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HUD to Inspect White House for Interference in Hurricane Maria Recovery

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating whether the White House interfered with relief funding intended for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Growing tension over the situation in Puerto Rico has been further complicated by a federal watchdog’s investigation into possible “interference” in the distribution of aid funds meant to help the island recover from Hurricane Maria. Meanwhile, several 2020 Democratic candidates have already visited the island in 2019, recognizing the island’s significance for the upcoming election.

US Fails to Reauthorize Hurricane Maria Aid

The U.S. federal government provided additional aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, but Congress failed to reauthorize the additional benefits in March despite bipartisan support to extend funding.

Congress had been focused on other issues before taking a week-long recess at the time of the reauthorization’s deadline. The bill was also inhibited by the Trump administration’s resistance against continuing aid. According to the Washington Post, President Trump has sought to cut federal support to Puerto Rico, arguing the island’s systemic problems are beyond repair and aid should be reserved for the mainland.

The failure to reauthorize the aid package has resulted in 1.5 million Puerto Ricans seeing cuts to their food stamps, including hundreds of thousands of children and elderly people.

HUD Announces It Will Inspect White House

Last fall, President Trump tweeted his suspicion that Puerto Rico’s leaders were using aid funds to “pay off other obligations,” referencing the island’s debt, further tweeting, “The U.S. will not bail out long outstanding & unpaid obligations with hurricane relief money!” But while President Trump blames Puerto Rico for the misallocation of funds, Democratic lawmakers, as well as the inspector general of HUD, are pushing for greater scrutiny of the White House’s role in distributing aid funds to the island.

On March 26, 2019, the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it will investigate whether the White House “interfered” with Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria relief funding, as part of a larger audit of the agency’s allocation of disaster grants.

Lawmakers are looking into delays in federal aid spending, further motivated by a March 25, 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office that found government agencies have been slow to provide block grants to areas hurt by disasters, including Texas and Florida.

Battle Ensues Over Puerto Rico’s Electrical Grid

The Washington Post reported that President Trump argued federal funds should only be used in Puerto Rico to strengthen the island’s electrical grid. Puerto Rico’s centralized grid is vulnerable to storms, and the high costs of shipping fossil fuels to diesel generators means residents’ electricity costs are twice as expensive as neighboring Florida.

GOP leadership has expressed the desire to transform Puerto Rico into the “energy hub of the entire Caribbean area” by developing new natural gas ports and privatizing PREPA, the island’s heavily indebted public utility provider.

PREPA previously came under scrutiny after awarding a $300 million dollar contract to Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings, a company from former Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown. The company only had two full-time employees at the time of signing the $300 million contract, which the Puerto Rican government canceled after public outcry from Democratic lawmakers. Zinke has denied involvement in securing the contract.

But on March, 25th, 2019, the Puerto Rican Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to transform their energy infrastructure to one hundred percent clean energy by 2050. The move would liberate Puerto Rico from dependency on fossil fuel imports, and make it more resilient in the face of future hurricanes.

Puerto Rico’s History Under US Rule

The move towards autonomy calls into question Puerto Rico’s official legal status, a point of contention for decades. Puerto Rico has been recognized as a “commonwealth” since 1952, but in a 2017 referendum, Puerto Rican citizens voted for statehood and full membership into the United States. However, since then, neither the Puerto Rican or U.S. governments have filed formal requests to change the status quo.

Puerto Rico’s history was a Spanish colony for centuries before being captured by the United States in 1898. As a colony of the U.S., Puerto Rico was dominated by American sugar monopolies. In 1917, Congress granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans born after 1898, allowing draft-age men to be eligible for World War I.

Despite recognizing Puerto Rico as a permanent part of the country, the federal government brutalized the island’s independence movement throughout the 20th century, with extrajudicial executions, torture, and massacres– including an airstrike in 1950, the only time the U.S. has dropped bombs on its own soil in history. From sadistic eugenic experiments to brutalizing democratic movements, Puerto Rico’s history represents one of the most shameful episodes of all of American history.

Hurricane Maria Looms Over 2020 Election

2020 Presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro have both visited Puerto Rico in 2019, recognizing the island’s significance for the upcoming election. Democrats hope to draw attention to the Trump administration’s botched recovery effort, which was unable to prevent the deaths of thousands of American citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Cuts on food stamps will only worsen the former colony’s suffering, and with the HUD inspector general’s new investigation into potential “interference” in disaster relief packages, Puerto Rico is poised to remain a major issue in the upcoming presidential election.

Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a co-owner Citizen Truth.

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