San Juan (AFP) – The calamity of Hurricane Maria could not have come at a worse time for Puerto Rico.
The US island territory buckled under the weight of $70 billion in debt and filed for bankruptcy protection in May.
Now, with its power grid wiped out and many roads, homes and buildings water-logged ruins, the Caribbean vacation destination faces months of slow, painful reconstruction.
Still, people here say something good might come out of so much woe: soul-searching about the Spanish-speaking commonwealth’s relationship with Uncle Sam and perhaps even a stronger sense of self-reliance.
And maybe creditors holding all that debt will cut Puerto Rico a break, given its new dire straits, and give it more time to pay back what it owes.
For now, the big question is aid money and how much the federal government will pony up to help the island get back on its feet.
President Donald Trump has declared Puerto Rico a disaster area, which frees up funds for loans, subsidies, humanitarian aid and money to rebuild infrastructure wrecked by the Category Four hurricane that hit early Wednesday on it vicious tear across the Caribbean.
But Puerto Ricans are sceptical, and say that even before all this mess they have traditionally been treated like second-class Americans. Puerto Ricans are US citizens but do not vote in presidential elections, for instance, and have no voice in Congress.
People are wondering aloud if reconstruction money will be as forthcoming for them as for those hit by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida.
“We expect the federal government to do what it is supposed to do,” said Jaime Coll, a 70-year-old artist eating breakfast in one of the few restaurants open in San Juan. “Even though we are a colony, we are supposed to be American citizens.”
“This is not the time for political partisanship, for arguments about nationality. It is the time for compassion.”
Puerto Ricans are divided among those who see the United States as a condescending colonial power and want independence, those who prefer the status quo as a US commonwealth and those who want the island to become the 51st US state.
So sentiment on the island tends to waver between the defiant tone of people like Coll and a kind of we-can-do-it island pride.
“I think we have enough resources right here. From the US, as from anyone else, we can receive money and donations to put us in action. But I think the action plans have to come from Puerto Rico,” said Susana Barnett, a 67-year-old retiree.