Puerto Rico’s struggle began long before Hurricane Maria, and has not disappeared since.
Last week, a massive blackout hit the island, resulting in more than 1.4 million people losing electricity — a reminder to many who had recently had their power restored that the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is not over.
The lack of proactive solutions and the stop-and-start pace of progress in bringing back the island’s power seem familiar. It’s part of a disappointing but unfortunately unsurprising trend in which Americans ignore the plight of an area because it is predominantly populated with people of color.
You can see this in Flint’s water crisis (four years in, the city’s system still has lead pipes that need replacing) and in the consequences of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (which extended 10 years after the hurricane). It’s hard to imagine this lack of outrage if Houston were still without power, or that something similar would ever fly in Ohio.
I don’t mean to imply the people living in these areas are any less politically active than the citizens of Texas or Ohio. In fact, the opposite is the case. It’s incredible how much attention some activists have been able to draw to their situations, when it’s a struggle for them just to survive. Mari Copeny, known around town and on social media as “Little Miss Flint,” raised $10,000 to provide backpacks for 1,000 Flint students. Food advocate and restaurant owner Tara Rodríguez Besosa has been raising awareness for sustainability and coordinating the Puerto Rico Resiliency Fund. Their tireless horn-blowing is commendable, but it is shameful that we should even require it. These are American citizens going without electricity in 2018. And because we refuse to grant Puerto Rico statehood, these people can’t even voice their displeasure in the one way that truly matters to legislators: through their votes.
This crisis cannot be solved with a few Band-Aids. This is an island territory that requires major rebuilding in terms of infrastructure, so that it can withstand future hurricanes and other natural disasters. It’s not just electricity at risk for Puerto Ricans, though that is certainly enough of a concern. The healthcare system on the island is severely underfunded and disorganized, as Hurricane Maria’s death toll is still being counted. Legislators are unwilling to take necessary actions when they are looking only two or four years ahead to the next election, especially for people who cannot offer them political support.
The American government cannot continue to fail its people in this way. The lack of faith in the government in Puerto Rico, Flint and New Orleans is understandable. Even putting moral consequences aside, this lack of action is ultimately damaging to our democracy and could lead to more extremism and populism in our future. The first step is to give Puerto Ricans the vote and a voice. The next is to listen.