Home > Uncategorized > The Puerto Rican Catastrophe – posted 12/25/2017

The Puerto Rican Catastrophe – posted 12/25/2017

It has now been over three months since Hurricane Maria and as we have gotten farther away from the storm, news about Puerto Rico has receded. Stories about what is happening on the island are rarer.

Lack of urgency is the best way to characterize the overall American response although the recovery task is admittedly herculean.

Sad to say but the recovery in Puerto Rico has been conducted at a turtle’s pace. The hurricane knocked out 100% of electricity, leaving 3.4 million people in the dark. So far about 65 percent of the island has regained power. This ranks as the longest power outage in American history. It is estimated that electricity will not be entirely restored until May.

This is not commensurate with the hurricane recovery effort in Texas or Florida. No site on the American homeland would have accepted such a slow hurricane response but Puerto Rico lacks the political strength to get a better result.

Along with electricity, access to clean water remains an unsolved problem for virtually all residents. This was a problem even before the hurricane. The Natural Resources Defense Council had issued a report last May showing that 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans were served by water sources that violated the Safe Water Drinking Act. Contamination, failure to properly treat water and failure to conduct water testing were among the violations.

Since the hurricane, many Puerto Ricans have continued to report odorous, discolored and ill-tasting water flowing from their taps. Where bottled water is unavailable, water must be boiled or chlorine must be added for water to be drinkable.

An estimated 250,000 Puerto Ricans lost their homes in the hurricane. Hundreds of thousands have left the island since the storm, including 269,000 who have flown to Florida.

The government still does not know how many people died in the hurricane. Although the official government death count stood at 64, the Center for Investigative Journalism revealed at least 985 people died in the 40-day period after Hurricane Maria. A New York Times analysis found the death toll to be 1052.

It appears there has been a vast undercount. Two members of Congress, Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Ms) have requested a federal investigation by the Government Accounting Office. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has now ordered a recount of all hurricane deaths.

The new Republican tax bill signed by President Trump particularly harms Puerto Rico. It adds a 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property, primarily high-end manufacturing like pharmaceuticals and medical devices. These manufacturing jobs are some of the best jobs on the island.

The tax was designed to make it more expensive for companies to operate outside the United States in “foreign” jurisdictions. For tax purposes, in a legal quirk, Puerto Rico is considered a “foreign” jurisdiction although in almost all other respects it is considered legally domestic.

Puerto Rico lobbied hard to get an exemption from the 12.5 percent tax but that effort failed. At a time when Puerto Rico desperately needs economic recovery, the new tax law will make it more expensive for manufacturers to operate there. It will very likely cost Puerto Rico many good jobs it can ill afford to lose.

In Puerto Rico, over 45 percent of people live in poverty (an income of under $24,000 for a family of four), a rate that is well over twice the rate for the United States. The median household income in Puerto Rico is $19,630. That is about half the median income in our poorest state of Mississippi.

To grasp the depth of the Puerto Rican tragedy, an appreciation of history is required. The history of Puerto Rico has been hidden. For many Americans, Puerto Rico is off the radar screen. It has been separated by geography, language, culture, and ethnicity.

Polls taken after Hurricane Maria indicate that barely 50 percent of our population know that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and that its people are U.S. citizens.

Puerto Rico had been a colony of Spain. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the United States took possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, paying Spain $20 million under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Puerto Rico was war booty and it became an American colony although it was euphemistically called a territory.

The early 20th century was an era of American imperial expansion in Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine in the background, the United States conducted a military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and a military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. In 1917, the United States bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million. The acquisition of Puerto Rico was a legacy of colonialism.

The United States set up its own puppet government in Puerto Rico and established English as the official language even though few then knew the language. U.S. officials did not speak Spanish. The President appointed a succession of Anglo governors. No Puerto Rican became governor until 1948 and ynone was elected until 1952.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans gained full American citizenship through the Jones-Shafroth Act. Shortly after, Puerto Ricans were made subject to the military draft. More than 200,000 registered for the draft and 20,000 served in World War One. The Puerto Rican tradition of military service has continued to the present.

Puerto Rico gets no right to vote for president or for any federal office. It has no voting representative in Congress. Puerto Ricans who leave the island and go to Florida or other parts of the United States can have their votes counted in federal and state elections.

Underlying Puerto Rico’s disparate and unequal treatment is Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, commonly known as the “Territorial Clause”. The Clause reads:

“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

The Territorial Clause maintains Puerto Rico’s colonial status as it is classified as a territory. In assessing its debt crisis and its post-hurricane issues, it must be emphasized that Puerto Rico has had no right to self-determination. It has been essentially a plaything of the American empire. The island’s economic powerlessness is rooted in this colonial structure. The Territorial Clause controls Puerto Rico’s destiny and preempts local authority.

I would point out that there is deep division among Puerto Ricans about their self-determination. During the 20th century, there was an active movement for Puerto Rican independence. 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, a legendary leader of the independence movement.

Little is now remembered about the independence movement. In 1947, the U.S. government passed a law that made it illegal for Puerto Ricans to utter a word, sing a song or whistle a tune against the United States or in favor of independence. In 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House where President Truman was staying. Later in 1954, four members of the nationalist party, among them Lolita Lebron, staged an attack on Congress, wounding five members. President Jimmy Carter granted the four clemency in 1979 after they all served long prison terms.

It remains unclear whether Puerto Ricans prefer statehood or independence. Last June there was a plebiscite where voters chose statehood although only 23% of eligible voters cast ballots. Whether Puerto Rico becomes a state ultimately depends on Congress.

Puerto Ricans are unique in being citizens while being considered foreigners, a contradiction at the core of their identity.

When President Trump went to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, he gave himself a “10” out of 10 for hurricane response. He had previously graded himself an A+. He said, “You know what? This is not a real catastrophe. This is not like Katrina.” He famously lobbed paper towels at a crowd.

Considering Puerto Rico’s dire straits, the Administration’s casual response merits no accolades. It is now up to Congress to act. So much more needs to be done.

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