A recent Supreme Court ruling could hamper Puerto Rico’s ability to recover from natural disasters such as Hurricane Fiona, which dropped nearly 30 inches of rain on the island earlier this week, leaving millions of people without electricity or access to drinking water.
The keystone is Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory – not an independent state or country. This statute left the door open for the U.S. Supreme Court to lay the groundwork for potential limits on federal aid to the island, both generally and when needed.
While federal resources and volunteers are currently on the ground, experts fear the decision means disaster relief won’t keep up with future storms — which could hit Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as early as next week.
This begs the question: Would Puerto Rico be in a better position to protect itself and recover from natural disasters – becoming all too common with climate change – if it weren’t a US territory?
The SCOTUS decision dealt with a man’s supplementary income. But it impacts an entire island – most likely in multiple ways.
The ruling in April actually had nothing to do with disaster relief. These were Supplemental Security Income benefits – monthly payments to adults or children who meet certain disabilities or financial requirements. Jose Vaello-Madero, born in Puerto Rico and living in New York since 1985, stopped receiving those payments when he returned to the island in 2013.
In United States v. Vaello-Madero, the court ruled 8 to 1 for this because Puerto Rico is a US territory – and its residents, although US citizens, are exempt from federal and state tax penalties – the states States are not required to make federal benefits available to Puerto Ricans.
The decision leaves the door open for those who wish to legally challenge disaster relief, housing assistance or Small Business Administration funding following Fiona, said Monica Sanders, former senior counsel for the committees of the House and Senate on homeland security.
These effects have not yet limited funding from Puerto Rico. FEMA’s Stafford Act still considers Puerto Rico a “state” – eligible for the same aid all 50 states receive.
But it is also the first major disaster since this decision in April. And with previous pleas for help, there have been those (including most Senate Republicans) demanding that the United States give less money to Puerto Rico and other territories — presumably to spend on US states.
“Some budget watchers like to talk about how much debt the United States has, or how many times we’re going to pay for disaster-prone areas that repeatedly need funding,” said Sanders, who is also a professor in the Emergency and Disaster Management Program at Georgetown University.
Pulling or restricting disaster relief is likely to come up in conversations, especially during the mid-term season. “And now we have a Supreme Court decision that defines at least one argument they can make,” Sanders said.
Puerto Rico is at the heart of this discussion due to its recent financial problems
Other US territories, including the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam, could be vulnerable to similar lawsuits, Sanders said.
But Puerto Rico can be scrutinized specifically. In March this year, the island officially emerged from its nearly seven-year period of bankruptcy – the result of a debt crisis caused by financial mismanagement and corruption – during which a federal council appointed by the United States Congress oversaw the island’s finances.
In 2017, when Hurricane Maria devastated the country, “there were people questioning the amount of money being sent to Puerto Rico while they were still going through debt restructuring,” Sanders said. . “And if the taxpayers of the American continent should pay for it.”
While some U.S. leaders question how much to support Puerto Rico, some experts believe U.S. territorial status hurts more than it helps.
“If Puerto Rico was sovereign in some form, it would be in a better position right now,” Sanders said.
Because it is not an independent nation, Puerto Rico is excluded from the largest international relief funds
Puerto Rico’s territorial status, Sanders said, leaves them in a gray area — between state and sovereign — that limits their authority to mobilize and distribute aid, especially on the international stage.
Earlier this week, Hurricane Fiona also swept through the Dominican Republic. Since the Dominican Republic is a sovereign and independent country, the United Nations can appeal for international assistance. But Puerto Rico, as a US territory, cannot receive such relief – and did not in 2017, when a flash appeal was launched for neighboring Dominica, which was also hit by Hurricane Maria.
But Puerto Rico is unlikely to become its own country soon – the island remains focused on statehood. In 2017, in what was recognized as a “flawed election”, a majority of voters in Puerto Rico were in favor of becoming the 51st state.
Would Puerto Rico be better off as the 51st state?
Hurricane Katrina, when it landed in New Orleans in 2005, “ripped the veil” on the fact that the United States was in control and able to adequately respond to disasters, Sanders said. Other countries typically contribute to individual U.S. states in disasters, which governors — through public assistance programs — have the power to spend as they see fit on infrastructure.
But Pedro Pierluisi, the governor of Puerto Rico, has less power than a state governor. Federal approval, or prior approval or authorization from Puerto Rico’s budget oversight board (controlled by the U.S. Congress), all affect aid allocation, said Charles Venator-Santiago, professor associate degree in Latin politics and public law at the University of El Instituto in Connecticut. Puerto Rico is also subject to block grants, he said — a state could apply for additional funding, while the island cannot.
“If it was California, we would have just seen a lot of press conferences from [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom about the recovery and everything that was going to be done,” said Sanders, who was also an attorney for the Small Business Administration during Hurricane Maria. “What we have here are press conferences with the FEMA administrator talking with the governor of Puerto Rico about what’s going to happen.”
Another factor: FEMA assistance favors homeowners over renters when it comes to assistance programs, and the majority of Puerto Rican residents rent. With autonomy, Sanders said, Puerto Rican leaders would be able to create relief structures better suited to the island’s needs.
Government corruption complicates recovery — and the climate crisis is relentless
Whether Puerto Rico is a territory, state or sovereign nation of the United States may be a moot point until longstanding government corruption and current economic failure are resolved, Venator-Santiago said.
Last month, Wanda Vazquez, governor of Puerto Rico from 2019 to 2021, was arrested on corruption charges, including wire fraud and bribery of federal programs. Corruption charges have also been leveled against senior officials from the previous administration, who were in office during Hurricane Maria. The list of shady politicians is long.
Financial mismanagement is what led to the island’s bankruptcy in 2017 in the first place – a recession, followed by excessive borrowing. In the years that followed, the failure of Puerto Rico’s trickle-down economic system, low investment in public infrastructure, and faltering spending exacerbated inequality. Today, the island maintains a poverty rate of 40.5%.
Ultimately, Venator-Santiago said, any financial aid Puerto Rico receives from FEMA or other countries will enter a flawed system. “A lot of disaster-related problems can be solved with money, which exists,” he said. “And I attribute a lot of that to corruption.”
Hurricanes and tropical storms won’t care about Puerto Rico’s political status
Yet Puerto Rico’s territorial status, which makes funding and spending complicated and slow “grant by grant,” Venator-Santiago said, hampers its recovery in times of need — which, in the Caribbean, can become all the more frequent.
“Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States is not going to change its level of climate risk and disaster risk,” Sanders said.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, small islands like those in the Caribbean are among the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming and sea level rise, jeopardizing the security of the water and food, as well as the sustainability of infrastructure.
Certainly, whether Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state or decides to move toward full independence, nothing will happen in the short term — especially in the wake of two full-scale hurricanes five years apart.
To help the island at this time, Sanders said: “We need lawyers and relief people on the ground who not only speak Spanish, but understand their Spanish civil litigation system and how real estate and property rights work. ownership, as well as their cultural practices.”
“We don’t throw paper towels at people like we did five years ago, but neither do we treat [Puerto Ricans] as if they were in full possession of their sovereignty and their humanity as we would other people,” Sanders said.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for writing this article.