Martín Echenique is an editorial fellow at CityLab, formerly at CityLab Latino. His work has been featured by The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Clarín, Univision, El Espectador, La Tercera, El Nuevo Herald, and other outlets.
The mayor Donald Trump criticized wields enormous political clout in Puerto Rico. But coordination is difficult with 77 other mayors operating at the same level.
“We are dying. And you’re killing us with inefficiency,” said Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city. In front of the cameras, she heavily criticized Washington’s insufficient efforts and late response in providing assistance after the island was severely devastated by Hurricane Maria.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump is expected to come face-to-face with Cruz when he visits the devastated U.S. territory. The meeting may reflect both the political importance of mayors in Puerto Rico, and their challenges in coordinating a recovery with limited help from the mainland.
Puerto Rican local leaders like Cruz who govern in large, wealthier, or heavily populated areas like San Juan hold even more political power than their counterparts in the continental U.S. who lead city governments of similar size and population to San Juan.
Despite her political and public clout, Cruz represents just one of 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico, each of them led by one mayor and a city council that acts as a legislative body. Unlike the U.S., which is broken up into states, then counties, and then cities (with the exception of some independent cities), mayors are the first line of leadership after the governor in Puerto Rico, reflecting its Spanish colonial past.
Interestingly, the U.S. Census Bureau equates Puerto Rican municipalities to counties in the mainland. In other words, Puerto Rico has almost the same number of counties as Oklahoma, a territory that is almost 20 times bigger, and 18 times less densely populated than Puerto Rico. These municipalities are all then divided into 902 barrios, which do not have any political representation or autonomy, but are the smallest legal territorial division in the island according to the Census.
This territorial division poses an extra challenge to Puerto Rico’s battered and economically indebted central government: It will have to coordinate aid, supplies and reconstruction efforts with 78 different administrative entities for many months to come. According to El Nuevo Día, one of Puerto Rico’s largest newspapers, there are still 12 of the 78 municipalities that were not able to reach distribution centers intended for the delivery of aid.
This is part of the reason why Cruz explained in interviews last weekend that she passed on supplies provided to San Juan to other smaller surrounding municipalities.
“On Thursday,” she told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I got... four pallets of food, and four pallets of baby supplies from FEMA. All of this I gave to the mayor of Camarillo, a town whose mayor had come to the FEMA distribution center and had been told just wait until next Monday because we have nothing.”
To date, FEMA has given nearly $20 million in aid to municipalities in Puerto Rico according to the agency’s official website. Florida has received $545 million after Irma; and Texas, $323 million after Harvey.
In smaller, more rural areas of Puerto Rico, mayors also assumed real positions of leadership. In the southern part of the island, 80 miles away from San Juan, six mayors—from both the government and opposition parties—met to coordinate aid and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the hurricane. This was led by María Meléndez, mayor of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-most important city after San Juan.
“The most important thing about this meeting was the communication between mayors and the regional directors from different agencies,” said María Meléndez, mayor of Ponce, to Metro. “But, above all, the communication between us mayors, to start supporting each other.”
Dr. Edwin Melendez, director at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at City University of New York, says rebuilding efforts will be harder for poorer municipalities, as they will have to rely on the aid provided by the central government rather than their own resources to slowly restore public services under their responsibility, such as road maintenance and waste management.
“Richer, wealthier municipalities are way more powerful. San Juan and Guaynabo (part of San Juan’s metro area, too), for example, have a lot more political power than other municipalities that are less rich,” says Melendez.
Driven in part by the island’s $70 billion-government debt, politicians and lawmakers from both parties are debating whether to consolidate some of these municipalities. According to Melendez, municipalities are—and will be impacted—by the ongoing economic crisis, now worsened after Hurricane Maria.
People in favor of unifying municipalities argue that it would provide one kind of solution to the island’s financial distress: By bringing smaller towns together that do not necessarily need their own full local government apparatus, they might reduce the amount of money given in subsidies and salaries to every municipio. More than half of Puerto Rico’s municipios have financial deficits, and aren’t able to keep their economic operations healthy.
“The majority are bankrupt, and they keep living off the central government that maintains them, and the central government doesn’t have money now, either; it’s a Catch-22,” Mario Negrón-Portillo, a former director of the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Administration, told the New York Times last year.
Consolidation would have political repercussions, as municipalities in Puerto Rico are tied to an identity and to a sense of belonging, according to Melendez. He argues that it will be difficult for a municipality to lose its autonomy by joining a larger group of cities and barrios. “We all have our own preferences in terms of our own geographical area, of our hometown,” says Carlos Mendez, Speaker of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico. And some mayors argue they are the ones who best know their distinct communities and advocate for their interests.
But Melendez believes the island has no other choice. “The merger of some of these municipalities is inevitable because of the economic crisis,” he said.
Mayors of these municipalities also play a fundamental role in connecting the communities they represent and the central government. They are the main bridge between the citizens and de facto power institutions such as the executive and legislative branches for the entire territory—a substantial difference when compared to mayors in mainland American cities.
During recovery from Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico will likely still have to rely on mayors like Cruz to desperately become the voice asking for help.