“More than 3,000 people have died, that’s for sure,” she told the Washington Blade during an interview in Old San Juan. “They died of neglect. They died because they couldn’t have their insulin refrigerated because we didn’t have power. They died because hospitals weren’t ready and because hospitals didn’t have power. Those are deaths that could have been preventable and they weren’t.”
“Some people decided to make this a spin ever since the beginning and tell the world that things were right when things were not right and we lost time and we lost precious opportunities in order to be able to save lives,” added Cruz. “I’m referring to President Trump.”
Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. commonwealth did not have electricity or running water for months after Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20, 2017.
Puerto Rican LGBTI activists with whom the Blade has spoken this week have said there are people who live in the island’s mountainous interior and on the island of Vieques who still do not have electricity or running water. Blackouts, homes with blue tarps as temporary roofs, damaged utility poles and traffic lights that do not work remain commonplace across Puerto Rico.
Cruz spoke with the Blade while she was visiting a photo exhibit in San Juan’s Columbus Square that commemorates the first anniversary of Maria. She also spoke with the Blade less than a month after George Washington University released the findings of study that attributed 2,975 deaths to Maria.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has been reluctant to publicly criticize Trump, has accepted the findings of the study that he commissioned.
Rosselló chairs the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. He has pushed back against Trump’s decision to reject Maria’s official death toll in Puerto Rico, which he made without any credible evidence.
“It’s despicable,” Cruz told the Blade, referring to Trump. “It shows that he’s unhinged from any sense of reality.”
Cruz, who is a member of the Popular Democratic Party that supports Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth, pointed out Trump threw paper towels to a crowd of people when he visited a church in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo less than two weeks after Maria made landfall. Cruz also pointed out Trump rejected the hurricane’s death toll in Puerto Rico as Hurricane Florence was beginning to batter the Carolinas.
“Maria in Puerto Rico is Trump’s Katrina,” said Cruz.
Cruz told the Blade that Rosselló’s response to Maria “was not what we all expected.” Cruz specifically criticized him for raising Maria’s official death toll in Puerto Rico from 16 to 34 hours after Trump left the island.
“I mean, really,” said Cruz. “We knew people were dying. All you had to do was walk around, listen to people, get out of the comfort of air conditioning and you could see. The world saw it. The world saw President Trump throwing paper towels.”
“It’s good that the governor is now pushing back,” she added.
‘Puerto Rico isn’t just San Juan’
Activists in the U.S. commonwealth say discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and poverty are among the factors that made LGBTI Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable after Maria.
Cruz told the Blade the city’s clinic for people with HIV/AIDS was operational two days after Maria and four days after Hurricane Irma, which brushed Puerto Rico less than two weeks earlier.
“We never stopped providing services, which is extremely necessary when people have a protocol regime that helps them keep their lives,” she said.
Cruz worked with AIDS Healthcare Foundation to deliver generators to people with HIV/AIDS after Maria. Her administration is also working with Waves Ahead, a San Juan-based group that is helping LGBTI Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Maria.
Cruz told the Blade that an alternate generator has been installed at San Juan’s Roberto Clemente Coliseum, which is Puerto Rico’s largest emergency shelter. She also said her city’s other shelters also have generators.
“Puerto Rico isn’t just San Juan,” said Cruz.
Accolades ‘not about me’
AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Time Magazine, the AFL-CIO and the Minnesota Twins are among the organizations that have honored Cruz for her response to Maria. She pushed back against those who have criticized her administration’s recovery efforts.
“Those folks first of all are the same people that did not stand up to Donald Trump,” said Cruz.
Cruz told the Blade she continues to go to the mainland U.S. to “get help for Puerto Rico, to maintain the Puerto Rican conversation at the forefront and to claim, reclaim and demand dignity and dignified treatment for the people of Puerto Rico.”
“Decisions in a colony are not taken in the colony,” she added. “They’re taken in the States. If we really want to impact something, we want to go where the decisions are made. And that’s why I go.”
Cruz said the accolades she has received are “not about me.”
“It provides a platform to continue to raise hell about what still needs to be done,” she told the Blade.
Cruz mum on potential gubernatorial aspirations
Cruz did not confirm speculation that she is planning to run for governor in 2020.
“I have no idea,” she told the Blade. “I don’t know.”
Cruz said her future plans would include being an “instrument to eradicate poverty, to eradicate colonialism, to move forward an agenda of Medicare for all, an agenda of cleaner energy.” She also said she would work to expand economic opportunities in Puerto Rico by supporting the repeal of the Jones Act, a 1920 law that prevents ships registered in other countries from bringing cargo from one U.S. port to another, and waivers from the Stafford Act, which mandates that Puerto Rico must use federal disaster aid to rebuild its power grid and other infrastructure to what it was before Maria.
“Wherever I can be of help, that’s where I’ll be,” said Cruz.