Is Trump Hurting Puerto Rico to Protect America’s Shipping Industry?

A container ship docked at the port of San Juan. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump doesn’t care about Puerto Rican people. Or, at least, he has given the island’s residents plenty of cause to draw that conclusion.

Last Wednesday, a Category 4 hurricane killed at least 16 of the territory’s people, wrecked thousands of its homes, eliminated 80 percent of the territory’s crop value, and completely destroyed its power grid – a development that will likely leave more than 3 million American citizens without electricity for several months.

For five days after this catastrophe – while nearly half of Puerto Ricans struggled to access drinking water, and its few functioning hospitals ran low on medicine and medical supplies – the president declined to make any formal acknowledgement of their suffering. Instead, Trump opted to focus his attention – and thus, that of our country – on the vital question of whether the NFL should sanction African-American football players who who subvert pre-game etiquette.

When the president finally did acknowledge the crisis in Puerto Rico – at 8:45 p.m., on the fifth day after Hurricane Maria made landfall – he offered no expression of empathy for, or solidarity with, the island’s American citizens. Instead, he sought to disavow responsibility for their troubles; defend the adequacy of his administration’s response; and insist that Puerto Rico would still have to pay its debts to Wall Street.

Meanwhile, Trump devoted fewer military resources to search and rescue operations on the island than many Puerto Rican first responders think necessary, and made no effort to mobilize Congress behind a relief package for the island.

But to many observers, the most callous and discriminatory piece of the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria came on Tuesday night, when the Department of Homeland Security rejected a request to grant Puerto Rico a waiver from the Jones Act – a law that requires all cargo carried between U.S. ports (including those in Puerto Rico) to be transported on ships made, owned, and staffed by Americans.

The law was originally enacted after World War I, as a means of ensuring that America would retain its naval capacity during peacetime. Ever since, it has provided America’s shipping industry with a prized buffer from foreign competition. But in the aftermath of hurricanes, DHS often waives the law for disaster areas, so that economic nationalism doesn’t get in the way of maximizing the amount of food, fuel, and other vital resources available to storm victims. George W. Bush did this for New Orleans after Katrina, Barack Obama did it for much of the East Coast after Sandy – and Trump did for Houston and Florida after Harvey and Irma, respectively.

And yet, the president declined to do the same favor for Puerto Rico. When asked why, Trump told reporters Wednesday, “a lot of people that work in the shipping industry… don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”

Forty-four percent of Puerto Ricans lack access to clean water. Hospitals desperately need fuel for their generators. But the shipping industry wouldn’t like it if foreign carriers delivered cargo to Puerto Rico. So we won’t let them to do that.

Sounds pretty darn deplorable. And it is – but not in the sense that one might think.

In truth, there are legitimate (non-racist) reasons why the government would waive the Jones Act for Houston but not for Puerto Rico. Generally, such waivers are only given when the government determines that there aren’t enough U.S. ships available to meet a disaster area’s cargo needs. In Puerto Rico, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The island’s problem isn’t that it lacks relief supplies, but rather, that no one can get to them.

Most of Puerto Rico’s ports were disabled or destroyed by Maria. The largest function one, in San Juan, is already packed with thousands of shipping containers full of food, water, and other badly-needed resources. The challenge facing relief workers isn’t getting supplies into the island’s ports – it’s getting them out.

“It’s pretty ugly out there,” Jose Ayala, vice president of Puerto Rico Services for Crowley Maritime Inc., told the Wall Street Journal Wednesday.“There is damage to the trucking infrastructure, to the distributors, to the supermarkets, to the roads. And then, if your infrastructure is not so damaged, and you can get a driver to the truck, there is no fuel to move the equipment.”

Ayala has an incentive to argue that the problem in Puerto Rico isn’t Jones Act related, given that his Jacksonville-based company profits from the law. But his assessment is broadly shared by local observers.

So, the Trump administration isn’t starving Puerto Rico of resources to inflate the profit margins of the shipping industry.

But that doesn’t mean the White House isn’t callously hurting the besieged territory for that industry’s sake. Keeping the Jones Act in place won’t keep supplies from reaching the island – but doing so will make them more expensive. According to the Huffington Post, Puerto Rico may end up paying twice as much for relief materials than it would have, were it able to secure goods from foreign carriers.

More crucially, the Jones Act has long been a burden on the island’s economy – and that economy doesn’t need any more burdens. Before Hurricane Maria sent Puerto Rico back to the pre-industrial age, the territory was already suffering through a wrenching debt crisis. To satisfy the island’s creditors, a “fiscal oversight and management board” – established by our federal government – has forced Puerto Rico to pursue austerity measures that could keep it in recession for years. These bleak economic conditions have caused many of the most affluent and talented Puerto Ricans to leave for the U.S. mainland, which has, in turn, exacerbated the crisis in the country they left behind.

Given this roiling social, economic – and now, natural – disaster, the very least America can do is liberate Puerto Rico from a law that increases shipping employment in Jacksonville, at a multi-billion dollar cost to the territory’s economy. As Nelson Denis wrote for the New York Times Monday:

Under the law, any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.

The foreign vessel has one other option: It can reroute to Jacksonville, Fla., 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.

Thanks to the law, the price of goods from the United States mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, which are not covered by the Jones Act. Moreover, the cost of living in Puerto Rico is 13 percent higher than in 325 urban areas elsewhere in the United States, even though per capita income in Puerto Rico is about $18,000, close to half that of Mississippi, the poorest of all 50 states…A 2012 report by two University of Puerto Rico economists found that the Jones Act caused a $17 billion loss to the island’s economy from 1990 through 2010.

Eight U.S. representatives have called on the Trump administration to waive the Jones Act for a full year, in order to help Puerto Rico recover from Maria, both economically and otherwise. An administration that cared about the people of Puerto Rico would reject this request – and immunize the island from these shipping restrictions permanently.

Is Trump Hurting Puerto Rico to Help the Shipping Industry?