President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd as he hands out supplies at Calvary Chapel, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Trump is in Puerto Rico to survey hurricane damage. Evan Vucci AP
President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd as he hands out supplies at Calvary Chapel, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Trump is in Puerto Rico to survey hurricane damage. Evan Vucci AP

Opinion

Trump tossing paper towels at Puerto Rico hurricane victims was vintage populism

By Andrés Oppenheimer

aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com

October 04, 2017 09:24 AM

UPDATED October 04, 2017 08:11 PM

When President 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.

It 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.

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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 Oct. 3.

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.

Trump: We've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico

During a hurricane briefing in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, President Donald Trump decided to make a joke about the cost of hurricane recovery and it didn't go over well: "I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you have thrown our budget a little out of whack."

The White House

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 refuse to 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.

When Trump finally visited Puerto Rico Tuesday, he blamed Puerto Rican truck drivers for not showing up to help in reconstruction efforts, neglecting to mention that many of them did not have gasoline to travel, or were busy trying to rebuild their homes.

Puerto Rican National Guard distributes potable water

The Puerto Rico National Guard provided potable water to people affected by Hurricane Maria in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, on September 30. Footage released by the national guard and the US Department of Defense’s DVIDS multimedia distribution network was described as showing citizen-soldiers from the 191st Regional Support Group distributing potable water.

Puerto Rico National Guard/DVIDS

And Trump once again chastised Puerto Ricans for their financial crisis. “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack, because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico,” he said.

He also made it sound as if his handling of the crisis had been a great success. Noting that so far there had been only 16 deaths from Hurricane Maria — in fact, later in the day, Gov. Rosello said the death toll has risen to 34 — Trump said that “If you look at a real catastrophe like [Hurricane] Katrina” and compare it with the response to Hurricane Maria, “You can be very proud.”

No, throwing paper towels into the audience — a la Hugo Chavez — wasn’t by far the worst thing Trump did in Puerto Rico. The worst thing he did was being too slow to react and too condescending toward the U.S. island.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera