Trump could help Puerto Rico with the stroke of a pen. Why hasn’t he?


My modestly-informed guess is that Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico will appear in history textbooks right next to Katrina and New Orleans. Puerto Rico’s unique territorial status and institutional constraints make the federal government’s response very difficult. And as I shall suggest in a subsequent post, the hurricane has greatly exacerbated Puerto Rico’s profound debt burden and development challenges. Yet one has to wonder why we are fanning the flames.

At present, Puerto Rico is desperate for inputs — tools to fix generators so that electricity can be restored, supplies to purify water and avoid cholera, materials to buttress its damaged, crumbling infrastructure, and provisions to feed its population. And as an island, most of what it needs arrives by sea.

One would imagine at a moment like this, every available ship would be put to use to supply Puerto Rico.

Not so. One of our more benighted statutes, the century-old Jones Act, prohibits foreign-owned, foreign-staffed ships from carrying cargo between U.S. ports. Puerto Rico has been among the hardest-hit victims of the law.

In a rational world, the statute would have been repealed decades ago. But really only the smallest bit of common sense is needed to understand the Jones Act should be waived for Puerto Rico over the coming weeks. How can one justify increased prices for fresh water during a once-in-a-generation humanitarian crisis?

Yet, the Trump administration has refused to grant even the short temporary waivers that were instated after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Maybe there is a good explanation. Or maybe President Trump and his team think Puerto Ricans are not as important as U.S. southerners.


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