In the days after Hurricane Maria crushed Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz grabbed all the headlines for her verbal lashing of President Trump. But it’s another Puerto Rican politician — Jenniffer González-Colón — who actually wields clout in Washington, where it counts.
González, 41, is Puerto Rico’s non-voting resident commissioner in Congress, the closest thing the Caribbean island has to an ambassador in Washington. She’s been on Capitol Hill since Jan. 3, following her November 2016 election as the first woman — and the youngest person — ever to hold the position, which was created back in 1900.
The Washington Diplomat managed a quick interview with the congresswoman in October, the same day the House of Representatives approved a $36.5 billion disaster aid package that includes $4.9 billion to specifically fund a loan program for Puerto Rico to repair its devastated infrastructure. That vote came three weeks after Trump’s widely ridiculed trip to Puerto Rico, during which he tossed rolls of paper towels to hurricane survivors at an aid shelter.
Since then, Puerto Rico has formally asked the federal government for $94.4 billion to help the island recover, which surpasses the $61 billion hurricane-ravaged Texas is seeking for its own recovery. So far, however, the White House has only asked for $44 billion to aid recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Even though Maria caused at least 55 deaths, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and literally left the island in the dark, Trump tweeted that the federal government can’t keep sending help “forever.” He also said Puerto Ricans should be grateful that hundreds of people didn’t die, as they did “in a real catastrophe, like Katrina.”
Trump’s demeanor and his tweets prompted Cruz, while wearing a “nasty” T-shirt on live TV to drive her point home, to describe his visit as “insulting” to Puerto Ricans, whom she said were being treated “not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of.”
The president shot back at her, tweeting that, “The mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.” By contrast, in a Sept. 30 tweet that at last count had generated more than 62,000 likes and nearly 13,000 retweets, Trump lavished praise on the resident commissioner. “Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico has been wonderful to deal with and a great representative of the people,” he said. “Thank you!”
Asked about the 45th president’s behavior, González, who formerly headed the Republican Party of Puerto Rico, managed a smile.
“The media will pick whatever controversy that’s going on, but I’m the only federal elected official from the island,” she said. “I am the sole representative for 3.4 million U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico. And what I’ve been doing is coordinating with federal agencies in terms of responding to what has happened, and releasing funds to get FEMA running. In that regard, we’re working with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has been a big supporter of the island’s recovery.”
That recovery has been slow-going and will likely take years, especially considering that the island’s economy was already reeling under a massive debt crisis. Hospitals, gas stations and supermarkets have largely reopened, but many businesses have shuttered and people remain without clean drinking water or power. In fact, just as Puerto Rico had regained about 43 percent of its electrical power, a storm last month knocked out the aging power grid, plunging most of the island into darkness again. And while only 55 deaths have been directly attributed to Maria, nearly 500 more people died this past September than last year, suggesting the hurricane has made life on the island much more dangerous.
Nevertheless, some of the 15,000 federal troops stationed on Puerto Rico have already begun to leave, declaring the emergency over — which in turn has left residents panicked that their plight will soon be forgotten by Washington. Those fears were amplified after Trump declared that Puerto Rico “was in really bad shape” before the storm and the federal government can only do so much to help, while praising himself for doing an “outstanding job.”
Even González admitted to Bridget Mulcahy of Politico that the remarks were “shocking.” When asked by Mulcahy if the president understood the situation, González replied: “Maybe I’m going to be nice here: I don’t know.”
González is a lifelong Republican and activist for Puerto Rican statehood. In 2002, at the age of 25, she became the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. Even before that, she had been active in the student wing of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP in Spanish). In 2008, she made history again when she became the youngest person ever to be elected speaker of the House.
In November 2015, González was elected chairwoman of the Republican Party of Puerto Rico after having served as vice chair for eight years. Then in June 2016, she won the PNP primary by a margin of 70.5 percent — making her one of the most popular politicians of any party on the fractured island. And in the general elections, González defeated her main opponent of the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, with 48.77 percent of the vote.
Since arriving on Capitol Hill, González has focused on veterans’ issues as well as health care and tax relief for Puerto Rico. Unlike foreign diplomats, who represent actual countries, and her voting House colleagues, who represent actual states, González is caught in a nether world. Like resident commissioners before her, she has sometimes found herself forced to define what Puerto Rico actually is: a Spanish-speaking U.S. commonwealth whose official title is “Estado Libre Asociado,” or free associated state.
The Connecticut-size island came under U.S. jurisdiction in 1898, when American troops wrested it from Spain during the Spanish-American War. That short-lived conflict also gave the United States control of both Cuba and the Philippines, though Cuba got its independence in 1902 and the Philippines in 1946. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, became a commonwealth in 1952 and has remained one ever since.
“Puerto Rico is never in the news, but before this hurricane, not everyone understood that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Now, everybody knows we are U.S. citizens,” González told us. “But instead of just issuing reports, key policymakers are going to the island to see the situation firsthand.”
To that end, González has already led several delegations to see Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane devastation for themselves.
“I’ve gone with President Trump to the island. We’ve brought Vice President [Mike] Pence, Paul Ryan and others, along with members of the Cabinet,” said the resident commissioner, whose most recent fact-finding mission took place in mid-October. “Why is this so important? It’s because we don’t have senators, so the only way I can continue pushing the island’s agenda in Congress is by having my colleagues go there.”
But most of the human traffic is flowing northward, to the U.S. mainland — a trend that began before Maria. The island, whose population at one point reached nearly 4 million, has seen an exodus unprecedented in American history thanks to years of economic mismanagement (also see “As Economy Crumbles Race for D.C. Resident Commissioner Heats Up” in the November 2016 issue of The Diplomat).
There is plenty of blame to go around for the island’s fiscal woes. On the one hand, the Puerto Rican government propped up a bloated welfare state and wracked up debt. At the same time, federal tax breaks encouraged reckless borrowing.
For decades, Puerto Rico benefited from U.S. laws that provided financial incentives to manufacturers that developed production in Puerto Rico instead of outside the United States. But Congress phased out those incentives over a 10-year period that ended in 2006, devastating the manufacturing sector and triggering a full-blown recession, which was compounded by the 2007-08 global financial crisis.
As people began leaving the island, tax receipts were squeezed and the government began issuing debt to crawl out of the fiscal hole. This debt was exempt from federal, state and local taxes, making it attractive to opportunistic Wall Street investors. As bills mounted and bondholders demanded payment, the cash-strapped government was forced to shut down schools, hospitals and other public services while hiking sales taxes, which exacerbated the island’s misery.
The breaking point came last year when Puerto Rico, under the weight of more than $70 billion in debt, found itself essentially bankrupt, even though under U.S. law it cannot declare bankruptcy because it is not a state. And because it is not a country, it cannot appeal for emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund, leaving Congress as its only lifeline.
Last summer, Congress had to pass emergency legislation to keep the island from defaulting on its debt, which on a per-capita basis exceeds $15,700 — more than 10 times the average per-capita debt of the 50 states. And that was before Maria.
The rescue plan, dubbed PROMESA, sets up a seven-member control board to oversee the island’s budget, stabilize its economy and facilitate debt-restructuring talks with creditors. The idea of Washington bureaucrats dictating how Puerto Rico manages its money, however, has stirred deep resentment among residents and revived calls for the U.S. territory to secede from the “colonist” mainland. Conversely, calls by some economists to wipe out Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, which some see as the only viable way to restart growth, have fallen on deaf ears among lawmakers who balk at the idea of a massive taxpayer-funded bailout.
In the meantime, Puerto Rico’s economic crisis and brain drain have created a vicious cycle, as investors stay away from the island while doctors, teachers and other workers abandon it and head to the mainland in search of jobs, further complicating recovery efforts.
And if current rates of emigration continue, Puerto Rico will have fewer than 3 million inhabitants within a year, González warned.
“We’re talking about 1,000 Puerto Ricans leaving the island daily” since Maria struck, she said. “This will directly affect our economy in the long term. If you don’t have the human resources and the tax base to maintain an economy, how can you recover without the people who will work and pay taxes and make this happen? This can put that recovery in jeopardy.”
González said most are joining family members already on the mainland until the situation at home stabilizes.
“I talk with Florida Gov. Rick Scott on a weekly basis. He told me that 20,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, half of the 40,000 who have left since Maria,” she said. “We don’t know if they’re coming back. People need to work, and most of the private sector is letting employees go without salaries. And elderly people are leaving the island. I don’t even want to think about it.”
González says she’s particularly concerned about the hurricane’s impact on Puerto Rico’s all-important pharmaceutical industry. Over the years, tax incentives such as Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code encouraged U.S. drug companies to set up factories on the island. As a result, those facilities produce everything from Viagra to Xarelto, a blood thinner used to prevent strokes.
And even though Congress phased out that tax loophole in 2006, manufacturing still accounts for about 40 percent of the island’s GDP. Of that, 32 percent is generated by production of drugs and medical devices for export to the U.S. mainland and abroad.
“If there’s no power, there’s no production, and no tax revenue,” González said, noting that 14 products including insulin and blood transfusion bags are made exclusively in Puerto Rico and are threatened by power cuts.
“This doesn’t just affect the supply of medicines to the States and internationally, but also directly hurts the island’s economy,” she said. “There’s no way we can take for granted that these companies will always be there if we don’t connect the grid soon. So having these companies operational is a main priority for me.”
In the longer term, González said incentives to invest on the Caribbean island must be included in the tax reform discussions now going on in Congress.
“We need to encourage more domestic companies to establish operations on the island,” she told us. “The president says those companies are moving to Mexico. Well, when you’re doing tax reform, you consider everything, and we want Puerto Rico to be an option.”
At the same time, “we know that Congress is not going to approve a corporate welfare program like Section 936. That’s not even an option. But if we were part of the U.S. mainstream economic system, we would never have had this situation,” González said. “Personally, I’m looking into other options, such as a temporary 20- or 25-year neutral status, so that even if we become a state, we maintain our current territorial tax situation.”
If Puerto Rico ever did become a U.S. state, its residents would be forced to start paying federal income tax, though that would be partially offset by the fact that they’d become eligible for full health care reimbursements and larger federal tax credits. But with the island mired in crisis, it’s unlikely Congress will move forward on granting Puerto Rico statehood in the near future, if ever.
In the meantime, as officials struggle to alleviate the island’s problems, one thing Puerto Rico must watch out for is corruption. On Oct. 29, the head of the beleaguered Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said the agency would scrap its $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings following scrutiny over the Montana company’s role in restoring the island’s electric grid. Federal authorities are investigating the contract awarded to Whitefish, which is based in the hometown of Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke. The White House insisted it had nothing to do with the awarding of the contract, which was riddled with exorbitant clauses for Whitefish employees and prevented any audits from taking place.
“When we receive federal money in an emergency like this, there should be transparency,” González told us. “You should have an open way to know who’s bidding and why that company won. My concern here is that once you have these kinds of accusations of wrongdoing, it puts what’s going on in the island in a bad light, and we can’t afford for that to happen. Three hundred dollars an hour for a company that just had two employees is something that will immediately raise a red flag.”
This isn’t the first time González has spoken to The Diplomat. In October 2016, we interviewed her in San Juan just before voters elected pro-statehood candidate Ricardo Rosselló their new governor, and González — his running mate — as their new resident commissioner in Washington.
“We should use the resident commissioner’s office as an ambassador for economic development — not only with foreign embassies in Washington, but also with programs and agencies at the federal level so we can help the island get out of its fiscal crisis,” she told us then.
Even before Maria struck, she pointed out, 46 percent of Puerto Ricans were living below the poverty level — more than twice the ratio as in the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi. And of that 46 percent, she said, 56 percent are children.
Now the island needs more help than ever before. In that regard, González insists her 3.4 million fellow puertorriqueños still on the island can count on Donald Trump, no matter what people say about him — or what he tweets.
“My first meeting with the president was on Air Force One. My impression was that he was caring and direct in terms of how he could help. I asked him for so many things. In front of me he called Gen. [John] Kelly and gave him instructions,” she recalled. “I saw a president who is different than what we see in the media. Everything we asked for has been granted.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.