Since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico 88 days ago, my Uncle Elvin hasn’t had electricity. You read that right. Eighty-eight 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.
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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 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.
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.
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. 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.
Finally, Puerto Rico cannot pay its debt to creditors. President Donald Trump said it best during his rocky visit, before his administration walked his comment back – “wipe that out” and move on. 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 88 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 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.
Miranda, the creator of the Broadway musicals “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” is a composer, playwright and actor.