San Juan Mayor Struggles to Help People with HIV/AIDS

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San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Nov. 1, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Tom Hausman)

(WB) Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part interview with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz the Washington Blade conducted on Nov. 1, 2017, at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in D.C.

The mayor of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan on Wednesday said her government is doing everything it can to help people with HIV/AIDS in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Carmen Yulín Cruz noted to the Washington Blade during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center there is a clinic for adults and children with AIDS in San Juan. She said officials “stocked up” on medications and other supplies before Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20 with 155 mph winds.

“We bought a lot of medication which we may or may not be able to get reimbursed for, but who cares,” Yulín told the Blade. “We would have not been able to keep people alive if we had not done that.”

She said the clinic — which the San Juan Department of Health operates — reopened two weeks after Maria made landfall. Yulín told the Blade it was not operating “at its full capacity, but (it was) at least dispensing medication to people.”

“When you keep dialysis away from people or cancer treatment or AIDS treatments, you’re taking away their livelihood,” she said.

Yulín said her government is also working with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to identify people with HIV/AIDS who need generators and bring them to their homes “in order to keep (them) living with oxygen and so forth.” She told the Blade the clinic also gives them food and water when they pick up their medications or see their doctor.

“Besides that we have made sure that they have been called or visited to ensure their livelihood and their safety,” said Yulín.

Maria made landfall less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma brushed Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. commonwealth.

Nearly 68 percent of Puerto Ricans remain without electricity and 18 percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents lack access to safe drinking water more than a month after Maria made landfall. The hurricane also caused significant damage to the island’s transportation and communications infrastructure.

Food and Friends has pledged to donate at least $30,000 to Bill’s Kitchen, a San Juan-based organization that provides meals to Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS. Many of them — especially those who live outside of San Juan — remain unable to obtain medications because of the damaged infrastructure.

“In San Juan we have everything under control,” Yulín told the Blade during an interview after the press conference ended.

She added the more than two dozen community-based organizations who are working across Puerto Rico are “canvassing the neighborhoods and ensuring that what (people with HIV/AIDS) need is solved.”

 

’The American people have been there for us’

Yulín is among the most vocal critics of the federal and Puerto Rican governments’ response to Maria.

President Trump attacked her in a series of tweets last month after she criticized his administration.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Brock Long on Oct. 8 told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz that his agency “filtered out the mayor a long time ago” and said it doesn’t “have time for the political noise.” Whitefish Energy Holdings — a company based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont., that signed a controversial $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to help rebuild the island’s power infrastructure — last week threatened to withdraw its linemen from San Juan after Yulín publicly criticized it.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Sunday urged the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which is known by the acronym PREPA, to cancel its contract with Whitefish. PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Ramos on the same day announced it would do so.

Yulín and Brock on Wednesday were scheduled to testify at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Maria, but it was abruptly cancelled.

“The American people have been there for us,” Yulín told the Blade after the press conference. “It has been the federal government that has been slow and inadequate.”

She declined to comment on whether the Rosselló administration has done enough to help people with HIV/AIDS. Yulín during the press conference repeatedly criticized Trump over his response to Maria.

“President Trump has dedicated himself to insulting Puerto Ricans, throwing paper towels, calling us ingrates,” she told reporters in Spanish, specifically referring to Trump throwing rolls of paper towels to a crowd at a church in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo on Oct. 3.

“We know the difference between a people with a big heart and a president with a big mouth,” added Yulín.

 

Gutiérrez: People are ‘dying of AIDS’ in Puerto Rico

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) — who also spoke at the press conference — described Yulín as a “woman who stood up to power and spoke to power and who has been marginalized . . . and demonized and belittled.” The Illinois Democrat who is of Puerto Rican descent also said Yulín is “an important voice and one that everyone should listen to.”

“When she said Puerto Rico was dying and was in need of help, she was right,” said Gutiérrez. “Six weeks later we have yet as a nation to respond — the richest, most powerful nation in the world — and there are still babies without formula, and there are still people that don’t have insulin or refrigeration. There’s still people who are dying of AIDS and can’t get to their medicine and there are still hospitals that are going to be on the verge of collapse because they continue to run on generation systems."

 

— Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.


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