In the turmoil that is the Hurricane Maria aftermath, mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz has been a highly visible figure in the media, taking both subtle and direct hits at the current administration. “What is really nasty,” she has said, while sporting a shirt emblazoned with the word, “is that anyone would turn their back on the Puerto Rican people.” President Donald Trump, for his part, has been defensive of the administration’s relief efforts, stating that Puerto Rico has “not been able to get their workers to help,” and blaming Cruz’s leadership. He also gave his administration a “10 out of 10” on aiding recovery after the hurricane. “Explore Parts Unknown” correspondent Hermes Ayala sat down to talk to Cruz in Santurce on the afternoon of Oct. 22.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Explore Parts Unknown: Is it OK if we speak in English?
Carmen Yulín Cruz: I’ll speak anything that can get my people help.
Thirty-one days after the hurricane, how are we doing right now?
We’re not doing well. We’re not good. Most of the country does not have electricity. Only about a third has water, and even that water is not necessarily drinkable water. Economic levels have gone down very badly.
Businesses are closing. Unemployment is going up. What needs to happen?
What needs to happen? The Trump administration needs to get stuff together. Trump needs to do his job. There it is in one sentence. And they need to meet the moral imperative of putting aid in the hands of people that need it. Rather than tweeting away, he should work away.
Has FEMA help been getting better?
In the past week, for San Juan, since we’ve had Homeland Security as a sort of a connection, it has gotten better—but it’s still not where it’s supposed to be. We right now are providing food and water for 99,482 people—we are feeding them on a weekly basis. We have enough for the next two or three weeks. This is mostly through private donations.
How do you feel about the role of communities in recovery efforts?
People are trying to get on their feet by themselves, which is very difficult to do because, you know, money really isn’t worth much—there’s not enough food to go around, so it doesn’t matter if you have money. But I think in San Juan, in the past, we have tried very hard to go with community empowerment and making sure that the communities know that they are empowered to take control. And I think that this is going to force those communities that really didn’t think that that was the way to organize. People are having to organize. I wrote a little book called The Power Is in the Streets, and people need to know that that’s the way they need to organize, so that they can go to their government—municipal, central, federal—and tell them, “This is what we need and we need it now.”
Is this response due to Puerto Rico’s status?
This is a life and death issue, first of all. It is compounded by the political situation, but you know, [with] Hurricane Katrina still the federal government didn’t go and do their job. So when people are in need, politics kind of gets in the way. So we have to get politics out of the way and get to the job of making food and water and medicine available to people. But certainly, one of the takeaways from this is that this political relationship has to change completely.
I know Operation Blessing is helping with water. Who else is here helping?
Oxfam, Ricky Martin Foundation, Suiza, the city of New York, the city of Miami Beach, the city of Chicago, Mayor Bill de Blasio, the state of California, and more—a lot of good people with very big hearts that really represent the values of the American people. They represent the values of the American people, not Twitter man.
Bernie Sanders is coming. I understand that you know him?
He’s a friend of Puerto Rico. What we are working on is an agenda that he can take away so that Congress cannot run away anymore behind a veneer of a “10 out of 10” [as Trump rated his administration’s response to the hurricane], which is totally ludicrous.
I understand you are announcing a new initiative today?
Yes, a couple of things: We’re opening our three municipal schools tomorrow and our community college and now, since we don’t have any constant power at the municipal hospital, our most modern center is going to be used as an emergency room. It’s brand-new, it’s nice, it has labs and X-rays and everything that you need for when you get ill. And we hope that people don’t get ill, but we know they will get ill. So they can move over there and it will be open 24/7. It doesn’t matter if you have insurance, you don’t have insurance. If you’re a citizen or your migratory status isn’t covered, you can go there. If you’re human and you breathe, we’ll take care of you.
How do you explain the situation here with sudden illness?
It’s a humanitarian crisis quickly becoming a health crisis. The hospitals don’t have energy, so when we talk about supplies or when we talk about getting our energy back, we’re not talking about getting our energy back for fans or air conditioning. This is for basic services. For pumping water, for electricity at the hospitals and at the schools. Basic things that every human takes for granted.
Look up Somebody Help Us. It’s a foundation that we are going to open this week in San Juan. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds will go to help the other 77 municipalities. But of course we’re gonna take care of San Juan first, because if San Juan is up and running, we can help other municipalities—anywhere somebody comes and asks for help. That’s what humanity’s all about, helping each other.
I think that’s one of the good things to come out of this bad situation is that we will no longer be able to hide our political inequality, our social inequality, and our poverty behind palm trees and piña coladas. We’re gonna have to face it, and we’re gonna have to change it, because when you see injustice and you stare at it in the face of a child or the elderly, you need to respond if you’re going to call yourself a human.