Since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico 84 days ago, my Uncle Elvin hasn’t had electricity. You read that right. Eighty-four days without being able to turn on a light, or stock a refrigerator, or take a hot shower. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans on the island cannot do the simple things we all take for granted. Add to this lack of power the destruction of thousands of homes, rural areas still isolated, small businesses not operating and an ever-increasing migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland. It will take a long time for Puerto Rico to be totally functional again under the best of circumstances.
The federal government’s response to the disaster in Puerto Rico has been painfully slow and not commensurate with the hurricane response in Texas and Florida. It reminds me of Ricky Martin’s 1995 song “María.” He sang, “un pasito pa’lante María, un dos tres, un pasito pa’tras.” That’s the reality in Puerto Rico — one step forward, one step backward. We rejoiced when the first package of $5 billion in aid was approved by Congress. But then the House included a 20 percent import tax on products manufactured in foreign jurisdictions in the tax-reform bill it passed in November. Because Puerto Rico would be considered a “foreign jurisdiction” under the bill, this tax would deal a mortal blow to the island’s fragile economy, costing up to 250,000 jobs.
Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and so many of my friends in the artistic community can continue to do fundraising activities. We can march on Washington. I can write music and dedicate proceeds to Puerto Rico; Americans from all walks of life can continue to donate, following the examples of the 150,000 who already donated $22 million to the Hispanic Federation relief fund. There’s no shortage of compassion and goodwill for Puerto Rico among the American people. But it must be matched by the recognition of our government that the American citizens of Puerto Rico need, demand and require equal treatment.
I’m much more comfortable writing a song than a political opinion column. Calling members of Congress, knocking on their doors and asking you to do the same is strange territory for me. I can already imagine the online comments: “Stick to entertainment.” I wish I could. But the news is full of scandals and tragedies, and every day is a struggle to keep Puerto Rico in the national conversation.
Puerto Rico needs a lifeline that only Congress and the Trump administration can provide. The list of needed actions is short, straightforward and agreed upon by Puerto Ricans of all political stripes. First, drop the crippling 20 percent excise tax on Puerto Rican products. This is an easy one given that the tax doesn’t exist yet. It can simply be removed from the tax-reform bill right now being finalized in House-Senate conference negotiations.
Then, let’s take care of the health of 3.4 million Americans on the island. Puerto Rico receives only a small portion of the Medicaid funding that it would qualify for as a state. The island’s hospitals and health centers are struggling in the wake of the storm. We all have watched in horror how the death toll has been undercounted — by perhaps 1,000 people, according to credible estimates. With the health of so many at risk, let’s provide Medicaid parity while streamlining enrollment to many who are not working and need health care.
Next, move quickly on the $94 billion aid package requested by the Puerto Rican government. I was last in Puerto Rico in November; the massive need is not an invention. Alongside the Hispanic Federation, we’ve worked to raise money to purchase and distribute millions of pounds of food and millions of gallons of water. We have made water-filtration systems available to schools as part of the American Federation of Teachers’ Operation Agua. These partnerships, made possible by the generosity of everyday Americans, have been incredible. But they’re not enough.
Finally, Puerto Rico cannot pay its debt to creditors. President Trump said it best during his rocky visit, before his administration walked his comment back — “wipe that out” and move on. Investors do this every day. On Broadway, I’ve seen many invest in what they hope will be a successful show, only to lose their investment. Puerto Rico’s creditors should do the right thing and walk away. It is the only way forward. Anything short of full debt forgiveness would be a brutal form of economic punishment to a people already suffering.
The past 84 days have been trying for Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora. More Puerto Ricans join us on the mainland every day. These are soon-to-be voters, moving to Florida, to Texas, to South Carolina, to Pennsylvania, just in time for midterm elections. It’s becoming increasingly clear that helping Puerto Rico is not just the right thing to do, it’s also the politically smart thing to do.
I remain in awe of the generosity of everyday Americans toward their fellow citizens. Congress, meet the American people where they already are. My Uncle Elvin and so many others wait in Puerto Rico.