2017-10-04 / Opinions

Puerto Rico like Appalachia, but it’s farther south

Imagine if a Category 4 hurricane slammed into Connecticut, a wealthy state next door to the nation’s media center of New York, and took out the entire power grid with such force that months might pass before it can be stitched back together.

Columnist Carl Cannon of Real Clear Politics laid out the scenario recently: “Following a historic natural disaster, the only power in hospitals and hotels — and private homes — comes from generators, which burn expensive propane or gasoline. As economic activity plummets, employers lay off workers, the tax base will shrink, and the state’s utility company faces insolvency.”

There’s no air conditioning. No potable water. No phone service. Roads are washed out by floods and mudslides. Every vestige of modern life is simply gone.

What do you think the media response would be? What do you think the political response would be? Extensive and enormous, right?

So why then is there such a tepid and slow-footed response when Hurricane Maria did exactly that to Puerto Rico, which has almost the same population as Connecticut — and more people than 21 other states?

We can speculate all day on the possible reasons for this neglect, from the benign (Puerto’s Rico’s geographical isolation from the rest of the United States) to the malignant (white Americans simply don’t care that much about Puerto Rico because it’s Hispanic). A football player kneels during the national anthem and Twitter explodes; an entire territory is knocked to its figurative knees and, wait, how many Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the locker room?

Here are the relevant facts, though: Puerto Rico may not be a state, but Puerto Ricans are still Americans. They’ve been recognized as Americans since 1917. Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status is, admittedly, unique. Puerto Ricans don’t pay federal income tax and they field separate teams in the Olympics. And yet the United States flag — the one we expect athletes to stand and face when the national anthem is played — flies over Puerto Rico. When there was a military draft, Puerto Ricans were subject to it. When the United States bombed Libya in 1986, we lost two airmen. The most senior of those two pilots was a Puerto Rican. There are more veterans alive in Puerto Rico today than there are people in Roanoke and Vinton combined.

When President Trump finally turned his attention from a handful of protesting football players to the plight of 3.4 million fellow Americans whose homes were devastated by the worst storm to hit their island in nearly a century, his first response was to focus on Puerto Rico’s debt.

OK, let’s talk about that then.

Yes, Puerto Rico is in sorry economic shape. Its population is poor, and the island’s government is saddled with bills it can’t pay, and debt obligations it cannot meet. Undoubtedly, the island has been mismanaged. It’s also had some bad economic luck. Cannon describes “wellintentioned, but ill-conceived, tax incentives enacted by Congress to lure business to Puerto Rico.” However, he writes, “lawmakers put sunset provisions on them and when the handouts to the pharmaceutical manufacturers and other corporations went away, so did the companies.”

Bloomberg News goes on to describe Puerto Rico this way: “In the last decade, the island has lost about 9 percent of its population, including many ambitious and talented individuals.”

Hmm. So Puerto Rico is poor, abandoned by now-shuttered factories, beset by a declining population and the exodus of young adults. What does that sound like? Other than the debt to Wall Street, it sounds to us like Appalachia (and a lot of other parts of rural and small-town America).

If you’re struggling to identify with these fellow Americans, try that comparison on for size. Yes, Puerto Ricans speak Spanish. So what? Their economic condition — even before the hurricane — was basically similar to that of some of the most economically-distressed parts of rural Virginia. Both have been left behind by the modern economy.

We at least get to elect representatives to send to Richmond and Washington, but we both feel ignored by the powers-that-be. We ought to care about Puerto Ricans because these are fellow human beings, or, at least, fellow Americans. If those things aren’t enough, then consider that Puerto Rico is basically a Caribbean version of Appalachia — a Caribbean version of us.

Now think about this: If Washington can get away with ignoring (or giving short shrift to) Puerto Rico when there’s an obvious humanitarian crisis, what hope do we have that the federal government can or will address less-dramatic problems in poor and rural parts of the mainland?

Trump’s belated attention to a devastated Puerto Rico is sadly noticeable, but that’s hardly a trait unique to him.

Earlier this year, the schools in Virginia’s southwest corner faced a unique funding crisis brought on by the demographic collapse taking place in the coalfields. Our Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, offered nothing more than sympathy.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the heartthrob of American liberals because he is everything Trump is not. Yet Trudeau and his Liberal Party government have been just as diffident in responding to a Canadian crisis: The Arctic town of Churchill, Manitoba, has been cut off since May, when massive floods washed out its only rail link to the rest of the country. Winter is now coming and there’s no way to get food — or anything else — to the town, except by expensive airlifts. While we’re apportioning blame, the Conservative Party provincial government in Winnipeg hasn’t exactly rushed to Churchill’s aid, either.

These all seem very different kinds of problems, except they share this in common: Rural areas are easy to ignore, no matter which party is in power. From the Arctic to Appalachia, from the coalfields to the Caribbean, we’re all in the same situation. Governments don’t really take us seriously, or make us a priority, even in times of crisis.

So far, the loudest voices calling for more relief to Puerto Rico have come from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (a Democrat) and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (a Republican). That’s understandable, because their states have the greatest number of Puerto Ricans. However, there ought to be loud voice coming from Appalachia, too.

Not because there are many Puerto Ricans here but because, in a way, we are Puerto Ricans, too.

— The Roanoke (Virginia) Times

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