Historical Context: The Key to Make Sense of Puerto Rico’s Social, Economic and Political Crisis
Victor M. Rodriguez is Professor and former Chair of the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University of Long Beach. Among his published works is Latino Politics in the United States: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican Experience in the United States (Kendall-Hunt, 2012). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org visit Victor's website
Puerto Rico, is not usually portrayed in any meaningful way in the mainstream media of the United States. When the news about Puerto Rico’s impending economic crisis began to timidly trickle into the front pages in 2011, the December 17 2014 news about rapprochement between Cuba and the United States quickly pushed Puerto Rico into the background. Ironically, the history of Puerto Rico and Cuba was intertwined since before the Spanish-American War when the last colonies of Spain in the Americas, fell into United States control. The Cuban Revolutionary Party which led the Cuban war of independence had a Puerto Rican section and its platform included the struggle to free Puerto Rico and Cuba from Spain. Its flags are similar with the colors inverted. But their paths have diverged in dramatic ways. At one point after the Cuban revolution in 1959, Puerto Rico was showcased as a democratic model. Now Cuba as the new kid in the block has become the darling of US economic and political interests. In contrast, Puerto Rico continues to be the unwanted child that is more of a nuisance and for whom there is no love lost.
While history is part of the news narrative about the United States and Cuba, with many references to the last 54 years of the embargo, history is missing in the efforts of American and Europeans pundits to make sense of Puerto Rico’s crisis. While political action committees supporting the lifting of the blockade against Cuba (with support from U.S. businesses) are sprouting in the nation, other lobbying organizations are also being formed around Puerto Rico’s crisis with the purpose of not allowing Puerto Rico to get the tools it needs to pull itself out of the weight of a $73 billion dollar debt. 60 Plus, a conservative lobbying organization, partially funded by the Koch brothers has mounted a vigorous campaign to deny Puerto Rico a bailout. In fact it has supported placing the island under a financial control board which will limit even more the scarce options Puerto Rico has as an “unincorporated territory” of the United States. Contrary to the experiences of Hawaii, Arizona, Alaska, Puerto Rico as the result of a series of Supreme Court decisions called the “Insular Cases” at the beginning of the XX century, (almost the same court that wrote the Plessy v. Ferguson decision which legitimated segregation in 1896) did not become a “territory.” A territory is the legal space for lands conquered by the United States which could then become a state. Puerto Rico instead became an “unincorporated territory” it “belongs to but it is not part of the United States.”
Puerto Rico cannot go to international banks because it does not have international standing as a colonial possession. It also can’t increase its trade and reduce the cost of its trade because it is forced by an archaic law, the Jones Act 1920, that forbids Puerto Rico, an island, from using any other ship except the U.S. merchant marine. Some studies have indicated that the use of the U.S. merchant marine increases the cost of living in Puerto Rico by $200 million (lowest estimate). But even worse, congress makes life or death decisions on Puerto Rico yet Puerto Ricans only has one “resident commissioner” who has voice but not vote in congress. 3.6 million Puerto Ricans are powerless and basically voiceless in probably the most critical time in its 117 year relationship with the United States.
In 1984, congress took away (no explanation was provided) the possibility of Puerto Rico using the bankruptcy process in order to restructure its debts. The local legislature of Puerto Rico, whose powers are also limited by congress recently passed a “Creole Bankruptcy Law” to help its public corporations use the process to reorganize and alleviate the weight of the large debt. The law was repealed by the federal courts because it was unconstitutional. Puerto Rico cannot make decisions on its own, only with the approval of congress where it does not have a meaningful presence.
Puerto Rico status and lack of power arise from long held stereotypes about Puerto Ricans that are deeply rooted in American culture. President Taft in 1909 said about Puerto Rico that “Puerto Ricans were given too much power than it was good for them.” More recently, some stories in the media have reaffirmed that view of Puerto Ricans. In an article in the Economist in November 23 2013, speaks about Puerto Ricans in a way being irrational because despite the crisis they were still filling the shopping malls. In the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia Grady a column titled “Puerto Rico’s Borrowing Bubble” on July 6 2014 wrote “Here we go another big government paradise is running out of other people’s money.”
Set Up for Failure: A Manufactured Crisis
Having a systemic historic perspective, is essential to understand Puerto Rico’s present crisis. Unfortunately, many analysts have written about Puerto Rico’s crisis without having knowledge of the historical context. Others have written individualistic narratives about what is happening in individuals, those who leave the island and those who stay. Unfortunately, even when these narratives are written with empathy because of their focus on the trees they miss the forest. It is crucial to understand that Puerto Rico exists in a particular legal context completely created by the United States. Unfortunately, while the United States provided modernity to the old colonial institutions, particularly for Labor, but in terms of self-governance it was a step back. In the last few years of Spanish colonial era, in 1897, Spain granted autonomy to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was able to have a customs system to place tariffs on foreign goods and protect its local production, it was able to enter international treaties, and also had an elected parliament with two chambers the house of representatives (all had to be born in the island) and the administrative council. It was able to have representatives in the Spanish parliament with vote and voice. It did not grant total sovereignty but it had more tools to develop its economy than Puerto Rico’s present status.
After World War II, when decolonization processes where taking place around the world, the United Nations was questioning Puerto Rico’s colonial status. The U.S. in alliance with, Luis Muñoz Marin, a former socialist and supporter of independence were able to create a farce, the so-called “Commonwealth” (Estado Libre Asociado-Free Associated State) which was presented to the United Nation as a non-colonial solution. A consequence of this ruse led the United Nations to approve removing Puerto Rico from the list of nations which had not achieved self-determination. Puerto Rico was able to draft its own constitution but the constitution was subordinated to the U.S. Since there were some progressives in the Popular Democratic Party they in fact inserted the International Bill of Rights into that constitution, including the right to education. Congress, since it had the plenary powers deleted that and other parts of the constitution that would have strengthened the educational process and given right to Puerto Rico that even states did not enjoy. Also, while Puerto Rico had no international presence the U.S. used some Puerto Rican intellectuals to create a good image of “autonomy” and equal partnership for Puerto Rico. One of the leading Popular Democratic Party intellectuals Teodoro Moscoso and the intellectual architect of the industrialization program of Puerto Rico was named director of President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. But efforts to ‘enhance” the “Estado Libre Asociado” failed despite the fact that in 1967, 1993, the “Commonwealth” supporters won the referenda asking to enhance the powers of Puerto Rico. On both occasions despite promises congress ignored the results. The “Commonwealth” has remained the same since the 1950s.
In addition to the economic interest the U.S. has had in Puerto Rico is the strategic military interest that goes back to the 19th century with the need to have “coaling” stations around the world for the U.S. navy which was a core piece of the United States expansionary policy. For example, the U.S. built the largest naval base outside of the United States in Puerto Rico. German ships roamed the Caribbean (both in WWI and WWII) and the U.S. felt it needed to buttress its fortifications. In 1941, lands were expropriated in the eastern part of Puerto Rico, a town called Ceiba and in the island of Vieques. The deep-water port that was created in Roosevelt Roads was large enough in case the British navy was in danger of falling into the hand of Nazi Germany. The plans were to bring the entire navy and berth it in Roosevelt Roads. Also during the Cold War Puerto Rico was the launching pad for troops that invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965, and provided logistical assistance to many other military interventions in Latin America including the invasion of Panama in 1989. Other military installations like the naval center in Sabana Seca were also used for electronic surveillance of Latin America. The military have always been until 2003, when popular movements got the U.S. to close Roosevelt, very much against any changes in Puerto Rico’s status because of fear that more powers to the Puerto Ricans would limit the military use of Puerto Rico.
Even progressive economist Paul Krugman, misses the point when he writes in an August 3, 2015 column in the New York Times “There was a time when Puerto Rico did quite well as a manufacturing center….” Or in his comment “Puerto Rico then, is in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The reality is that the place where Puerto Rico is was created by American policies and institutions, a place set up for failure not for success. This “manufacturing center” was already failing by the 1970s, according to economist James Dietz author of Puerto Rico: Negotiating Development and Change. By the 1970s the industrial model of Krugman refers to was created by Luis Muñoz Marin, founder of the Popular Democratic Party (the party in power today) began to sputter. The wage convergence (wages in Puerto Rico and the United States growing together for some time) that was used to say the model was doing well for Puerto Rico ended. It is also when the local government begins to borrow because it felt it could not raise more revenues since the economy was cooling off.
The only solution to the Puerto Rico’s crisis is to have the tools it needs to increase the economy, austerity measures will deepen the crisis and could likely create political and social instability. But despite the indebtedness of Puerto Rico no changes are even suggested in its colonial status. One reason is that the “unincorporated territory” is profitable for a sector of American business, last year, (2014) $36,052 billion in income were repatriated by Puerto Rico based corporations. The other reason is that there is an escape valve for the frustration, people can vote with their feet and leave. But the pressure cooker cannot withstand more austerity, the previous pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuño experienced significant social strife to the extent that the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing critique of how the Police Department of Puerto Rico violated human rights in how it handled the social protests. A qualitative change in the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, with more sovereign powers to develop its economy and break the economic dependence are necessary. Puerto Ricans don’t want handouts, they want the possibility of creating an economy that works, not one that is based on smokes and mirrors. Unfortunately, the Popular Democratic Party may not be able to lead this process since it is enmeshed with the debtors, the New Progressive Party, whose leader, Pedro Pierlusi, the non-voting Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner in Congress, is trying to use the occasion to ask for statehood. Unfortunately, he also is not aware of the historical context. Puerto Rico’s status was not created for statehood but for perpetual colonization or independence.