SAN JUAN — When Hurricane Maria destroyed the infrastructure of Puerto Rico, it turned the mayor of its capital city into a spokeswoman for a stranded people.
Carmen Yulín Cruz told the world of the “horror” she had witnessed in San Juan’s flooded streets, which she had been walking ever since the storm, on an island she expects to have no power for half a year.
Until then, she had not been a well-known politician outside the island, which many mainland Americans don’t even know is a U.S. territory.
But after Cruz criticized Washington’s response to the hurricane this week — “save us from dying” — President Trump decided to size her up on Twitter.
“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan,” he wrote Saturday. The Democrats must have gotten to her.
Since the president brought it up, we present below the historical record of the leadership abilities of Cruz, before and after the storm.
Cruz is, in some ways, a lifelong politician: class president in eighth grade; student council president in high school.
Like many Puerto Ricans, she left the island to pursue opportunities on the U.S. mainland, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science at Boston University and a master’s degree in public management and policy at Carnegie Mellon.
She stayed on the mainland for many years afterward, according to her official biography, and worked her way up to the position of human resources director at several companies, including Scotiabank and the Treasury Department.
In a 2014 interview with a small New York newspaper, Cruz described the tug of war between their home island and the mainland that she and other Puerto Ricans often feel.
“I often say to my friends that I felt too Puerto Rican to live in the States; then I felt too American to live in Puerto Rico,” she said. “So when I settled back in Puerto Rico in 1992, I had to come to terms with all of that.”
Cruz plunged back into politics after returning to the island after 12 years on the mainland.
She became an adviser to Sila Maria Calderon, then the mayor of San Juan, and who later became Puerto Rico’s first and only female governor.
With the experience she amassed under Calderon, Cruz ran in 2000 for a seat in Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives. She lost that race, but in 2008, she ran again and won.
“Politics is a rough game, and sometimes as females we are taught that you have to play nice,” she once said in an interview with City & State. “Sometimes you can’t play nice.”
As a race for mayorship of her home town approached in 2012, she waffled publicly on whether to enter as a candidate.
At first she denied any plans to run. Once she entered the race, she strung together a series of small coalitions to form her base of support. These included the LGBT community, students, Dominican immigrants and taxi drivers.
With such allies, she managed to beat her opponent — a three-time incumbent, Jorge Santini.
“People don’t realize they have the power,” she recalled in an interview years later. “People don’t realize that if they come together, there are more of them than those who occupy the seat that I’m in right now.”
Like many things on the island, Puerto Rico’s politics are largely defined by their relationship with the mainland and whether Puerto Rico should remain a U.S. territory or gain statehood.
Cruz’s party, the Popular Democratic Party, campaigns to maintain Puerto Rico’s status quo as an unincorporated U.S. territory with self governance.
In her trips to the United States since winning office, Cruz has given voice to that ideal — and occasionally advocated for more independence.
She once went before the U.S. Congress, to ask that Puerto Rico — crippled by debt — be able to reorganize under bankruptcy laws, and thereafter enter into commercial agreements with other countries.
“Puerto Rico has been denied these tools far too long,” Cruz said in 2015. “And as long as our options are defined by the powers of this Congress, we will always be at your mercy. The measure of our success will always be limited by the vastness of your control over our affairs.”
Two years later, Hurricane Maria made the island’s many dependencies all too apparent.
Hurricane Maria flooded roads, destroyed phone lines and Internet connections and cut the island’s overseas lifeline to the mainland from which it gets much of its goods.
With no way to communicate and almost no help from the outside world, the mayors of Puerto Rico became, in the days after the hurricane, the highest form of authority many residents knew.
Cruz worked nearly nonstop on the ground in San Juan — walking its streets and doing what she could for those she met. She described what she had seen to the The Washington Post three days after the storm.
“There is horror in the streets,” she said then. “Sheer pain in people’s eyes.”
The city’s hospitals were likely to spend weeks without power, she said, and the rest of the country would not have electricity until 2018. Looters were already taking over some streets after dark.
“We’re running out of gasoline,” Cruz said. “There is no reservoir of drinking water — none.”
She had written to scores of other mayors, she said. “There’s no answer.”
The mayor herself felt relatively helpless — only able to do so much for her exhausted neighbors and frightened constituents.
“I know we’re not going to get to everybody in time,” she said. But she would try.
On her way to the interview, she said, a man had asked her for a favor: “To tell the world we’re here.”
As tears filled her eyes, Cruz obliged. “If anyone can hear us,” she told the reporter: “Help.”
A week later, signs hung in basketball courts of Old San Juan. “SOS” and “Don’t abandon us.”
As darkness fell on Thursday, families searched for water by the light of dwindling cellphone batteries and moonlight. They passed through a tunnel beneath a city wall, and found at the exit a water tank left there by the city — a godsend.
And then they found their mayor.
Cruz hugged them as they came to her. She handed to each family a small solar-powered lantern — “a box of blessings,” she called it.
“Now this is life,” she told The Post.
Her people were resilient, she said. Residents had taken the streets back from criminal gangs.
But if the federal government didn’t step up its response, she feared, “people will die.”
Nearly 5,000 National Guard personnel were stationed on the island before the storm, according to the White House, and the government has sent thousands more to help has come in the days since. But with distribution networks destroyed, getting basics like drinking water to those who need it is still a problem.
A call with the White House earlier in the week had encouraged Cruz, she said. She told the federal government that 3,000 containers were sitting in a port, trapped behind electronic gates that wouldn’t open.
Since then, more federal personnel had arrived, and the government had sent pallets of water and food.
But her city was still on the brink, Cruz said, and she feared her people could become desperate.
“The FEMA people have their hearts in the right place,” she said. But “there is a bottleneck somewhere.”
The same day, in the White House driveway, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke defended the Trump administration’s response to the storm.
“It is really a good news story, in terms of our ability to reach people,” the director said.
And when Cruz heard that, she made good on her warning years earlier — that sometimes in politics “you can’t play nice.”
“People are dying in this country,” Cruz said at a news conference on Friday. “I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us, to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy.”
And with that, the mayor of a ruined city merited a mention from the President of the United States.
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” he wrote on Twitter.
The latter remark perplexed some experts on Puerto Rican politics.
“I don’t know if Trump’s comments shows an utter lack of understanding of the political situation in Puerto Rico, or if it’s just a cover to rally his base,” said Yarimar Bonilla, an anthropologist at Rutgers University. “It makes no sense. Politics in Puerto Rico are completely different than the mainland.”
Bonilla once surveyed 1,000 residents of island. She said most of them had no affiliation with Republicans or Democrats, and many had no understanding of the parties at all.
Cruz, who is widely expected to run for governor of the island, does understand, of course.
While she isn’t affiliated with either party, she supported many of former Democratic President Barack Obama’s policies, and met with his campaign manager during the 2012 election to push for healthcare funding and education grants for Puerto Ricans.
Regardless of her history, said Amilcar Barreto — a Puerto Rican political expert at Northeastern University — “complaining about people on the island not having food, electricity, water [is] not partisan. That’s just basic human necessity.”
The ‘little’ mayor
Cruz just smiled when she saw Trump’s tweets, she said Saturday at a coliseum in San Juan, where she was overseeing the distribution of supplies in combat boots and cargo pants.
“The most powerful man in the world is concerned with a 5-foot tall, 120 pounds little mayor of the city of San Juan,” she said.
But so were many, now.
The mayor took calls from U.S. senators and business leaders as she worked, and reporters mobbed her for interviews, in which her criticisms of the federal response had not softened.
“It’s like a clogged artery,” she said of logistical challenges and bureaucratic roadblocks to the relief effort. “The heart has stopped beating.”
And if there was anything political in that remark, Cruz denied it.
“I don’t have time for politics,” she said. “There is a mission, and that is to save lives.”
After a few more interviews, the mayor got a report about a fire at a hospital. She barked out orders like a general, and rushed off into the city.
Arelis Hernandez reported from Puerto Rico. William Wan and Avi Selk reported from Washington.