Puerto Rico: Change on the Horizon

American politicians have always avoided mention of their country’s unincorporated Caribbean territory, Puerto Rico. The hypocrisy is clear- America has always expressed pride in its abstention from the temptations of empire building and in its contribution to the demise of Imperialism. Yet the island of Puerto Rico was in essence grabbed as a colony in 1898 after a brief war with the Spanish. Since then Puerto Ricans have been the subjects of numerous economic experiments and schemes none of which originated from indigenous authorities or institutions. Puerto Rico, whilst not economically exploited like the colonies of European powers, has nonetheless been unilaterally governed according to American interests. With the islands rising debt and increasing political importance however, change for Puerto Rico is an increasingly likely possibility.

Unique among U.S territories, Puerto Rico has a state like government but is not a state. Influenced heavily by Washington, the island has to obey numerous restrictions and rules. For example, its ports can only do business with U.S flagged vessels making transactions between the mainland extremely expensive- this is under a law of 1920 that congress refuses to repeal. The island also depends on huge amounts of federal aid making its financial autonomy virtually non-existent. Today some members of the Republican Party wish to create a financial control board to impose reform on the debt-ridden territory, a suggestion that appears remarkably colonial.

Historically as well, the island has been told what and what not to do. During the 1940’s Puerto Rico was one big experiment in central planning with the U.S creating favoured industries such as tuna canning and pharmaceuticals. In the cold war years the island was flooded with investment in an attempt to make the island a perfect example of capitalism sitting in stark contrast to its impoverished communist neighbour, Cuba. Tensions between the territory’s nationalists and the mainland have often erupted in violent spells. Incidents include the Capitol shooting attack in 1954 by the Marxist-nationalist Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN) and the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

However Puerto Rico is becoming an increasingly frequent topic of debate amongst U.S politicians who no longer blushingly ignore the islands problems. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, Puerto Rico’s colossal debt can no longer be ignored no matter how hard politicians try. America, if nothing else, has a moral duty to sort out its territory’s economy. In June this year the island’s governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla admitted that public debts of $72 billion are “unpayable”. This is leading to discussion that, whilst not very productive, is at least better than silence. Debate focuses primarily on the islands bankruptcy laws. On July 7th Hilary Clinton called for congress to grant Puerto Rico the same access to federal bankruptcy protection that the 50 states can access to save public services and indebted institutions. Conservatives attacked this demand arguing Puerto Rico would not reconstruct but rather forget about its debt like other leftist countries such as Venezuela and Argentina, however this protest from the right is undermined by Jeb Bush’s support for the demand- Bush, a republican rival to Mrs Clinton, wishes to see Puerto Rico become America’s state number 51.

The second reason for America’s increased interest in Puerto Rico is the island’s population’s growing political importance. Whilst the island’s 3.5 million inhabitants cannot vote in the presidential election and it only sends a non-voting delegation to congress, islanders are still American citizens and can vote in elections if they move to the mainland. The large Puerto Rican diaspora is increasingly developing into a vital political resource. Whist Puerto Ricans previously settled in Democrat strongholds such as New York and New Jersey, growing numbers are migrating to Florida attracted by cheap homes, jobs and better weather. Fiercely competitive Floridian elections can now be seriously swayed in favour of one party if it becomes the party for Puerto Ricans. In addition, given the fact that Puerto Rico’s political environment tends to focus on issues such as statehood, the parties and ideas that dominate mainland politics have relatively few natural links to Puerto Ricans and so these migrators are true swing voters, yet to form loyalties and establish their own political identities. Many Politicians have therefore realised that constructive debate about Puerto Rico’s future could impress this diaspora and pay off in elections in 2016.

Many spectators call for more radical measure to be taken. Some argue that the only meaningful institutional reform on Puerto Rico would be if it acquired statehood and enjoyed all the benefits of official participation in U.S politics. Others (mainly natives) make demands for independence from the U.S altogether.

Jeb Bush is certainly the most high profile proponent of Puerto Rican statehood saying “To get the full benefits and responsibilities of citizenship, being a state is the only way to make that happen”. For Mr Bush statehood is a matter of fairness and equity. Indeed, 61% of Puerto Ricans voted in favour of statehood in a non-binding referendum in 2012 and, he would say, true to democracy the will of the people must be respected. But the 39% that voted no in this referendum have reason to be sceptical of the benefits of statehood. Some argue that incorporation into the union would do nothing to ease problems relating to unemployment, healthcare and housing. Whilst Puerto Ricans would have access to the U.S justice system, bankruptcy options and federal intervention they would also have to pay federal income tax on top of what are already the highest local tax rates in the country.

That is why some continue to subscribe to the nationalist sentiment that was so prominent in the 1960’s and 1970’s. “Statehood is wrong for Puerto Rico because Puerto Rico is a nation” said senator Ramón Nieves. “We consider ourselves Puerto Ricans, not Americans”. Mr Nieves supports a model like that adopted by the Marshall Islands which entered into a compact association with the U.S in order to retain some rights but also to move towards complete sovereignty which it achieved in 1986. Vastly greater autonomy verging on independence is for some the best way for Puerto Rico to end its structural dependence on federal money. They point to other small Caribbean nations who manage perfectly well on their own in managing the tasks and demands of resource management and policy formation.

However such autonomy is highly unlikely and the idea remains widely unpopular on the island. With constant migration to and from the mainland many Puerto Ricans share familial and emotional ties with the diaspora which could be severed with independence. In practical terms too would independence really be the best solution to Puerto Rico’s problems? It is unlikely- Puerto Ricans do after all enjoy many of the benefits of U.S citizenship including U.S passports and federal spending.

Even if Puerto Ricans are not behind independence it takes nothing away from the fact that major reform on the island is necessary and this may end up manifesting itself as fully fledged statehood (although this is unlikely for quite some time). Whatever the future holds Puerto Ricans can at least find comfort in the knowledge that the mainland is at last holding constructive and sensible debate on the islands many afflictions. With circumstances as they are America is finally attending to its territory’s needs rather than sweeping them under the carpet in embarrassment.

Cameron Chippindale