WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate to demand that Congress give Puerto Rico and its residents the equal political and economic status they deserve. Murphy called out Congress and the Trump administration for systematically denying Puerto Rico a voice and adequate support in the wake of devastation left by Hurricane Maria. Murphy also called into question why – after the help of experienced electric companies was denied – a two-person energy company with little experience received a $300 million contract to restore power on the island.
Click here to view a video of Murphy’s remarks.
Click here to view a video of highlights of Murphy’s remarks with Spanish subtitles.
More than a month after Hurricane Maria, most Puerto Ricans are still without power and many lack access to clean drinking water.
“Hurricane [Maria] laid bare a very simple truth that is plain to every resident of the island and every Puerto Rican living in my state. The United States has been screwing Puerto Rico for over a hundred years, and this is just the latest, most disgusting chapter,” said Murphy. “Without access to the same health care reimbursement and the same infrastructure funding and education dollars as other states, Puerto Rico starts every race fifty feet back from the rest of America. Washington has tied their hands behind their backs, by taking away the right to vote in federal elections, virtually guaranteeing Puerto Rico’s economic disadvantage will never, ever be remedied.
“It’s worth noting that Puerto Rico is not entirely blameless for the financial situation it is in. There has definitely been a fair share of mismanagement on the island, [but] these built-in disadvantages are designed to hold Puerto Rico back. It’s time for this mistreatment to change,” continued Murphy. “It’s time to untie the hands of the Puerto Rican people and ensure that they have full economic and political rights.”
The full text of Murphy’s remarks is below. The Spanish translation of highlights of Murphy’s remarks is also below.
Secciones destacadas del discurso están traducidas al español debajo. Pueden ver el video con subtitulos en español, aquí.
FULL TEXT OF MURPHY’S REMARKS:
Thank you Madam President. I rise today to talk today about the dire humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico, and to challenge this country to end a century of discrimination against the Puerto Rican people. While the fleeting media attention may have waned, the desperation of the people of Puerto Rico has not.
The lackluster response from the Trump administration is an outrage. It’s been more than a month since the hurricane, and eighty percent of the island’s electricity is still out. Roads and bridges have collapsed, homes have been destroyed. Of the sixty-seven hospitals that are open, less than half of them are operating with electricity. Families are searching far and wide for clean drinking water. Some have been drinking water from wells at a Superfund site.
This kind of inhumane response would never, ever be permitted in a U.S. state. But one doesn’t even have to look to other states to evaluate this response; we can look abroad. Within two weeks of the earthquake in Haiti, there were 17,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground in the country. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in the United States, the United States had deployed only 10,000 troops to respond to the disaster in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
News broke yesterday that the state-owned electric company on the island, PREPA, refused to operationalize mutual aid agreements with electric companies on the U.S. mainland—that’s a standard step in normal disaster response. Now fault lies with PREPA but how on earth did FEMA and the Trump Administration allow for that to happen, leaving millions of Puerto Ricans in the dark and in danger for over a month? It’s beyond comprehension and it speaks to the failure of the U.S. government response.
But Madam President, the truth is that Hurricane Maria exposed far more than just immediate physical damage. The hurricane also laid bare a very simple truth that is plain to every resident of the island and every Puerto Rican living in my state. That truth is this: the United States has been screwing Puerto Rico for over a hundred years, and this is just the latest, most disgusting chapter.
There is an undercurrent in the discourse about Puerto Rico that is as pernicious as it is ahistorical. You’ll hear people, like President Trump, say that Puerto Ricans are wholly responsible for the financial mess they find themselves in and Puerto Rico should just pull itself up by its bootstraps. This rewriting of history ignores the fact that the federal government and Congress—we’ve had our hands tightly wrapped around those very bootstraps since 1898.
The United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain through the Treaty of Paris in 1898, when the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans didn’t ask to be part of the United States. We acquired the island. A century ago, the Congress extended U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, and in 1950, Congress recognized the island’s limited authority over internal governance and Puerto Rico became formally known as the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”
But being a commonwealth or a territory is permanent second class status. Without access to the same health care reimbursement and the same infrastructure funding and education dollars as other states, Puerto Rico starts every race fifty feet back from the rest of America. These built-in disadvantages are designed to hold Puerto Rico back. They have been in place for a hundred years to keep Puerto Rico from being a true economic competitor with the mainland.
And believe me, the Puerto Rican people have done everything they can to overcome this discriminatory treatment. There is an entrepreneurial, never-say-die spirit in Puerto Rico. I know this because no state has a greater percentage of its residents with Puerto Rican roots than Connecticut.
But despite the strength of the Puerto Rican people, they’re stuck, because Washington has tied their hands behind their backs, by taking away the right to vote in federal elections, virtually guaranteeing Puerto Rico’s economic disadvantage will never, ever be remedied. It’s a black hole from which Puerto Rico, and the four other U.S. territories, can never escape.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, despite the fact that recent polling suggests that half of Americans don’t know this. But they can’t vote for President, they have no voting representation in Congress. Think about it this way - Americans with a mainland address can vote if they move to Mongolia or Sierra Leone, but if they temporarily take up residence in a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico, they miraculously lose their right to vote.
And there are real practical consequences of this lack of representation. We’re watching the most egregious example right now. Do you really think that if Puerto Rico had two U.S. Senators, 80% of the island would be without power a month after the hurricane? And by the way, Puerto Rico has more U.S. citizens than 21 states that have a total of 42 Senators in this body. You think a President would denigrate and insult Puerto Rico the way President Trump has if they had electoral votes?
But the botched response to Maria is just the latest attack on the island, perpetuated by a Congress that can afford to ignore a big part of the United States that has no voice in Congress to object.
For over six decades, the U.S. Navy pummeled the island of Vieques, just off Puerto Rico’s coast, with ordinance, using it as a bombing range for military exercises. Those weapons allegedly contained uranium, napalm, and Agent Orange. Today, people who live in Vieques—they are eight times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. They are seven times more likely to die of diabetes than others in Puerto Rico. Cancer rates on Vieques are much higher.
And if you want to know why Puerto Rico has been in a decade long recession, look no further than Congress. More than fifty years ago, the U.S. government launched several initiatives to help spur economic growth on the island. It was a good thing. Ironically enough, the initiatives were collectively called “Operation Bootstrap.”
One of the tools used to spur growth was a tax break to allow U.S. manufacturing companies to avoid corporate income taxes on profits made in Puerto Rico. Manufacturers descended on the island in droves, and the entire economy in Puerto Rico became oriented around those companies.
But what Congress gives, Congress can take away—especially if the entity you’re taking from has no meaningful representation in Congress. In 1996, Congress phased out the tax breaks, and guess what—it sucked the island’s tax base away, cratering Puerto Rico’s economy for the next two decades.
Now, listen, it’s worth noting that Puerto Rico is not entirely blameless for the financial situation it is in. There has definitely been a fair share of mismanagement on the island, bad decisions on the island. Saying that Puerto Rico is only a victim of the schemes of the mainland—it’s not true.
But the same can be said of the financial mismanagement and bad decisions in other U.S. states. But a century of underinvestment in Puerto Rico has been a big part of the story as to how they arrived at this situation. And unlike all those other U.S. states, Puerto Rico has no way of rectifying the past misdeeds, because its toolbox to reckon with its past is limited to what Congress sticks in that toolbox. And that toolbox does not provide access to the Bankruptcy Code.
So as a result, Congress passed PROMESA, which created a financial oversight board on the island. Puerto Rican bond holders on Wall Street, who bought the bonds for pennies on the dollar, are challenging the current oversight and the board’s legitimacy with the hope of being paid before the island gets relief. The practices of the bondholders—who have been circling the island for years—they are made more menacing because they are spending boatloads of money lobbying Congress. Just watch the TV at night here in Washington, DC, to see their ads. They know that the people of Puerto Rico have no voice here—have no votes here.
And now, it looks like other predators are circling. News came out this week that a small, two person company in Whitefish, Montana, somehow, some way, got a no-bid $300 million contract to restore power in Puerto Rico from the island’s power authority. That same power authority that refused the help of experienced electric companies who actually know how to turn back on the power.
So how does something like that happen? Well, it turns out that little town in Montana is the home to the new Secretary of the Interior. And get ready, because this is just the start. President Trump and his billionaire cronies are going to use the disaster to enrich themselves. The Whitefish Power contract given to a friend of the Secretary of the Interior with two people employed at that company—it is just a scratch on the surface of what’s to come.
So Puerto Rico has been getting screwed for decades. None of this is new, none of it is unpredictable. And if you want to think that this is just one century long string of rough luck, you’re ignoring the last critical aspect of Puerto Rican history.
Back in 1901, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that though the residents of the territories lived in the United States, they shouldn’t be able to enjoy full constitutional protections—the Supreme Court was pretty explicit about why these citizens in places like Puerto Rico deserved this second class treatment. Justice Henry Brown, who by the way authored the “separate but equal” doctrine, held that Puerto Rico and the other territories didn’t need to be afforded full rights under the Constitution because the islands were “inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought.”
That, my friends, is racism defined. And it’s both past and present when it comes to the rationale for the historical and continued mistreatment of the people of Puerto Rico.
It’s time for this mistreatment to change. Not just by doing right by Puerto Rico at this moment, at their hour of need. Yes, it’s time for President Trump to command that FEMA and the U.S. military, and the powers that be in Puerto Rico turn the lights back on right now. Congress should give Puerto Rico every cent that they need, and I’m glad that we came together this week to approve the latest round of emergency aid.
But it’s also long past time that we address the second-class treatment that we have given the people of Puerto Rico for decades. Even that racist 1901 Supreme Court decision contemplated that the territories’ unequal status could only be justified temporarily. So it’s time to untie the hands of the Puerto Rican people and ensure that they have full economic and political rights. And I hope that my colleagues will join me in this conversation in the coming months. It is just as important as the one we are having on emergency response. Because if anything good can come from the disaster of Hurricane Maria, maybe it’s that.
SECCIONES DESTACADAS DEL DISCURSO ESTÁN TRADUCIDAS AL ESPAÑOL DEBAJO:
Gracias Sra. Presidenta. Me presento hoy ante ustedes para hablar sobre la terrible crisis humanitaria en Puerto Rico y para retar a este país a ponerle fin a un siglo de discriminación en contra de los puertorriqueños. La atención de los medios ha disminuido, pero la desesperación de los puertorriqueños sigue ahí.
La respuesta de la administración es una atrocidad. Ha pasado más de un mes desde el huracán, y ochenta por ciento de la isla sigue sin electricidad. Las carreteras y los puentes se han derrumbado, y hogares han sido destruidos. De los sesenta y siete hospitales que están abiertos, menos de la mitad están operando con electricidad. Familias están buscando agua potable por todas partes. Algunos han tomado agua de pozos contaminados que han sido designados por la agencia de protección del medio ambiente (EPA por sus siglas en inglés) como prioridades para descontaminación.
Este tipo de respuesta inhumana nunca sería permitida en un estado de los Estados Unidos. Pero ni siquiera necesitamos ver la respuesta a desastres en otros estados para evaluarla; podemos ver la respuesta a desastres internacionales. En cuestión de dos semanas después del terremoto en Haití, había 17,000 miembros del personal militar de los Estados Unidos en el país. Dos semanas después de que el huracán María tocara tierra en los Estados Unidos, los estados Unidos había mandado solo 10,000 soldados para responder al desastre en Puerto Rico y en las Islas Vírgenes de los Estados Unidos.
Ayer salió a la luz que la compañía eléctrica en la isla que pertenece al estado, PREPA, rehusó poner en marcha acuerdos de ayuda mutua con compañías eléctricas en los Estados Unidos, lo cual es estándar en una respuesta normal a desastres. Ahora, la culpa es de PREPA, pero ¿cómo es posible que FEMA y la administración de Trump permitieran que eso pasara, dejando a millones de puertorriqueños en la oscuridad y en peligro por más de un mes? No tiene sentido y habla del fracaso de la respuesta del gobierno de Estados Unidos.
Pero Sra. Presidenta la verdad es que el huracán Maria expuso mucho más que solo el daño físico inmediato. El huracán también expuso una simple verdad que es obvia para todos los residentes de la isla y para todos los puertorriqueños que viven en mi estado. La verdad es que los Estados Unidos ha estado pisoteando a Puerto Rico por más de cien años, y este es solo el ultimo, y más asqueroso capitulo.