calls for troops to provide “security.”
This is especially the case in Puerto Rico, where the history of US colonialism has meant the systematic disenfranchisement and impoverishment of ordinary Puerto Ricans. Anti-colonial activists have waged a decades-long fight against the US military presence in Puerto Rico — finally forcing the Navy out of Vieques in 2003.
Some on the island say that human rights organizations can’t be purists about keeping the military out of humanitarian efforts in the face of a crisis of such proportions.
But there is a real danger that military efforts will be used — regardless of whether the mandate is only to provide disaster relief — to gain an increased foothold for the US military at an especially vulnerable time.
It’s worth remembering the role of US security forces in other humanitarian catastrophes, including in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti after the 2012 earthquake. These forces were short on compassion and long on repression.
In the days following the Haiti earthquake, for example, the US “humanitarian operation” was largely led by the US State Department, US Agency for International Development and Department of Defense. One Pentagon spokesperson bragged that the mission was good p.r.: “[T]his is a role that we’d like to show — that compassionate warrior, reaching out with a helping hand for those who need it. We are very excited about this.”
Two weeks after the earthquake, Operation Unified Response, as the mission was called, involved 17,000 US military personnel in and around Haiti — eventually the figure would grow to 22,000 — and dozens of US helicopters, aircraft and ships.
According to Ansel Herz writing for the Nation, the military’s orders often took precedence over actual humanitarian needs:
The enormous influx of US military personnel, weapons and equipment into [Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture] airport prompted a chorus of protest from mid-level French, Italian and Brazilian officials, as well as the aid group Doctors Without Borders. They were outraged that planes carrying vital humanitarian supplies were prevented from landing, or delayed, sometimes for days.
As Haitian activist Ray Laforest of the International Support Haiti Network explained to Herz, “[O]ne important reason for the US troop deployment to Haiti after the quake was to bar any revolutionary uprising that might have emerged due to the Haitian government’s near collapse.”
Likewise, in New Orleans, the days following Katrina saw an influx of not only National Guard and other troops, but private security forces from mercenary firms like Blackwater, who were “[a]rmed as they would be in Iraq, with automatic rifles, guns strapped to legs, and pockets overflowing with ammo,” as James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones in 2009.
The city “turned into an armed camp, patrolled by thousands of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, as well as National Guard troops and active-duty soldiers,” the New York Times reported.
Thousands of people were arrested on the thinnest of pretexts, including some who were questioned as potential terrorists and kept in jail, sometimes for months, without legal recourse or hearings, thanks to the Bush administration employing its new “war on terror” laws.
And in the aftermath of Katrina, the way was paved for the remaking New Orleans according to the priorities of business, forcing out the poor and privatizing essential public services.
The road for the “shock doctrine” in New Orleans — as author Naomi Klein dubbed it — was paved, in part, by the thoroughly militarized disaster relief that preceded it.
While there’s no doubt that the military has the capacity to provide disaster relief in humanitarian crises, we shouldn’t forget that the US government has a long history of exploiting such missions to gain an advantage in carrying out larger political, military and economic aims.
As the socialist journalist John Reed said near the beginning of the 20th century, “Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam’s promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.”
But it’s also the case that in every disaster, networks of ordinary people come together to provide non-militarized disaster relief — filling local and community needs often ignored by larger government forces.
There is no shortage of those willing to lend their efforts in Puerto Rico today. According to the Teamsters union, more than 100 truck drivers have volunteered to travel to Puerto Rico to help distribute stockpiles of aid. Nurses from the National Nurses United are organizing delegations.
The call from the left should be for the many actions and initiatives that would immediately and directly benefit ordinary Puerto Rican people — by giving Puerto Ricans themselves the power to distribute relief supplies to local communities, to be used as they see fit, and to begin the process of reconstruction according to the priorities they set, not the US military.
Even in the midst of a devastating crisis, our faith lies in the ability of ordinary people to come together. As Claudia Reyes, a teacher in San Juan wrote in a letter to the New York Times:
Over the course of nearly two weeks, I’ve witnessed members of the community come to one another’s aid, as shell-shocked students, faculty and staff clean up campuses; as weary doctors, nurses and other health professionals rush to hospitals and shelters to provide assistance; as tireless first responders, police officers and municipal leaders take to the streets day after day to ensure the safety of the Puerto Rican people, who are in a uniquely frightening and vulnerable situation.
We are not ingrates and we are not idle; we are cognizant of the sacrifices that both federal and local workers face, laboring alongside one another. We are American citizens clamoring for assistance and unity, not politics and divisiveness. We are a humble, strong-willed community that has proclaimed that together we will rise.