When President Donald Trump playfully threw paper towels to the crowd of Hurricane Maria victims during his visit to Puerto Rico — as if he were a rock star tossing T-shirts to a concert crowd — he reminded me of late Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chavez.
That’s exactly what Chavez — and virtually all populist leaders — do. They put themselves at center stage and make it look as if people in need are getting their goodies thanks to them, rather than as a result of the government’s duty to take care of them in extreme situations.
If Trump was just a populist who got things done and loved to take the credit, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But, like Chavez, he is an incompetent leader who constantly brags about things that, in reality, are often total fiascos.
Nearly all of Puerto Rico remains without electricity, drinking water is scarce, and there is a growing fear of epidemics as days go by. Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was late, slow and insufficient.
Trump visited Puerto Rico nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck the island, but he visited Texas and Florida much sooner after hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit those two states.
It was only after a flurry of criticism in the media, and public reminders by Hillary Clinton and other politicians that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, too, that the White House scheduled a presidential visit to the island for last Tuesday.
During the first days after Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Trump wrote only one tweet about Puerto Rico’s tragedy, telling Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosello, “We are with you.” That was it for several days.
During the weekend that followed, while the island was totally in the dark and crying for help, Trump wrote 17 tweets about his claim that NFL athletes who kneel during the national anthem are disrespecting the flag. Not a word about the Puerto Rico disaster.
Not surprisingly, singer Marc Anthony, whose parents are Puerto Rican, tweeted on Sept. 25, “Mr. President shut the (expletive) up about NFL. Do something about our people in need in Puerto Rico. We are American citizens too.”
Afterward, stars such as Pitbull, Ricky Martin and Luis Fonsi sent planes full of supplies to Puerto Rico. (No such plane load came from the Trump organization or the Trump family, as far as I know.)
When Trump finally got the message, one of his first tweets about the island’s humanitarian crisis was in effect a criticism of its economic crisis, saying that Puerto Rico’s debt to Wall Street banks “must be dealt with.” While hospitals in Puerto Rico were scrambling to keep their emergency rooms working, Trump’s first order of business seemed to be to collect Wall Street banks’ debts.
Trump not only visited Puerto Rico much later than Texas and Florida after their hurricanes, but he took many more days to waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico. Under that 1920s law, which has long strangled the island’s economy, foreign ships coming from U.S. ports could not take supplies to the island.
He also failed to send enough troops to help repair roads and bridges, as Edwin Melendez, director of the center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, told me last week.