The tragedy befalling Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria — beholden as it is to the dictates of Washington — stems directly from the territory’s subordinate political status. This was highlighted again last week when Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of the territory’s largest city, made a desperate appeal to President Trump “to save us from dying.” The mayor’s plea provoked only scorn from the president, who took time out from working on his golf stroke in New Jersey to lash out at her on Twitter for her “poor leadership.”
Trump’s callous response only underscores Puerto Rico’s precarious position within the U.S. body politic; nearly half of Americans today don’t even know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. This combination of apathy and amnesia is symptomatic of more than a century of absent-minded imperialism, stretching back to when Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony.
The decision made in the late 19th century to make Puerto Rico a colony without the full political equality of statehood is now crippling the island’s ability to recover from Maria. The Trump administration’s initial enforcement of the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from entering Puerto Rican ports, and the indifference of many Americans toward the plight of Puerto Ricans were born out of this nearly forgotten turn-of-the-century imperial decision. Americans must reconcile and rectify their imperial legacy, or Puerto Rico will continue to suffer.