On Thursday, the Trump administration announced that it would grant a temporary waiver of the century-old Jones Act, a law that requires that shipments between Americans ports must be on American-made vessels. Critics said that the law was hindering disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. More aid is coming to the stricken island commonwealth. The seaports are now open, while the international airport in San Juan is currently accepting only military flights.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the waiver on Thursday, stating the President Donald Trump had authorized it after a request from Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico. Sanders tweeted, “After Gov. Ricardo Rosello’s request, the president has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately.” The waiver came eight days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (a.k.a. Jones Act) requires goods shipped between points in the United States to be carried by vessels built, owned and operated by Americans. This is includes Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth of the United States but not yet a state.

Puerto Rico thanks President Trump

Rosello tweeted his thanks to the president. In recent days, despite criticisms from media pundits, Rosello had recognized the efforts made by the federal government. Rosello, for example, noted in a television appearance that Trump had called him several times each day after the storm’s impact. “It is an act of justice. It will allow Puerto Ricans to rebuild and to have a cost of living that really frankly is affordable,” said San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and several Democrats in the House had requested the waiver, saying that it would ease the delivery of needed food, medicine, clothing and other supplies to Puerto Rico. Fuel is currently is scarce on the island because a fuel depot on the eastern end of the island, which is where Hurricane Maria made landfall, remains off-line. 

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke allowed the waiver, following the lead of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who had determined that it was in the national interest. The waiver will be in effect for just 10 days.

Puerto Rico is facing shortages of basic necessities, even while most of the island’s cell phone towers are down and the electrical grid off-line. Desperate people are spending hours at filling stations, food stores, and banks, only to sometimes leave with nothing. Currently, the government is putting together 11l centers to distribute aid to devastated towns that were left with nearly no means of reaching the outside. The centers have two million liters of water and almost one million meals, and more was on the way. Some 689 of Puerto Rico’s 1,100 gas stations are open, but lines of customers stretch for a quarter-mile while people spend entire days to fill containers with fuel for their cars or generators. More fuel is on its way. 

What is the Jones Act?

Put in effect in 1920, the Merchant Marine (Jones) Act requires goods shipped between US ports to be handled by American crews on American-owned ships built in the US. The Jones act was once intended to support the national maritime industry that could mobilize for war or national emergency. It was also intended to protect American control over local waterborne commerce. Besides Puerto Rico, officials in Alaska and Hawaii have also called for abolishing or amending the law, saying that it unduly  increases shipping costs for goods from the mainland, which are then passed on to consumers. 

A temporary waiver of the Jones Act, according to several members of Congress would expand access for supplies needed in Puerto Rico. On Monday, eight House Democrats wrote a letter to DHS requesting a waiver. “Puerto Rico can’t borrow funds and they are required to use American shipping only, which is the most expensive in the world. In their hour of need, Washington can help by suspending the Jones Act,” wrote Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL). On Tuesday, Senator McCain said, “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster.” Long an advocate of repealing the Jones Act, McCain renewed that appeal on Thursday. He tweeted, “Trump admininistration has finally waived Jones Act for PuertoRico. Now Congress must repeal this law to aid long-term recovery.”

The Jones Act can be waived in the interest of national defense and only if there are enough United States vessels available to meet national defense needs. Shipping costs or humanitarian needs are not part of the considerations. A request in the interest of national security may be granted automatically if it comes from the secretary of defense. It was waived most recently on September 8, as a response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Acting DHS Secretary Duke granted the request to ease the shipment of petroleum products from Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas, to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Puerto Rico. The one-week waiver was extended through Sept. 22.

That waiver was granted two weeks after Harvey made landfall and just days after Hurricane Irma shook the Caribbean. Before that, a waiver had not been issued since December 2012, when one was granted to ease the delivery of petroleum products after Hurricane Sandy, according to the department.



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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