During the 2016 presidential election President Donald Trump’s bombastic personality and overt bigotry centered practically all conversations and coverage around him. Millions of dollars of free media advertising propelled him to center stage, elevating his popularity beyond that of any other Republican candidate. From the beginning, the danger he posed for the nation, and indeed the world, was clear.
His promises included mass deportations, heightened incarcerations, and a reckless foreign policy that risked leading the United States to war on several fronts. Several months into his presidency, many of these fears have been confirmed. DACA has been rescinded, multiple iterations of a Muslim ban have been enacted, and the threat of nuclear confrontation with North Korea seems increasingly imminent. In short, the already vulnerable in this world are all the more vulnerable because Donald Trump is president.
This truth must, however, be held in tension with the reality that constantly placing Trump at the center of every aspect of the present catastrophe has obfuscated our understanding of power and hegemony. Nothing has made this clearer than the situation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Since the storm ransacked the island, report after report has focused on Trump’s lackadaisical response to the humanitarian crisis on the island. U.S. outlets have reported on Trump playing golf while Puerto Ricans are suffering, Trump blaming Puerto Ricans for their present predicament, and Trump throwing paper towels into a crowd like t-shirts when he finally did arrive in Puerto Rico.
These reports are important, demonstrating the incompetent leadership of the present administration which inevitably exacerbates the crisis in Puerto Rico. Yet centering everything on Trump also distracts from the fact that the humanitarian crisis on the island is worsened by laws and systems that predate Trump’s presidency by decades.
Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States since 1898. As a “spoil” of the Spanish-American War, the island has been subject to the political and economic will of the United States empire for over 120 years. Many of the policies that have made recovery for Puerto Rico challenging are a direct result of this colonial situation. Two of these policies are the Jones Act of 1920 and PROMESA.
Officially titled the “Merchant Marine Act,” this 1920 protectionist policy was designed to regulate maritime commerce in the context immediately following World War I. According to section 27 of the Act, all goods delivered by water between ports in the United States must be done so on U.S.-made vessels owned by Americans with American crews. This section is particularly important for an island like Puerto Rico.
Within the first 30 years of U.S. occupation, more than sixty percent of Puerto Rican land was owned by U.S.-based companies. Over the years this percentage grew thanks to policies like Operation Bootstrap that gave tax exemptions to U.S. companies wanting to set up shop on the island. Puerto Ricans swiftly became dependent on importing goods—including food, fuel, and medicine—from outside the island.
Section 27 of the Jones Act, once applied to this island colony, gave the United States a monopoly on the Puerto Rican market. Because all goods entering Puerto Rico had to be carried on U.S. ships, U.S. products have had an advantage in Puerto Rico. This and other laws have benefited U.S. business on the island, such that the highest concentration of Walmarts and Walgreens, for example, in the entire United States and its territories is in Puerto Rico.
That said, as an island Puerto Rico also requires goods from outside the United States that come via foreign-flag vessels. But as attorney Nelson A. Denis notes, under the Jones Act “any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.” He continues, “the foreign vessel has one other option: It can reroute to Jacksonville [Florida], where all the goods will be transferred to an American vessel, then shipped to Puerto Rico where—again—all the rerouting costs are passed through to the consumer.” This means that the cost of goods—including food—in Puerto Rico are 15 to 20 percent higher than in the U.S. It also means that the ability for foreign-flag vessels to enter the island is legally limited.
In a crisis situation like Hurricane Maria, colonial restrictions like the Jones Act can have two, ultimately deadly, effects on Puerto Rico. The first is that aid to the island is undercut. Yarimar Bonilla has demonstrated that since before Hurricane Maria hit the island, Puerto Rico’s neighbors like Cuba were already offering aid. Due to restrictions on foreign-vessels, however, the U.S. government did not allow the island’s neighbors to help Puerto Rico.
Recognizing this reality, Congressional leaders like Nydia Velázquez and thousands of U.S. citizens pressured the Trump administration to waive the Jones Act to aid Puerto Rican recovery—something they did without hesitation for Texas and Florida immediately following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, respectively. While the Trump administration obliged, they lifted the act only for ten days even though Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello had already assessed that Puerto Rico’s recovery would take months. The Jones Act thus limits Puerto Rico’s recovery by creating barriers around potential foreign aid.
Further, at a time where Puerto Rico is virtually cash-only because of bank closures and revenue generation is stalled due to recovery, the increased costs of purchasable goods under the Jones Act make food, fuel, potable water, and medicine difficult to come across, let alone buy. The long-term effects of this are yet to be seen—although debt, poverty, and forced migration (realities facing Puerto Ricans for decades) are certainly possibilities. But the short-term effects are already being felt with unofficial death counts in the hundreds—as opposed to the sixteen Trump continues bragging about.
While the Jones Act has limited immediate aid, PROMESA will inevitably affect Puerto Rico’s long-term recovery. Public Law 114-187, entitled the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act,” insidiously referred to as “PROMESA” (meaning “promise” in Spanish), was signed into law on June 30, 2016 by President Barack Obama. Responding to Puerto Rico’s unpayable $72 billion debt, PROMESA imposes a financial oversight board on the island that has the ability to impose, amend, or veto economic regulations for the island. As Pedro Cabán writes, “PROMESA gives the oversight board ‘certain sovereign powers over the Puerto Rican government and its instrumentalities.’”
Legal scholars such as Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan have called Puerto Rico’s debt odious, meaning that it was accumulated due to unjust burdens (namely colonialism and predatory lending), and thus should not be repaid. Following this argument to its natural conclusion, the imposition of PROMESA does not address the core problem of Puerto Rico’s debt: colonialism. In fact, it does quite the opposite. Cabán writes, “PROMESA reaffirms without equivocation that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States.” This neocolonial policy was wreaking havoc on Puerto Rico before Trump was elected or Hurricane Maria formed in the Atlantic.
Within weeks of PROMESA’s passage, austerity was imposed on Puerto Rico. The government was required to slash its budget for the University of Puerto Rico, to promote the privatization of public resources, and to cut the minimum wage for select workers from $7.25 to $4.25 an hour. Many, then, have rightfully critiqued this law by asking who this alleged promise is for—the people of Puerto Rico or neoliberal vulture funds. In the context of Hurricane Maria this question is ever-pressing.
Even though the aftermath of Hurricane Maria demands that Puerto Rico divert optimal resources to its recovery, economic decisions in this respect must first be approved by the Oversight Board. But this Board was not created for humanitarian recovery, but rather to ensure that the bondholders of Puerto Rican debt are paid. Their constituent, then, is business. It comes as no shock, then, that even before Hurricane Irma devastated Puerto Rico’s already vulnerable power grid, U.S. businesses—explicitly facilitated through PROMESA’s oversight board—were discussing privatizing the island’s electricity.
Even with support from FEMA and access to Federal Recovery Loans, then, Puerto Rico’s government is limited in what it can do to ensure its 3.5 million human beings can survive and recover from this crisis.
Heresy Against the God Named Empire
Both PROMESA and the Jones Act are two among the many laws and policies limiting Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria which exacerbate a growing humanitarian crisis. Lives are being lost because of these laws that strangle Puerto Rico’s economy and its ability to effectually respond to a dire situation. What’s important to remember is that these laws predate Trump, some by over a century. While President Trump’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico has been lackluster, in no way improving the present situation, the policies killing my people were imposed on Puerto Rico before he ever even ran for president.
Theology can help name and describe the phenomenon of putting Trump at the center of catastrophe with the consequence of obscuring colonial realities killing Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. For more than 120 years the god named U.S. Empire has imposed its destructive liturgies upon the people of Puerto Rico.
These liturgies—constructed through the intersectional supremacies of whiteness, cis-heteropatriarchy, ableism, ageism, and classism, each of which is begotten from the other—aim to sanctify the Empire with the blood of the colonized. It grows in economic and symbolic power with each liturgy it imposes in its plan of self-salvation. The liturgy of the Jones Act ritualistically moves ships around Puerto Rico to ensure the god always receives an offering, taking a tithe of 20% with each purchase. The liturgy of PROMESA ritualistically brings together the Empire’s priests to ensure those the god forcefully took dominion over continue to live a life according to the neoliberal morals that benefit Empire. And now the liturgy of not-caring for Puerto Rico during a time of need merely reaffirms the god’s love for blood and death among the colonized.
This god is brilliant. It constructs liturgies one after another so that the newer can obfuscate the older. It uses charismatic figures like Trump to divert attention away from itself, ensuring it remains omnipotent by not being questioned. Through these liturgies and strategies the god named Empire can maintain its sovereignty because the colonized slowly die.
This god existed before Donald Trump ever became President. Promoting life demands it be overthrown from its sovereign realm. Put differently, promoting life requires heresy: that we oppose its liturgies of neoliberalism, extraction, and domination while illuminating its strategies of obfuscation and deviance.
For decades Puerto Ricans have embraced the heretical project, creating counter-liturgies of independence movements, radical community, and displacing the god’s clergy from their offices. They recognize that this god named Empire is bigger than Trump, and existed before he even was born. And they teach us that to recover from this devastation, and prevent it from happening again, mass heresy is required.
Jorge Juan Rodríguez V is the son of two Puerto Rican migrants who came to the United States a year before he was born. Though his mother was raised in the tall, curvy mountains of Barranquitas and his father in the humid, bustling streets of Rio Piedras, Jorge grew up with his parents, grandmother, and uncle in a small affordable housing community in urban Manchester, Connecticut. His story of diaspora, language, gender, race, and dis/ability has propelled his academic journey, leading him to degrees in biblical studies, social theory, and liberation theology. Jorge is presently pursuing a Ph.D. in Modern Religious History at Union Theological Seminary, exploring the intersections of religion and colonialism/coloniality, and is on staff with the Hispanic Summer Program. You can follow him on twitter at @JJRodV