When Hurricane Maria destroyed the infrastructure of Puerto Rico, the mayor of San Juan became the spokeswoman of a stranded people.
Carmen Yulín Cruz told the world of the “horror” she had witnessed in the flooded streets, which she had been walking ever since the storm, in a place 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 organizations, including Scotiabank and the Treasury Department.
In a 2014 interview with a small New York newspaper, Cruz described the tug of war between the 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 when she returned to the island after 12 years on the mainland.
She became an adviser to Sila María Calderón, then the mayor of San Juan, who later became Puerto Rico’s first and only female governor.
With the experience she amassed under Calderón, 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. “Sometimes you can’t play nice.”
As a race for mayor in 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 small coalitions to form her base of support. Such groups included the LGBT community, students, Dominican immigrants and taxi drivers.
With such allies, she managed to beat her opponent, 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.”
She belongs to the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), one of Puerto Rico’s two main parties.
Like many things on the island, Puerto Rico’s politics are largely defined by the relationship with the mainland and whether Puerto Rico should remain a U.S. territory or seek statehood. The PPD campaigns to maintain the status quo, an unincorporated territory with self-governance.
During a 2014 visit to Pittsburgh, as Puerto Rico faced a debt crisis, Cruz maintained that stance for independence. She said Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. mainland is important but the island should be wary of becoming too dependent.
“It is only through that financial independence that you are able to stay on course with your own vision,” she said.
Then this year, Hurricane Maria made the island’s many dependencies all too apparent — and brought Cruz’s vision to the world.
Hurricane Maria flooded roads, destroyed phone lines and Internet connections, and cut the island’s overseas lifeline to the mainland from which it gets so many 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 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.” “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.”
A call with the White House earlier in the week had encouraged her, 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 in Trump’s Twitter feed.
“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.