The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who made headlines in September for her clashes with President Donald Trump in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, addressed a class of strategic public relations graduate students Tuesday and spoke about the importance of honest public communication.
In front of audience of about 30 students in GW’s Alexandria Graduate Education Center in Alexandria, Va., Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz spoke about how she applied public relations skills both in her campaign and in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated much of Puerto Rico, including San Juan, last month. A family friend of Yulín Cruz is a student in the class.
“You have to become not a politician, but a public servant,” she said. “We may not agree, but you need to know what I stand for. And if someone doesn’t like what I have to say, then I tell them to not vote for me in 2020.”
As the discussion shifted from her campaign and political career to the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Yulín Cruz spoke to the students about her firsthand experiences leading the city in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“I’ve seen elderly people left in their homes to die. I’ve seen mothers cry because they cannot find their children medicine,” Yulìn Cruz said. “Now the world has to face our poverty and inequality and it cannot be covered up by piña coladas and palm trees.”
The debris left in the streets of Puerto Rico – totaling almost 200 million pounds, the mayor said – epitomizes the lack of labor and resources available to the island territory.
Yulín Cruz was sharply critical of the federal response to Maria, wearing shirts during national television interviews that read “Help Us. We are dying.” Her criticism sparked backlash from Trump, who accused her of “poor leadership” in a tweet.
She later met Trump when he visited the territory.
“I remember, I waited for President Trump to shake my hand and I looked at him and said, ‘It’s about saving lives,’” she said. “It was so easy for him to look over me and say, ‘Thanks for coming everyone!’”
She said her pleas for aid have worked. Sixty percent of donations to Puerto Rico now originate from the private sector and 40 percent from FEMA. As of Tuesday, San Juan has serviced a week’s worth of food to 125,433 people, she said.
“The situation is still life and death. In San Juan, we are just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
When the floor opened for questions, multiple students asked if she could run for president of the United States.
“She encourages women. She has a strong voice and she uses it,” Jesus Diaz Flores, a student in the class, said.
Zeinab Konate, another student in the class, said the mayor “put a lot of things in perspective for me.”
“Out of all of the guest speakers I’ve ever seen, she was genuine and we need more politicians like her,” Konate said.
Yulín Cruz stressed the gravity of the situation in Puerto Rico, where many remain without power and some without water, but ended on a note of hope.
“Last month I said, ‘Somebody help us. If anybody is out there listening, help us,’” she said. “Right now, you can tweet and retweet and spread awareness. You can come down and we’ll host you on our cots and you can see what it’s like.”