UPDATE: The White House granted a 10-day waiver on the Jones Act Thursday morning, a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.
President Donald Trump has been patting himself on the back for acknowledging the terrible humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico four days after it was struck by Category 4 Hurricane Maria. He also said he would visit the storm-ravaged island on Tuesday for the first time since he became president.
Bu, he is not sure whether he should lift shipping restrictions to facilitate aid and recovery efforts on the Caribbean island — because, apparently, mariners don’t want him to.
“Well, we're thinking about that, but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted, and we have a lot of ships out there right now," Trump said. "And I will tell you the governor was very generous yesterday with some statements and so was the mayor of San Juan; very, very generous with their statements."
The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria, the most powerful hurricane in nearly 90 years. The storm claimed more than 30 lives across the Caribbean, including 16 in Puerto Rico.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico said he expects the federal government to lift shipping restrictions to facilitate aid and recovery efforts. However, the Department of Homeland Security is reluctant to waive the Jones Act — an arguably archaic law that imposes exorbitant shipping costs on the island.
The 1920 act prohibits foreign-flagged vessels from picking up and delivering fuel between U.S. ports. This means only American-owned and operated ships, which are much expensive than others in the global marketplace, can carry goods between U.S. ports. Consequently, the already impoverished island has to pay double the cost for goods from the U.S. mainland as compared to other neighboring islands — and that’s profiting America.
Puerto Rico has long been resentful of the Jones Act as it costs the heavily indebted country hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Now, in the midst of the crisis, the cost hike in food, fuel and supplies will exacerbate the heavy economic devastation.
“Our dependence on fossil fuel imports by sea is hampering the restoration of services,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, an energy expert at the nonprofit group the Union of Concerned Scientists. The refusal to allow the waiver "is raising fears on the island that they are going to be left behind in this disaster."
However, the Trump administration is arguing that there is no need to waive the shipping restriction because many of the island’s ports were damaged by the storm and they would not be able to dock more boats. The maritime industry is also arguing it would rob U.S. citizens of jobs.
“[The waiver] would take American first responders out of the loop and replace them with Filipino or Russian or Chinese crews,” Michael Roberts, a senior vice president at Florida’s Crowley Maritime Inc., told the Wall Street Journal.
The comments by Trump and shipping professionals are a blatant admission that they would rather keep their profits over the lives of 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living without clean water and electricity in dire straits.
Many politicians, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have called the act “archaic and burdensome” and urged Elaine Duke, acting secretary of Department of Homeland Security, to repeal it.
“These emergency waivers have been valuable to speed up recovery efforts in the impacted regions," McCain said. “However, I am very concerned by the department’s decision not to waive the Jones Act for current relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria.”
“It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster,” McCain wrote.
We should be doing anything & everything to help #PuertoRico. If waiving the Jones Act short-term helps, we should absolutely do it.— Senator Tim Kaine (@timkaine) September 27, 2017
The Trump administration acted quickly to waive the Jones Act for Texas and Florida after hurricanes hit. Why not for Puerto Rico?— Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) September 27, 2017
Congress is in session. If waiving the Jones Act for Puerto Rico for a while is a good idea (it seems sensible), shouldn't Congress step up? https://t.co/eF3dNx6omt— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) September 27, 2017
However, the department stated the narrow language of the Jones Act only enables them to consider requests based on ship availability and national security. Supporters of the act say the act supports national defense needs, keeps shipping routes reliable and creates American jobs.
However, for Puerto Ricans, the law is a heavy burden. A study by the University of Puerto Rico found the Jones Act costs the island — which has been in recession for 11 years — $537 million per year.
Banner/Thumbnail: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins