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President Biden’s Promises to Puerto Rico

Air Date: Week of

During his visit to Puerto Rico in early October 2022 in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, President Biden reassured the territory it would finally “get every single dollar promised” from the Hurricane Maria relief approved by the Congress to help the rebuilding process. (Photo: Courtesy of the Office of Puerto Rico Governor/Twitter)

President Biden recently visited Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona and promised to finally deliver the billions of dollars in recovery aid that Congress approved after Hurricane Maria five years ago. But Puerto Ricans can’t hold Washington accountable because even though they are U.S. citizens, they cannot vote in federal elections. Hosts Steve Curwood and Paloma Beltran discuss.


BELTRAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Paloma Beltran

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

The Hispanic experience in the United States has not been an easy one. At the end of the Mexican American War in 1848 Mexico had to cede California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah as well as parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and Arizona to the United States. The US had already annexed Texas three years earlier.

A satellite photo of Hurricane Fiona as it approached Puerto Rico on September 18, 2022. (Photo: NASA/Terra-MODIS, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

BELTRAN: And in 1898 at the end of the Spanish American war Spain granted Cuba independence and ceded the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the US. The Philippines resisted American occupation and ultimately won independence but Guam and Puerto Rico have remained US colonies.

CURWOOD: So, as part of the spoils of war many Spanish speaking peoples in the US have often been regarded as second-class citizens. In the case of Guam and Puerto Rico they have US citizenship but limited voting rights, and the presence of Mexicans in the US comes with resentments and suspicions that have yet to be fully resolved.

BELTRAN: So, when President Trump was seen throwing paper towels to survivors of Hurricane Maria in Guaynabo Puerto Rico in 2017 it was widely seen as disrespectful and insensitive. But even with a new president much promised aid has yet to be delivered five years later.

CURWOOD: In his visit to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona President Biden tried to strike a more responsive tone, starting by acknowledging what island residents are going through.

Puerto Rico National Guard members establish a water purification site in Aguas Buenas to provide potable water to nearby communities affected by Hurricane Fiona. (Photo: Jonathan Vázquez García, Puerto Rico National Guard, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BIDEN: For days, people — people lived without power, without water. Some still in that circumstance — no idea when it’ll be back again. And for everyone — everyone who survived Maria, Fiona, it must have been an all-too-familiar nightmare.

CURWOOD: President Biden spoke as a compassionate consoler-in-chief.

BIDEN: The people of Puerto Rico keep getting back up with resilience and determination. Quite frankly, it’s pretty extraordinary, when you look at it from afar. And you deserve every bit of help your country can give you. That’s what I’m determined to do, and that’s what I promise.

CURWOOD: But the people in Puerto Rico have heard many promises before, only to have them broken, though President Biden did make it clear he is taking responsibility.

BIDEN: After Maria, Congress approved billions of dollars for Puerto Rico, much of it not having gotten here initially. We’re going to make sure you get every single dollar promised. And I’m determined to help Puerto Rico build faster than in the past and stronger and better prepared for the future.

An aerial photo from the U.S. Coast Guard shows the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

BELTRAN: But the people on the island can’t make President Biden keep his promises, since they don’t have a vote and the future is unclear. Like the Philippines Puerto Rico residents could seek some form of independence, a view most participants in status referenda have rejected, or they could gain equal status with almost all other Americans by becoming a state. They would then have Senators, full-fledged members of congress and electoral votes for president.

CURWOOD: At times Statehood has generally gotten the most referendum votes, but many Puerto Ricans also say they are content to keep things the way they’ve been for the last 124 years. And should the request for statehood be made, it’s unclear a Congressional majority would admit Puerto Rico into the Union.



Axios | “What Puerto Ricans Want to See Happen After Fiona”

Politico | “Biden Shows Puerto Rico He Cares. It May Not Be Enough.”

Click here to read the White House’s fact sheet on the federal government’s assistance for Puerto Rico on the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona

Read recommendations from the Center for American Progress on what the federal government can do to support post-Fiona rebuilding in Puerto Rico


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