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Photo: President Biden has finally promised aid, but Puerto Ricans remain cautious. Photo: Getty Images
President Biden has finally promised aid, but Puerto Ricans remain cautious. Photo: Getty Images

Philly Boricuas express hope, wariness, as Biden releases Puerto Rico funds

Following a commitment by President Biden to finally distribute funds, his administration later said it would ease limits the previous administration placed on…

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At more than $100 billion in damages, 2017’s Hurricane Maria was the third-most costly hurricane in U.S. history. Years later, the consequences of the widespread damage from the storm to Puerto Rico remain unresolved.

The Biden administration campaigned with the promise to present a plan for aid and recovery for Puerto Rico, and just recently, it said it has plans to release $1.3 billion in previously-held aid for the island to help rebuild after Maria and other natural disasters including a barrage of earthquakes.

Biden’s team has also said it will move forward with removing Trump-era restrictions on an additional $4.9 billion, though for both announcements, there is no set timeline to anticipate the aid. 

While administration officials say the announcement is a first step to address the years-long neglect of Puerto Rico, they have yet to outline comprehensive steps, and rather the same list of actions — then promising, now quite vague — announced in September.

They include improving infrastructure, investing in economic development initiatives, providing debt relief, and expanding access to education and Puerto Rico’s workforce.

The promised funds are part of $20 billion that Congress provided HUD for the island’s recovery and protection against future hurricanes. 

Biden is expected to sign an order for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to facilitate the delivery of the funds to Puerto Rico.

Philly Boricuas, a grassroots organization in Philadelphia advocating for the Puerto Rican and Latinx communities expressed measured relief at the announcement. 

“Last year we joined the People for #PuertoRico & International Action Center to protest at FEMA's offices in #Philly. We demanded they release the aid authorized by Congress to #PR. We are pleased to see @POTUS release the much needed funding,” the organization wrote on Twitter. 

However, they expressed that once the funds are delivered to Puerto Rico, there will be further hurdles to cross in terms of equity.

Philly Boricuas highlighted the possibilities for inequity in a subsequent tweet. 

“Now we must hold @GovPierluisi & the administration accountable for: 

1. equitable and just distribution of funds;

2. preventing more pay to play contracts for special interests;

3. and ensuring all communities get the resources they need & deserve.”

Adrián Rivera-Reyes, PhD, with Philly Boricuas, further broke-down their concerns to AL DÍA.

“There’s a precedent, right? There’s a precedent that was set by Ricardo Rosselló’s administration,” he explained. 

Rossello’s career as Puerto Rico’s governor collapsed in the years over Maria. He stepped down in 2019 after a series of scandals and controversies, ranging from the infamous “Rickyleaks,” to general corruption. 

It’s a precedent that dates back to before Puerto Rico’s current governor of just over a month, Pedro Pierluisi, Rivera-Reyes explained.

“That was really devastating because there was a natural disaster that was then coupled with a political and government disaster. And Ricky was at the top of that. I think there’s definitely a lot of hesitation, and most definitely a lot of trauma, of course, because people living through the hurricanes and then seeing how the aid was botched and how everything came to light [...] and because Pierluisi is part of the same party, there is the feeling that something similar might happen, or that there will be a heavily unfair process,” he continued.

It’s something that has been very well documented throughout history, Rivera-Reyes explained, and it doesn’t bode well when considering that former governor Luis Fortuño, also known for his tumultuous administration, is also of the same party.

“I think people are rightly [concerned] and us in the diaspora, living and seeing and suffering a different type of trauma, through the hurricanes, not being able to communicate with our families and not knowing what was happening, and then seeing how the government was so negligent, I think there is definitely a concern that it could happen again,” he said.

It’s a delicate process of grappling hope and the evidence of recent years. 

“And so we hope that it’s not the case,” Rivera-Reyes continued, “But the data, right? The data that exists seems to point in the other direction.”

Al DÍA asked what an equitable distribution of funds may look like. 

“There really needs to be a prioritization in making sure that the aid and the money goes to the people in the rural communities and the coastline communities that were affected the most and not the elites,” said Rivera-Reyes. 

Not everyone was affected on the same scale and as it exists in the states, there’s a hierarchy of privilege based in racism. Afro-Latinos in Puerto Rico and Black residents of the island have disproportionately suffered from the Hurricanes, followed by several earthquakes and a subsequent pandemic.

But alas, knowing that the current administration has offered its word to do distribute funds is a hopeful outlook that wasn’t on the horizon a year ago. 

“I think personally there might be a sense of relief from that end,” Rivera-Reyes continued.  “But again, the concern is the accountability that needs to happen with the Puerto Rican government and actually, who gets to make the decision for how the funds are appropriated.”

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