Since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico more than three months ago, my Uncle Elvin hasn’t had electricity.
You read that right — that long 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 hospitals and health centers are struggling. The death toll has been undercounted — by perhaps a thousand people, according to credible estimates. With the health of so many at risk, let’s provide Medicaid parity while streamlining enrollment for those in need.
Next, move quickly on the $94-billion aid package requested by the Puerto Rican government. 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 Donald 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. 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.
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.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway musicals “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” is a composer, playwright and actor.