It should have been the sitting president’s Hurricane Katrina. Like Bush before him, Trump should have been held accountable for his failure to act in the face of human tragedy. Fortunately, for the residents of Puerto Rico, they had a strong voice in Carmen Yulín Cruz.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. In roughly 30 hours, the category 5 hurricane tore the island apart. Some say it was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Caribbean. Others characterize it as a “catastrophic event,” more devastating by definition than a “disaster” as it lay to waste the infrastructure that once served its 3.4 million inhabitants.
Without warning, Maria left Puerto Ricans without power and water. Hospitals swelled with the wounded and dying. But weeks later, health practitioners were still forced to operate by the light of mobile phones. Puerto Rico was in crisis. It needed help. Fast. Yet, its nearest, richest, and most powerful neighbor, the United States of America failed to come to the rescue.
This indifference may not have been so shocking were it not for the fact that Puerto Rico is an official commonwealth of the US. It has been since the end of the Spanish-American War of 1898.
It's a tricky relationship. Puerto Ricans are US citizens by birth. They can travel freely and relocate to the US mainland without a passport or a visa. They can serve in the US military. But they cannot vote in US elections. They therefore have no political participation in the government that controls their fate. Though part of the US, they remain apart. And Hurricane Maria proved that Puerto Ricans are, indeed, second-class US citizens.
The main barrier to receiving the life-saving action so many expected from its parent – the richest country in the world – was a 90-year-old law called the Jones Act. Designed to favor US merchants doing business in Puerto Rico, the Jones Act forbids the arrival of goods that do not originate from US ports on ships sailing under US flags. This rule meant that only the US could act to save the island from Maria. Yet even days after the disaster, the US government neither waived the obsolete Jones Act nor allowed humanitarian relief to arrive from other countries.
Fortunately, one Puerto Rican woman was willing to point out the hypocrisy.
Carmen Yulín Cruz is the granddaughter of sugar plantation workers. Though her 2012 bid for mayor of San Juan was met with skepticism, given she is both a woman and a liberal, her surprise victory was hailed by many with hope. A new era of prosperity appeared on Puerto Rico’s horizon.
Then Maria hit.
Like New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, a devastated Puerto Rico waited for help that did not come. Unlike New Orleans, which received aid from a humiliated President Bush four days too late, Puerto Rico remained in wait.
Angry and desperate, Carmen Yulín Cruz spoke to the US government through the press: "We are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency," she scolded. "I am done being polite. I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell."
President Trump responded to Yulín Cruz not with aid but with attacks on her leadership. He tweeted that Cruz was "nasty" and a poor leader. His comments did not have their intended effect, however. Yulín Cruz continued her campaign to raise consciousness through US news outlets.
She blasted Trump’s impotence while sharing the real plight of Puerto Ricans in the wake of the hurricane:
"I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles," she stated, "If we don't get the food and the water into people's hands, we are going to see something close to a genocide."
The government rallied to support the victims of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey without delay only weeks before. Why not Puerto Rico? While disastrous, neither Irma nor Harvey was “catastrophic,” having left most infrastructure and services standing.
Finally, Congress was humiliated into action. The Jones Act was waived and food and goods began their journey to Puerto Rico. Engineers were sent to help restore power. Supplies purchased through the donations of millions of US citizens moved to help Puerto Rico in the face of their government’s miscarriage of justice, finally reached the island, saving thousands of lives.
Yulín Cruz's articulate power and refusal to mince words resulted in eventual humanitarian relief for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. But it was never enough. Nine months later, as of this writing, and parts of the island remain without power and basic services. Yulín Cruz continues today to advocate for relief for her people as well as a reappraisal of the political relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.
Carmen Yulín Cruz's defiance has made her a symbol of Puerto Rican vitality in the face of disaster, while shining a bright light the US government's dismissive – some would say racist – treatment of Puerto Ricans. Despite her crucial role, Yulín Cruz refused to take credit for the change. "I am the mouthpiece," she told audiences, "but I carry within me the voices of thousands."
That's why we’re proud to call her a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Alejandra Ruiz de Porras of Providence, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico for nominating Carmen Yulín Cruz