OPINION | STEPHEN KINZER
PAINFUL TRUTHS SOMETIMES become so obvious that they must be faced. Let’s finally be honest. Even though I forced you to marry me, I never loved you — not even on our wedding day. I didn’t know a thing about you, so how could I? You always seemed strange, with your own language and habits. Over the years, we kept our distance. I tried to ignore you. Now, suddenly, you’re in trouble and want my help. Forget it! I’m not wasting my money on a spouse I picked up on a beach by accident and never cared for.
This has been Washington’s attitude toward Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria tore across the island eight months ago. Its relief efforts have been reluctant, underfunded, and painfully slow-moving. Puerto Rico remains devastated, but few in Congress or the White House seem to consider its reconstruction a priority. They presumably understand that Puerto Rico is part of the United States and that its residents are American citizens, but nonetheless they treat the island like a foreign country that Washington has no obligation to help.This is hardly new. Both on the island and on the mainland, Puerto Ricans cling fiercely to their heritage. They are Hispanics, culturally closer to Cuba and the Dominican Republic than to the United States. When asked their nationality, they often answer “Puerto Rican” rather than “American.” The United States has never made a serious effort to assimilate them, and many of them have no interest in being assimilated. Washington’s response to Hurricane Maria vividly shows how unsuccessful 120 years of American rule over Puerto Rico have been.
The scale of destruction wrought by the hurricane is difficult to fathom. Most of the 3.4 million islanders were without power for months. Hundreds of thousands still are. Eighty percent of farm crops were destroyed. In some towns, nearly every building was blown away or severely damaged. Many schools and hospitals have closed. Jobs vanished. Over 100,000 people have fled to build new lives on the mainland, mainly in Florida. At least that many more are expected to do so this year.