When Donald Trump went to Puerto Rico, I remembered Graham Greene’s telling portrait of imperious largesse to the needy in ‘The Comedians’, his 1966 novel on Haiti.
The US president threw rolls of paper towel and bags of rice to Puerto Ricans. Not, quite like the way Greene showed us the treatment of the wretched by a Haitian government functionary.
For, the Puerto Ricans who were in receipt of Mr Trump’s careless largesse, were the well-heeled. They were in Guaynabo, one of the wealthiest municipalities of the island.
And yet, there were those long-ago echoes of strongmen of the Americas, as sketched out by Greene. The great man comes and throws out scraps for the wretched to squabble over. He leaves having offered a bracing talk on self-reliance, strength and resolve.
Consider the grieving, angry account of Mr Trump’s time in Puerto Rico from Susanne Ramírez de Arellano, former news director for Univision on the island. She wrote a piece in The Guardian, headlined ‘Trump came to Puerto Rico like an emperor: with pomp and little sympathy”.
She described the situation in which Mr Trump inserted himself: “Only 5% of the electrical grid has been repaired; only 17% of the cellphone towers are working and more than half the island has no running water. Most of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million citizens have to stand every day in hellish lines for food, water, gas and medicines. This is the new normal for us and our families.”
And she described Mr Trump’s “rosy self-assessment”, his imperious scolding of “his uncooperative subjects: ‘I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.’… He might as well have blamed us for throwing ourselves in the path of a hurricane.”
In ‘The Comedians’, Greene writes of abject need and absolute power. Haiti, of course, is the poorest country in the Americas.
But as Mr Trump’s performance in Puerto Rico shows, it is not a country’s wealth that raises up its people, whatever their circumstances. It is a leader’s character, temperament – and yes, heart.