Washington - The president of the United States, Donald Trump, has effectively closed the door to Puerto Rico´s efforts to be admitted as the US 51st state, a possibility that in the federal Senate was already ruled out.
In justifying his rejection to the statehood proposal, Trump said that the island´s politicians “did a very poor job”, and highlighted the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has become his feud as a critic for the slow and inefficient federal response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
“With the mayor of San Juan as bad as she is and as incompetent as she is, Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing. When you do have good leadership, that certainly could be something they talk about, but with people like that involved in Puerto Rico, I would be an absolute no,” said Trump in an interview with journalist Geraldo Rivera on the WTAM radio station in Cleveland (Ohio).
Trump’s doubts on statehood have been raising during the last year, despite the fact that in the Republican government platform accepted to promote that alternative if Puerto Rico voted for it.
When asked about statehood on October 19, 2017, a month after the hurricane and at a meeting with Governor Ricardo Rosselló in the White House, Trump said "we are not talking about that now" and warned journalists about getting him into trouble for that.
On June 21, at a round table at the White House, Governor Rosselló brought the issue of statehood and Trump responded, apparently joking, that before that the governor had to guarantee him two Republican senators.
Now, the excuse is an "incompetent" leadership on the island, with particular emphasis on the mayor of San Juan, whom, after a year of lobbing broadsides, he assures not to know by name.
In the modern history of the relations between Puerto Rico and the US, there has been no other time when a President -although nothing is normal with this White House tenant- has publicly said that he rules out the idea of turning the Island into a state, for his whole term. The political leadership of the island will not go to elections until 2020.
"This has never happened," said historian Angel Collado Schwarz, a professor at Columbia University and Yale University, noting that Trump's comments, although pointing at Mayor Yulín Cruz, do not exclude anyone from the government's leadership and come just after Rosselló’s government praised him.
Even so, Trump recently intensified the idea that Puerto Rico has one of the most corrupt governments in the US.
The most recent strong expression of a president against a statehood process, recalled Collado Schwarz, was in 1946, when Harry Truman vetoed the idea of a plebiscite stating that the United States was not going to follow what the Puerto Ricans said.
Traditionally, there is a Solomonic response, such as the one of Trump´s before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR).
In spite of ending up ignoring the results of the 2012 plebiscite, the Trump administration affirmed before the IACHR that after statehood won the 2017 plebiscite -with 97 percent of the votes, but in the middle of an opposition boycott with a turnout of only 23 percent -, a political process is underway and the result is unpredictable.
"Trump was never going to support statehood for Puerto Rico. This lame excuse shows his true colors," tweeted Democrat Darren Soto (Florida). Soto is one of the co-sponsors of Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez pro-statehood bill, who -just 42 days before midterm elections- is still waiting for a public hearing in the House Committee on Natural Resources.
In the Senate, Republican Lisa Murkowsky (Alaska) chairwoman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, had already said that the status issue was not on her agenda for the session that ends in December, and since the beginning of the year Republican Marco Rubio (Florida) warned that there were not enough votes to promote statehood.
In practical terms, there may be no difference between Trump's expressions and the imposition of the Oversight Board through PROMESA, since the statute represents a challenge to the ability of local leadership to straighten out its finances and prevents a change in status until the government of Puerto Rico balances four consecutive budgets and restructures the public debt.
"The President's reaction is not a real delaying factor due to PROMESA process," argued Jeffrey Farrow, who directed the White House interagency group on Puerto Rico with President Bill Clinton and now advises pro-statehood groups.
Gonzalez most recent pro-statehood bill promotes the incorporation of the island as territory and the creation of a committee in Congress to study the proposal to turn Puerto Rico into a state by January 2021.
The measure has won the support of 57 lawmakers, including the chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, Republican Rob Bishop (Utah).
But, Bishop himself -although later he wanted to explain his expressions- went on and said that before statehood, Puerto Rico was going to have to organize its finances. Conservative Tom McClintock (California), was even harder by stating in June that "poor fiscal management in Puerto Rico does not make them fit for admission." Under PROMESA, there may be a Board until, at least, 2026.
"He is a racist president"
In reacting to Trump's expressions, Mayor Cruz has agreed with Congressman Soto on the fact that the US President was not going to advance statehood.
"He is a racist president who does not understand that his role is to help, not attack or persecute," said the Mayor, who considers that despite the hurricane made clear Puerto Rico´s colonial situation, the government of the New Progressive Party (PNP) should understand that the problem is not that the island is not a state.
Cruz -who supports the concept of free association- maintained that now the world unequivocally knows that Puerto Rico is a colony.
However, she said that the experience of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, erases the idea that complaints about the federal response can be explained because of the status of the island.
For Cruz, Governor Rosselló and Commissioner Gonzalez have encouraged poor treatment for the island. "What they did was to exchange the dignity of the people for their silence," said the mayor.
Although she was not available yesterday, Commissioner Gonzalez, a Republican like Trump, seemed to have brought to life the President´s expressions regarding the Mayor.
"Equality for Puerto Ricans shouldn’t be held up by one bad mayor who’s leaving office in 2020 and do not represent the people who voted twice for statehood," said Gonzalez on Twitter.
To explain Trump's position, a source close to the White House said that "the President believes that the federal government did a lot for Puerto Rico and does not see much gratitude from its elected representatives."
In that sense, during the radio interview, the US President questioned that he is still being criticized for the federal response to Hurricane Maria, since the electric plant "was dead for years”, and that they blame him for the issue of electricity."
He also noted that the island’s authorities did a poor job in the distribution of basic supplies, which required him to send trucks and drivers.
For Trump, “locally they did a very, very poor job” and added that electricity was broken before the storms... “The truth is that you have an incompetent leadership. And the mayor of San Juan is a grossly incompetent person," Trump said, noting "When you find out what she did with those supplies, you will be shocked, it was disgraceful."
Trump said that he met the needs of Puerto Rico and recalled the hospital ship USNS Comfort, used limitedly.
The US President still questions that the number of deaths related to Hurricane Maria has been estimated at 2.975. "All of a sudden, I read a report, many, many months later, they did a report that 3,000 people died. Wait a minute, you went from 16 people to 64. We did a great job and then you went from 64 to 3,000. How did that happen?" he said.
A study by George Washington University, commissioned and accepted by the government of Rosselló, determined that due to the complications caused by the storm, due to the lack of electricity, telecommunications, transportation and health services, the deaths were around 2.975.
This time, Trump avoided mentioning if he still believes that Puerto Rican debtshould be cancelled, as he expressed in October 2017. However, he acknowledged that creditors "are receiving a blow". "I do not want to talk about that. But, I am certainly not going to help Wall Street people to finance a plant that was under water," he said.
For the 2016 presidential election, Trump´s election committee agreed with the government program of the US Republican Party, which states that once the 2012 local vote for statehood is ratified, Congress should approve an enabling act with terms for Puerto Rico's future admission as the 51st state of the Union.
But, Trump’s government does not believe that statehood won in 2012. "All this demonstrates the need for Congress to become more involved and provide clarity in all Puerto Rican matters, including status and reconstruction," said Javier Ortiz, director of FixPuertoRico.org.
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