A cursory look at Puerto Rico might make one think of Charles Dickens’ immortal line, ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Of course, it’s neither the best nor worst of times, but the political and economic reality of this idyllic, Caribbean island might easily lend itself to that impression.
Still reeling from tropical storm Maria, a storm that devastated the island with nightmarish weather conditions, Puerto Rico stands like a battered boxer struggling to remain upright. The storm, listed as Category 4, hit on September 2017. It wiped out power to 96 percent of the island and killed 64 island residents. But, according to a Harvard study, the storm may actually have resulted in as many as 4,600 deaths.
The difference in the two figures comes from casualties that occurred well after Maria blew away and dissipated. The Harvard figure counts fatalities that resulted from lack of medical treatment that was not available because of island devastation. Hospitals and clinics were destroyed by Maria. Others damaged to the point of uselessness. Pharmacies disappeared.
Untold numbers of kidney patients in dire need of dialysis may have died. Others, including diabetics unable to get insulin or, in other cases, the life-saving drug simply not being available, may also have died. The Trump administration argues for the smaller number. Islanders see another reality altogether.
Today, evidence of the storm abounds across the island in the form of noisy generators, instead of silent, pre-Maria power lines, that once brought light and comfort to many of the island’s now bruised and battered pockets of life. It’s not uncommon to see islanders innovate and jury-rig solutions in order to make life livable; not necessarily comfortable, simply livable. But another long and foreboding shadow has grown across the island, this one man-made and, so far, one without solution.
Leaked private vulgar and sexist text messages---often aimed at prominent public and private persons---between then Governor Ricardo Rossello’ and his top advisors angered Puerto Ricans who took to the streets by the thousands demanding his resignation. The texts were only part of their frustration. They were also upset by Rossello’s often crony-oriented and ineffective style of governance.
After apologizing, but vowing not to resign, Rossello’ finally did quit. But his successor and former Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Pierluisi was also forced to relinquish the office only days after being sworn in. Currently Secretary of Justice Wanda Vasquez holds the title. That also may be temporary. Vasquez, who has opposition from her own party, has said she has no desire to be governor.
Philadelphia Judge Nelson Diaz, whose family’s roots go back on the island for generations, is frustrated by this new round of political chaos. “He (Russillo’) wasn’t willing to fix the problems of Puerto Rico,” he said. The problems include the island’s economic crisis, skyrocketing debt, huge budget cuts, infrastructure problems from Maria and a poorly managed recovery.
“It breaks my heart to see this group of leadership,” said Diaz, the first Latino to graduate from Philadelphia’s Temple Law School and first Latino to be elected to the bench in Pennsylvania. In his just published autobiography, “No soy de aquí ni de allá,” (“Not from here, not from there,”) Diaz opines that Russillo’, as well as his predecessors, have been “unwilling for the last thirty years to accept any advice from Puerto Ricans in the states. They don’t consider us part of the Puerto Rican mainstream.”
Diaz was part of a team of consultants that regularly visited the island after Maria. Part of their charge was to get electrical power reinstated across the island. But instead of signing a contract with an established utility, Puerto Rico signed a $300-million contract with a two-man company based in Whitefish, Montana. Its owner was a confidant of then U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke later resigned.
Still, while the island is awhirl in uncertainty, Diaz remains cautiously optimistic that things will work out. It’s the first time, he said, that there’s been “a coming together of all the people, all different parties,” in seeing political “lack of morality and capacity to govern.”
Still, Diaz is particularly disappointed in Russillo’, a man who had the perfect resume’ for the office. “Here’s a guy who’s well educated (MIT), who would have had a wonderful opportunity to straighten out the financial issues of the island but was unable and willing to tackle those issues, along with the people he came into power with.” Puerto Rico’s financial problems are gigantic. It has $74 billion dollars in bond debt and nearly $50 billion unfunded pension liability.
The genial Diaz, an optimist by nature, said he will be watching island politics closely between now and November 2020 when voters go to the polls. He’s also hoping that whomever is put in the Governor’s office is “a caretaker and not a politician running for office. They would be totally concerned with the election and not assisting with the problems of government.”
In addition, said Diaz, he would like American politicians to familiarize themselves with Puerto Rico to better understand its people and history. “Puerto Rico has been treated in a very colonial way.” Despite having full citizenship, islanders get no social security, must register for the draft but still can’t vote in Presidential elections. “Too often,” said the barrier-breaking Diaz, Puerto Ricans are treated more like newly arrived immigrants than real Americans. “We’re American citizens.”