San Juan mayor in hurricane spotlight after Trump tweets

2017-10-02 20:35
Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz arrives at a hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Carlos Giusti, AP)

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz arrives at a hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Carlos Giusti, AP)

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San Juan - In Puerto Rico's hurricane-ravaged capital, Carmen Yulin Cruz is everywhere you go these days: handing out bags of ice, wading through chest-deep floodwaters, hugging people in need of comfort.

Cruz has long won attention across the island for her hands-on style of leadership in San Juan. But last week she rose to international prominence as a target of Twitter attacks by US President Donald Trump - including one tweet on Sunday calling her and others "politically motivated ingrates".

The insult came hours after Saturday Night Live portrayed Cruz in a skit highlighting the latest controversy for the 54-year-old former human resources executive, who occupies one of Puerto Rico's most powerful posts and has become something of a divisive figure on the island of 3.4 million residents.

In a US territory whose relationship with the mainland is usually the single most prominent political issue, Cruz backs independence, but is a member of the party that supports maintaining the territorial status quo. 

She first grabbed headlines in 2012 when she ran against San Juan's three-term incumbent mayor, cobbling together a campaign committee in just three days when her party's original candidate dropped out.

Despite being a virtual unknown for many, she cruised to a surprising win by securing the support of a coalition of left-leaning interests from the LGBTQ community to university students to financially powerful unions.

"Imagine what I'll do when I'm the mayor of San Juan," she told reporters in August 2012, three months before the vote.

Once in office Cruz launched a million-dollar urban renewal programme, renovated public parks and plazas and unionised San Juan employees as promised during her campaign.

She aligned herself with Puerto Rico's large and long-marginalised Dominican minority. She also made poor communities a priority, working to secure federal funds and improving life for thousands on an island with a nearly 45% poverty rate.


"Her commitment has been through actions, not words, with the impoverished people of San Juan," political analyst Nestor Duprey said, adding that those same efforts continued after the hurricane.

"She has demonstrated an empathy and commitment to her people that have taken her to work day and night," Duprey said, "very quietly at the beginning".

That changed on Friday when Cruz was asked about acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke's comment that the federal response to Hurricane Maria was "a good news story".

Cruz went on television wearing a black shirt with white letters that read, "HELP US, WE ARE DYING".

"If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy," she said.

The next day Trump took to Twitter to accuse Cruz of "poor leadership ability" and added, without elaborating,

"They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort."
Neither Cruz nor her spokespeople responded to requests for comment on Sunday. Since Trump's tweets she has sought to emphasise a message of unity for the good of Puerto Rico in her own activity on the social media platform.

Though telegenic and media-savvy, Cruz has been criticised for micromanaging and for wearing herself down to the point where she loses her voice. She has been hospitalised a couple of times for asthma.

Critics have questioned her management style, noting that some early supporters - including people who occupied key positions - have resigned or dismissed.

She also took heat for offering a job to Puerto Rican independence militant Oscar Lopez Rivera, whose sentence was commuted in January by then-President Barack Obama. 

One goal: saving lives

Rivera was released from prison in May after serving 35 years for his involvement with a group that claimed more than 100 bombings in the 1970s and '80s that killed or maimed dozens on the US mainland.

In public appearances Cruz has a penchant for hugging people and sometimes crying during interviews, prompting some to praise her sincerity while others call her overly dramatic.

In recent days she has gone before news cameras repeatedly, issued more emotional pleas for help and tweeted images of her helping islanders in the hurricane's aftermath, repeatedly emphasising the slogan "One goal: saving lives."

Hector Ferrer, the president of Cruz's party who had a public falling out with her this year over political differences, said that while Cruz may be in the media spotlight, there are plenty of others working hard to help Puerto Rico recover.

"I'm going to communities to hand out water and food - without journalists and without photographers," he said.

"There are 78 mayors who are performing miracles with the resources they have. We have to recognise everyone's work."

But Ferrer said he respected Cruz's efforts to help Puerto Ricans.

"The mayor operates on a different platform and is able to attract more attention," he said, "and I commend her for that".

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