What, you might ask, is The Jones Act and why would it affect the relief effort in Puerto Rico? Good questions. Officially named the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act is maritime law enacted in 1920, following World War I, in an effort to protect the American shipping industry. It requires that any goods, property, or people transported from one U.S. port to another must be on a ship that is built, owned, flagged, and staffed by Americans. But that sounds like a good thing? Not necessarily.
In 1920 the U.S. merchant shipping industry was struggling. At that time, nearly 100 years ago, it might have made sense to protect the industry. But we are living in an entirely different world now. What it means for Puerto Rico is that foreign ships carrying goods from Miami to Puerto Rico must first stop in a foreign port such as Jamaica or the Dominican Republic before they are allowed to continue on to San Juan.
For the average American, the only time the Jones Act might affect you is if you go on a cruise. Nearly all cruise lines are foreign-owned, so when you sent sail out of Ft. Lauderdale or Miami on your dream cruise to St. Thomas, you have to stop in the Dominican Republic (or other foreign port) before you can go to your destination. It not only affects our territories in the Caribbean, but also the state of Hawaii as well. Some farmers in that state have found it cheaper to ship their cattle to the mainland by airplane than by cargo ship.
Senator John McCain has long been a proponent of abolishing the Jones Act, and called it “an antiquated law that has for too long hindered free trade, made U.S. ports less competitive, and raised prices for American consumers.” But the maritime industry has a huge vested interest in keeping it in place, no matter who gets hurt. The government, in particular, the Department of Homeland Security, has the authority to waive the Jones Act in cases of emergency, which they did during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and following Hurricane Katrina.
The Trump Administration also waived the Jones Act following Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, but now they are refusing to do so in the one situation where it makes the most sense to do so. And the citizens of Puerto Rico, who are Americans just like you and me by the way, are suffering because of it. The shipping industry was scarcely touched by the tragedies in Houston and Miami, but San Juan is an entirely different story.
Despite repeated claims by federal government officials that they are doing a great job on the relief effort in Puerto Rico, the situation on the ground is dire. Fortunately wealthy individuals such as Mark Cuban have donated their personal planes to send in much needs supplies, while HHS Secretary Tom Price uses a private government jet to have lunch with his son. At a time when it would make sense to enlist the aid of every available cargo or cruise ship to travel directly to San Juan to bring in supplies, Donald Trump is listening to business interests and ignoring the cries of our fellow citizens.
Puerto Rico is not going to be Trump’s Hurricane Katrina. It is going to be much, much worse and add to the litany of heartless decisions he has made as the president of the United States.