The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz, rose to national prominence in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Her media savvy, especially the television appearances in which she donned a black T-shirt with the white letters, “HELP US, WE’RE DYING,” drove attention to the plight of the island. The mayor has traded barbs with President Donald Trump: she called his response to the hurricane recovery “inadequate,” and he most recently called her “crazed and incompetent.” Now, Yulín Cruz is running for governor as a member of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD).
Bustle’s Alicia Menendez spoke with Mayor Yulín Cruz about the state of Puerto Rico’s recovery, the island’s political status, and what she has learned from her confrontations with Trump.
Alicia Menendez: We’re about a year and a half removed from Hurricane Maria. From your vantage point, what’s missing from the conversation about the island’s recovery?
Carmen Yulín Cruz: There is no sense of urgency still. There is no sense that the bureaucracy and that governmental procedures are really negatively impacting people's lives. There's a lot of headlines, but not much of the promised help. To give you an example, the municipality of San Juan is still waiting for $8.7 million of reimbursements for expenses made prepping for the hurricane and immediately following the hurricane. It's been 17 months. I spoke with a group of mayors this morning and most of them have not been paid anything at all, or nothing but the initial 50%. The government has no real path, but the people still are confronting the same amount of issues. That lack of sense of urgency and that lack of sense of immediate response and results continues to haunt the people of Puerto Rico.
AM: Republicans believe Democrats should accept $600 million for Puerto Rico's food stamp program. Democrats are holding out, arguing that the island needs much more money for other projects, including reconstruction efforts. So, when you talk about that sense of urgency, the disaster relief package is stuck. Congress is heading out on a two week recess. Do you think Democrats are right to hold out even if it takes longer to secure more funding?
CYC: Let me tell you what Democrats are trying to do. They're trying to make sure that everyone gets what they're due. They're trying to make sure that aid is not weaponized. They're trying to make sure that the president of the United States does not pit one person against another person. This is happening in Puerto Rico 17 months after the hurricane, but it's also happening in the Pine Ridge Reservation, where people are clamoring for the same thing I've been clamoring for a year and a half: to be treated with dignity. And you don't negotiate the dignified treatment of people. Those $600 million are to put food on the table of 1.3 out of 3.2 million Puerto Ricans. Why? Because for ideological reasons, Puerto Rico was taken away from the SNAP program and was put in the NAP program. Now we cannot adjust the assistance that people are provided based on the needs of the people.
So, what we're talking really is about starving people. And one cannot negotiate with somebody's dignity. This thing about, "Let me give you a little dignity now and a little dignity tomorrow," it's incompatible with every human right and every democratic value that we hold dear. What the Democrats are doing is the same thing that they did with the vanity wall. "No, Mr. Trump, we're not gonna give you what your little temper tantrum wants. We're going to do what is right."
AM: Did you see Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent remarks on her support for a binding vote on the island's political status?
CYC: I'm very happy to see that she understands that for us, this is an issue of nationhood. The U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and we receded as an act of war. But there is a nation here with a cultural diversity, cultural differences, language. I am not an American living in Puerto Rico. I am a Puerto Rican that respects their American citizenship. And her statement, stating that there should be a binding vote, is what many of us have been saying. It's the most democratic way of handling things and it's the way to ensure that all voices are heard and that everyone has a seat, literally, at the table.
AM: If you reject the current status and reject statehood, but fall short of supporting independence, what then do you imagine “de-colonization” to look like?
CYC: De-colonization is a process. What we would achieve afterward or could achieve is another thing, but I'll try and explain it this way. Just imagine that you're getting married. And you can get married under a different circumstance. You can get married without a prenup and then we will figure it out along the way. Or you can get married with a prenup agreement. It doesn't mean you love the person less. It does mean that the rules of engagement have been pre-approved by both parties. So, free association is exactly that. In fact, the U.S. already has compacts of free association with the Palau Islands and the Mariana Islands. The issue is that the people in those islands have never been citizens of the United States. We've been citizens of the United States since 1917, precluding our current status. Our current status came in 1952. So, our citizenship didn't come with this status, which is something that people like to confuse, because they like to use the weapon of fear.
One of the things that happened after Maria is that the Puerto Rican people and the American people really, really, really — I have to say it three times — looked at each other and helped each other. The Puerto Rican diaspora is no longer referred to as the people in the U.S. No, it's “we are a nation, a group of people divided by an ocean.” What we need is a process for every voice to be heard. I believe that free association is the way to do that.
AM: You're a co-chair of Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign. What would a Sanders presidency mean for the status of Puerto Rico?
CYC: Respect for our voices. And that is the only thing that I asked the senator, and that is one thing he agreed, that all the voices were heard and that the decision of Puerto Rico would be binding based on the truth and the reality. But it is more than status. It is about shared values. It is about wanting everyone in Puerto Rico to not have to decide whether they have to pay for their food or electric bill, or they have to pay for medication. That's why I support him when he talks about Medicare for All. It's about ensuring that Latinos and people of color are not disproportionately sentenced in a judicial system that is, frankly, tilted toward giving justice to one group versus another. It is having an economic development program and plan that is good for everybody, not just for those that have the most and where the most money is concentrated.
AM: Just to be clear, does that mean respect comes in the form of a binding plebiscite (a referendum approved by the US Congress that would decide Puerto Rico’s political status without need for further action)?
CYC: Yes, but not only that. It also comes in the form of ensuring that the aid that the people of Puerto Rico deserve gets to us. President Trump likes to huff and puff, and talk about how great he's been for Puerto Rico. The question is, where's the money?
CYC: First of all, it just talks about a deeply rooted misunderstanding of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. That's what they call “occupied fields.” It's been something that has been determined by the United States Supreme Court, and that is binding for Puerto Rico at this point in time. But number two, women should have a right to determine and make their own decisions about their health and about their bodies. It is painful to see that some people try and say that by restricting a woman's right to make her decisions, that they are saving the family.
Let me tell you how we save the family in San Juan. We have increased 100% paid maternity leave for three months to six months of maternity leave for our employees. We have also increased paternity leave, from five days to 20 working days. This is the case for married people, for domestic partners, for LGBTQ couples, and if you've given birth, if you are adopting, or if you're acquiring another dependent. That's how you strengthen families, by protecting rights, by empowering people to make decisions. Not by taking their rights away.
AM: One of the biggest issues during your tenure as mayor has been San Juan's crime rate. What has to be done to stem violent crime, and does that fall on the local government or on the central government?
CYC: It's shared — mostly for the central government, but it's a shared responsibility. When I came in, San Juan was amongst the 50 most criminal charged [sic] cities in Latin America. In two years, we came out of that list. We went back on that list. But as of today, we have 13% fewer murders than last year. We cannot continue to just look at our justice system from a punitive standpoint. That's why in San Juan we have said we are not going to intervene with anybody that has one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use. That is why I support having a conversation that moves us into looking at the legalization of marijuana.
We cannot continue to make things that are legal illegal. Cockfights will become illegal in Puerto Rico as of December 2019. This is a multi-million dollar activity, which people can be in favor of or they can be against. But it is a legal activity that will now become illegal, and all of a sudden from one day to another, thousands of people that make a living will now become people that are criminals.
We have to ensure as a society, and that corresponds to the central government, that we catch whomever commits a crime! The central government has over 2,000 rape kits that have not been handled. That means that rapists are out, free. Six out of every 10 crimes in Puerto Rico are drug related. This is also a shared responsibility! The U.S. controls our ports. The U.S. controls our airports, and we are an island! Most of the drugs that come into Puerto Rico come through our ports or our airports. So the U.S. also has a responsibility in ensuring that what comes into Puerto Rico is reduced, minimized, or eliminated.
AM: You said you were “mad as hell” over the recovery efforts. Women are often discouraged from expressing anger. What have you learned, in your interactions with President Trump, about how to best deploy anger as a tool?
CYC: When I said I was mad as hell, I also said, "I am done being politically correct."
When people’s lives are at stake, you do what you have to do. You stand up and you make sure that you're counted. In my interactions with the president, whether it be via Twitter, or the one time that we met, or when the White House speaks about me, or when the Pentagon writes emails about me, the truth always finds a way.
There are two things that you can do: You can stand up and speak up, or you can stand down and become a doormat. I'm not going to tell you that when I said those words, I was not feeling a little bit of fear. But I was also seeing the looks of people that have spent weeks and days and months without electricity. I saw doctors operating with the light on their cellphone. I saw children starving and having nothing to eat and nothing to drink. I saw people needing their insulin. I heard the cries of co-workers whose relatives died because they didn't get appropriate medical attention.
I did what I had to do. I will do it again. I have been demonized. I have been ridiculed. But, as the last sentence in Gone With the Wind says, “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.” If what I did helped save one life, and just one life... If what I did helped bring the eyes of the world toward the injustice and discrimination and the flagrant inefficient and bureaucratic response of President Trump. If what I did showed him to the world for what he really is, that will be enough for the rest of my life.