Trump administration defends its response to Hurricane Maria as San Juan mayor accuses White House of not doing enough.
Caught in the middle of a war of words between US President Donald Trump and politicians in Puerto Rico, the debt-riddled and impoverished US territory is suffering from severe food shortages, a lack of clean water, and widespread power outages after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island last month.
The White House has appeared to walk back on Donald Trump’s suggestion that Puerto Rico’s $72bn in debt should be cancelled so the island can recover from the hurricane’s devastation.
Prior the hurricane, the island had undergone a severe austerity programme for several years in order to pay its debts, leaving the US territory’s infrastructure vulnerable to damage.
As politicians decide what to do about the island’s debt and recovery, Puerto Rican community groups are taking matters into their own hands.
Xiomara Caro-Diaz is a lawyer and activist who is overseeing 15 community groups on the island that are leading recovery efforts where they say the government is falling short.
Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi spoke to Caro-Diaz in the capital San Juan about the progress being made, Trump’s response and what lies ahead for the devastated US territory.
Al Jazeera: Is the work now an extension what you all were doing before the hurricane?
Xiomara Caro-Diaz: Well, in a way it’s a deepening of what we were doing already, but it’s also the urgency that has come with it.
It’s like a veil has been lifted off of Puerto Rico and it’s now for the world to see the poverty that already existed and what it means in terms of poor infrastructure, the impact of a hurricane of this magnitude.
In the end, it feels like the hurricane was just the beginning, and what has happened afterwards feels like we’re still in the middle of a storm.
Al Jazeera: What are the connections between the austerity measures that were already under way and what’s happening now as a result of the hurricane?
Caro-Diaz: Puerto Rico is $72bn [in] debt, and that’s directly connected to the economic policies that Congress passed that allowed specific industries like the pharmaceutical industry, which made millions and billions of dollars off of Puerto Rico.
At the same time, the infrastructure suffers. They [these industries] don’t pay taxes.
So, you have a place that has historically been kept poor, that has been used to make billions of dollars and extract wealth, and at the time same time, the infrastructure that goes from people’s homes, which they don’t make enough money to have a cement home, so the impact is much worse.
But it also goes to the extent of what happens to our roads, the electricity.
How is it that after we have made so much money for all these industries, [but] nothing is left behind?
Al Jazeera: Donald Trump says he wants to forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. What do you make of that?
Caro-Diaz: I’d like to see that on paper. I think that Donald Trump is someone difficult to trust, who came here and ridiculed the people of Puerto Rico.
It was embarrassing to watch the governor laugh while he [Trump] was making jokes about Puerto Rico, and even diminishing the amount of people that we have lost and the amount of deaths that we’ve had, some of which we haven’t even counted for.
So if that’s true, I want to see it on paper.