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Truthdigger of the Week: Carmen Yulín Cruz, Mayor of San Juan

Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz arriving at a San Juan hospital from which patients had to be evacuated when an electrical plant failed. (Carlos Giusti / AP)

Before Hurricane Maria, Carmen Yulín Cruz was not widely known outside Puerto Rico. But that has changed since Donald Trump lashed out on Twitter, denouncing her criticism of the U.S. government’s response to the hurricane, claiming  San Juan suffered from her “poor leadership” and implying that Puerto Ricans were not doing enough to help themselves. Photos of Cruz wading through flooded San Juan, the U.S. territory’s capital, have been circulating on the internet, and her pushback at Trump has made her “a spokeswoman for a stranded people.”

The New York Times outlines Cruz’s response to Trump:

The disconnect between what officials in Washington were saying and the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico was captured on live television by the response of the mayor of San Juan when she was played a clip of the acting Homeland Security secretary, Elaine Duke, saying that she was “very satisfied” with the government’s response. Ms. Duke called it “a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place.”

The retort from Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz: “This is, damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a ‘life or death’ story. This is ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.”

Journalists and internet commentators were quick to challenge Trump’s hasty assessment of Cruz, pointing to her personal effort to help the people of San Juan as well as her past and present leadership savvy—and noting that Trump spent the weekend at his New Jersey golf club while Cruz was in the streets of San Juan helping her constituents.

Cruz rose in Puerto Rican politics after serving as an adviser to Sila María Calderón, a San Juan mayor who went on to become Puerto Rico’s only female governor. In 2000 Cruz lost in a race for Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, but she rebounded to win in 2008. In a 2014 interview with City & State, Cruz said, “Politics is a rough game, and sometimes as females we are taught that you have to play nice. Sometimes you can’t play nice.”

The Washington Post reported on Cruz’s subsequent run for the mayor’s office, which she won in 2013:

At first she denied any plans to run. Once she entered the race, she strung together a series of small coalitions—including the LGBT community, students, Dominican immigrants and taxi drivers—to form a base of support.

Such allies helped her defeat a formidable opponent—a three-time incumbent, Jorge Santini.

“People don’t realize they have the power,” she recalled in an interview several years later. “People don’t realize that if they come together, there are more of them than those who occupy the seat that I’m in right now.”

Cruz’s criticism of the mainland’s relationship with Puerto Rico began before Trump’s presidency. Speaking before Congress in 2015, she asked that Puerto Rico be allowed to enter into commercial agreements with foreign countries to help the territory confront its crippling debt. “Puerto Rico has been denied these tools far too long,” she said. “And as long as our options are defined by the powers of this Congress, we will always be at your mercy. The measure of our success will always be limited by the vastness of your control over our affairs.” Cruz is a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports maintaining the island’s commonwealth status, as opposed to statehood.

Two years later, in the midst of Hurricane Maria, Cruz’s devotion to the people of Puerto Rico withstood the test of crisis. She ran a command center in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, where she and hundreds of others sheltered as they waited for the storm to pass. “Some of the mayors that I have been able to reach or have reached me are scared of voicing their concern, because they are concerned if they do, they won’t even get a bottle of water,” she said. “That is a sad situation in a democratic society.  When fear takes a hold of people, then you know something isn’t working.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, she described the “horror in the streets” and the “sheer pain in people’s eyes” after the hurricane.

Cruz also said that “if President Trump were to say, ‘I’m going to go to San Juan to see that nasty mayor,’ I would receive him with open arms, because democracy is larger than me. … He was democratically elected. He represents the United States of North America and he deserves all the respect that office brings with it.”

Her words bear more weight since she was photographed in a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Nasty” during an interview with Univision. She later confirmed that the shirt was in direct response to Trump’s verbal assault on her. “When someone is bothered by someone claiming lack of drinking water, lack of medicine for the sick and lack of food for the hungry, that person has problems too deep to be explained in an interview. What is really nasty is that anyone would turn their back on the Puerto Rican people,” she said.

For her unswerving leadership in advocating for the people of Puerto Rico and her fight against Trump’s diminishment of the crisis there, Carmen Yulín Cruz is our Truthdigger of the Week.

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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