Mayor of Puerto Rican capital a fighter who took on Trump

2017-10-21 08:30
Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. (Carlos Giusti, AP)

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. (Carlos Giusti, AP)

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San Juan - As Puerto Rico grapples with the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria, it boasts a pint-sized, in-your-face advocate in San Juan's mayor - a woman feisty enough to lock horns with President Donald Trump.

Meet Carmen Yulin Cruz, 54, who took on Trump angrily, emotionally and very publicly about what she called the slow pace of aid - or utter lack of it - arriving to the island of 3.4 million US citizens after the September 20 storm.

One of her nicknames comes from that of a tiny bird known to be a fierce fighter when attacked by a predator.

"Power is about getting things done," Yulin Cruz, who prefers people to call her simply Yulin, not even Carmen, told AFP as she viewed the rubble of a park blasted by the storm.

"And I prefer to get things done, with the priority being people, not the political consequences," said Yulin, who wore heavy boots, a baseball cap and trademark eyeglasses the shade of ivory.

The park is deserted - no kids playing on the swings, and the fountains, normally bubbling with water, now dry as a bone.

Yulin is a non-fussy, down-to-earth kind of person. At one point she sits down on some steps in the park, reaches into her backpack and pulls out stuff to make a sandwich right there - with a Puerto Rican mash of ham, cheese and red pepper.

"Why should I feel embarrassed about making a sandwich if I am hungry?" she asks.

Yulin shot to international fame through her spat with Trump.

The island was hit by not, one, but two hurricanes: Irma, and then two weeks later, Maria.

A month after the latter, the island is still largely a wasteland, with 81% of the population without electricity and clean water scarce.

Yulin waged the final of a series of tweet battles with Trump last week after he warned that federal aid to the Spanish-speaking island was not open-ended.

"It is not that you do not get it; you are incapable of fulfilling the moral imperative to help the people of PR. Shame on you!" she wrote.

Her husband, psychiatrist Alfredo Carrasquillo, said Yulin "can be really tough when people are trying to besmirch human dignity".

'Zero tolerance' 

Says the mayor: "I have zero tolerance for injustice. I cannot understand how one person can be considered better than another due to their social position, skin colour or sexual orientation. We must build a society based on our differences."

Her friends, political advisers and relatives describe Yulin as spontaneous, sincere and warm in her dealings with people.

"Her leadership and bravery are exemplary. She shows who she is by doing things. And she has never cared about being in the minority. She always has been, as a woman and even as a short person," said Elsa Marin, a childhood friend of the mayor, who is 1.52 meters tall.

Marin is one of Yulin's best friends and part of a clatch of five women who call themselves Yaya's Sisterhood and have remained close for more than 40 years.

"We have never argued. Yulin always tell me, 'You are the only person who, half the time, does not tell me what I want to hear'," Marin told AFP.

'We are dying' 

The war of words with the president began when Yulin went before reporters nine days after the hurricane hit the island and said the federal government was dragging its feet in getting emergency aid delivered to Puerto Rico.

"If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying. And you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy," Yulin said, her voice breaking.

She added: "I'm asking members of the press to send a mayday call all over the world. We are dying here."

Trump the next day defended his government's response to the crisis as "fantastic" and said Yulin was being mean to him because, he said, Democrats had told her to do so.

After standing out as a student leader and a sprinter in track and field, Yulin graduated from Boston University with a degree in political science, then went on to earn a masters in public management and policy from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

She lived in the US mainland for 12 years, then returned to Puerto Rico and worked in the private sector before getting involved in politics.

She became a member of the island's Legislative Assembly and has been the mayor of San Juan since 2013.

"We must celebrate our differences on the basis of equality. With education for everyone, accessible energy and fair housing," said Yulin.

Then she grabbed her cellphone and snapped a picture of a rainbow arcing over the ruins of the park.

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