One hundred thousand people are dead. There is no effective federal plan to control a pandemic for which there remains no cure, nor help the nation recover from it. President Trump is engaged in a daily exercise in willful failure, ridding his government of inspectors general and obfuscating his own negligence. In a job that typically helps lead the nation in moments of grief, this president opts to tweet and golf, needing to be pressured to finally lower the flag to half-staff last week. It is no surprise that so many Americans followed the lead of Trump and fellow Republicans who rushed to reopen their state economies, going in droves to shores and pools and shops like spring breakers, many without masks, as if vaccinated by their frustration and impatience.
The United States has seen death on this scale before, and it has ignored it before. Carmen Yulín Cruz couldn’t: She saw it up close.
Yulín is the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, same as in 2017, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island. Instead of getting the help they needed from Trump, Puerto Ricans got paper towel jump shots and petty tweets. Later, the president pushed forward with a deliberate, mean-spirited effort to steal aid from the very folks who still need it today.
Three years later, Mayor Yulín is living it again. This time, her fellow Americans can empathize in a different way.
“While we were dying in Puerto Rico because of his incompetence after Hurricane Maria, Trump played golf. While people are dying of COVID-19 because of his incompetence, again, Trump plays golf,” Yulín said during her interview with Rolling Stone. “His lack of actions, his lack of respect for scientific data result in the death of thousands. People have died because President Trump is an Incompetent in Chief.”
Trump’s blithe, patronizing visit to Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, punctuated by the paper towel jump shots, was indicative of how quickly he would deliberately try to blame Puerto Rico for its own problems. Two hurricanes, Irma and Maria — the second of which was the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in 90 years — landed successive and devastating blows on the American archipelago and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands. Killing thousands of people in Puerto Rico — estimates vary from 2,975 to 4,645 — the storms also laid waste to its environment, housing, and (notably for the current moment) its health care infrastructure. But as it remained saddled with debt and now devastation, Trump chose to treat Puerto Rico like a tenant he wished to evict.
Yulín had been the Democratic mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and most populous city, for four years when the hurricanes hit in 2017. “This was September. He took office on January 20th. There’s still a little bit of that sense that some people may have given him the benefit of the doubt,” she told me when we spoke recently. “He failed his dress rehearsal. Rather, it was a catastrophe rehearsal.”
That Puerto Ricans weren’t Mexicans was of no concern to Trump. They were Spanish-speaking brown people whose poverty and plight made for easy scapegoating before his MAGA hordes. But worse yet, the Trump White House’s willful negligence — indeed, the president’s open and stated desire to cut the archipelago off financially — was so constant that eventually, as our mainland media attention waned, we left the suffering of our fellow Americans unaddressed. The same goes for the uncorrected government errors for which Trump and his administration were responsible.
To say that we all are paying the price for it now would be to buy into the faulty “equalizer” framing of the pandemic; underserved communities are feeling the pain much more disproportionately than others. But the Puerto Rico disaster deadened our nerves. The starkest indication is the carefree attitude we see many Americans exhibit, well after other countries have made this same mistake. As Adam Serwer noted, the president only was too happy to reject stay-at-home measures after it became clear that the coronavirus was killing black, Latino, and indigenous people at higher percentages relative to their populations. Even as the death toll rises and this pestilence sweeps throughout rural, whiter communities with lethal force, Trump may very well try deflecting the blame onto black comorbidities and such. I certainly don’t encourage that kind of political erasure in advance of an election, but Puerto Rico is one reason why I expect it. It is why remembering what happened there, and understanding why it was a precursor for this moment, is so vital.
Yulín was a vociferous critic of the president in the immediate wake of Maria, and Trump treated her harshly, using Twitter to aim at her allegedly “poor leadership,” with the sitting opposition governor, Ricardo Roselló, refusing to defend her. She is still the mayor, and running for Roselló’s former job after he resigned last year in disgrace following the revelation of vulgar chat messages, one of which was a joke about personally assassinating Yulín.
However, Yulín has put all of her campaign activities on hold to run San Juan’s COVID-19 recovery effort. As of this morning, The New York Times counts 126 deaths in Puerto Rico since the start of the pandemic, with 2,913 official positive diagnoses for COVID-19 — a death rate of around four out of every 100, below the CDC’s national average. However, the territory, per various reports and Yulín herself, lags everywhere else in the United States in virus testing. “Puerto Rico, it’s almost like a mini version of what is going on in the United States,” said Yulín, noting the lack of testing access, the over-reliance on municipal tracking, and need for more aid — which Trump has threatened to veto.
Yulín doesn’t think mainland Americans, by and large, failed to grasp the lessons from the Puerto Rico tragedy. But what about Trump? “I think as humans we always want to think that people learn from their mistakes,” Yulín said. “The problem here is that we’re not dealing with a normal human being.”
Imagining a semblance of humility in the president, I asked the mayor what she felt Trump should be taking from his Puerto Rico failure and applying to the coronavirus pandemic response. “He made the emergency in Puerto Rico be about him, not about the people that were suffering. He continued to toot his own horn and talk about how well things were going, despite the truth smacking him in the face. Every reporter that came down to Puerto Rico could see very readily that things were not going the way he was saying.
“He didn’t listen to what the experts had to say. Then, he didn’t think that this was about saving lives. He thought that this was about politics. You see the pattern is the same right now. He did not believe the scientists. He continues to create an alternative reality.”
It is this déjà vu that, one might hope, would act like smelling salts to a nation concussed both by its own trauma and its solipsism in this moment. Puerto Rico, nearly three years later, is still in trouble. Two earthquakes along its southern region this year, including one in May, in the midst of the pandemic. The federal government has awarded $2.2 billion in aid to the territory — but the $4.89 billion in supplemental aid that the House passed in February is what Trump and Senate Republicans are still blocking.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez, a Republican, aims to distribute the $2.2 billion that Puerto Rico now has as COVID-19 relief by December, but Yulín noted that “when the state has received that money, it has shared it with its cities. In Puerto Rico, a lot of mayors, including myself, have requested the governor to distribute part of that $2.2 billion and put it in the hands of municipalities. Our municipal income is going under.”
Yulín, who endorsed Bernie Sanders for president and has been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren for governor, spoke about the need for Puerto Rico to think differently about poverty, especially in the wake of the pandemic. “Our people are going hungry. This is a new type of poor. Money that doesn’t come into people’s hands right now is money that will not help people buy food or people get medical attention. Now people are really waking up to this idea. Those things that people considered radical ideas are now becoming self-evident truths that people cannot look away from.”
What she speaks of are just more examples of the American carnage that Trump spoke of in his inaugural address. It was not something, as we’ve come to discover, that he sought to avoid or end. Nor was it simply some cinematic spectacle of blood and sinew. That carnage actually manifests in the political disappearance of Americans, or as Kimberlé Crenshaw put it this week, the “unmattering” of certain lives.
“The current government was unable to count the deaths of people after Irma and Maria, and they died because of the botched effort of the federal government, aided by the local government,” Yulín noted. “Now, the local government cannot count the people that are sick, or cannot account for where they are, making the situation more difficult and ensuring that the only option the government has is a lockdown.”
The word “Katrina” has been casually employed as a tired and offensive metaphor for presidential ineptitude, and perhaps that will finally be retired now. But in this climate of numbing death, we should reconsider that since that disaster was hardly “natural,” authored by a system that worked as designed to minimize and deprioritize black life. Claiming that Trump doesn’t have a worldview, or is some kind of stumblebum who hasn’t a clue, doesn’t cut it when we see him consistently erase entire swaths of the United States that don’t matter to him, areas that need and deserve more help. In the midst of a crisis that by its very nature touches every single American, Trump’s failure in Puerto Rico is now one that stings people of every color and creed.
In Trump’s America, Puerto Rico remains arguably the most erased part of it. As much as Vázquez would have Puerto Rico fit in with the rest of the mainland with her Thursday announcement that beaches, restaurants, churches, hair salons, and retail stores will be allowed to reopen this week, it doesn’t sway the white-nationalist president to look their way with favor.
Puerto Rico will never have a place in a Trumpian America, where only those who vote for the dear leader get to enjoy the illusion of full protections under his beneficence — until a pandemic comes around, or perhaps even just an economic recession or depression. The pandemic may not be an “equalizer” for all Americans. But continuing to erase the suffering of black and brown people, or even failing to grieve them, will forever be our undoing as a nation.
There is something that we can do about it, Yulín said: vote. “This next election, it’s not about a philosophical view of how the world should be,” she told me. “It is truly about how we — after COVID — how do we make sure that we don’t look the other way and that we make sure that the word ‘privileged’ is attached to all of us, not to some of us. It is about how we raise people from being poor into a life where they can thrive and not only survive. Or just, at the very least, survive right now. You know what I mean? Then, however you have the chance to vote, if you have to put three masks on and four pairs of gloves, go vote.”
Yulín was clear: She means send Trump packing. America shouldn’t need any more cautionary tales. “He ignored the signs in January,” Yulín continued. “He ignored the scientific data. Ultimately, he’s always more concerned about him and about his politics than about doing right by the people and saving lives. That right there is a recipe for disaster. But I don’t think we can let his darkness dim our light.”