What We Owe Puerto Rico

Americans who live in the fifty states aren’t getting it. Puerto Rico has been razed to the ground.

Sure, San Juan looks okay as a backdrop, and that seems to be where the majority of the news reports come from. It’s probably the only place on the island that has enough infrastructure left to do a live broadcast from.

It doesn’t help that the president is poo-pooing the whole situation, saying that the Puerto Ricans aren’t taking responsibility, or that the infrastructure wasn’t in good shape to begin with. It doesn’t help that he brags about the response when he should be hanging his head in shame. People don’t seem to know that Puerto Rico is American territory and that the inhabitants of Puerto Rico are natural-born US citizens, and the president seems to be playing off that.

I am genuinely afraid that when the lid is lifted off of the Puerto Rican “recovery” effort, we’re going to find a lot of tragedy — tragedy being defined as when someone is badly hurt or killed when they didn’t have to be.

Puerto Ricans are in a kind of political Twilight Zone. They’re citizens, but they can’t vote in federal elections. They have a representative in Congress, but she doesn’t vote on legislation or anything else. Puerto Ricans don’t pay federal taxes, but they do reap some benefits of American citizenship, like entitlements. Their men were subject to the draft when the draft was a thing, and they are today disproportionately represented in the military because military service is seen as a way out of the soul-crushing poverty of a third-world country.

And it is a third-world country. I’ve been there many times, and I lived and worked there for a time. If you were kidnapped from your bed and plopped unconscious into the mountains of Puerto Rico, you would probably have no idea that you are in America when you woke up.

Puerto Ricans have a pretty bad rap. Even though they’re citizens, when they migrate to the mainland they are basically immigrants, and they’re treated that way, with fear and suspicion and resistance that every other immigrant group has faced. The people who leave generally leave because they’re looking for work and a better way of life, and Puerto Ricans sometimes bring with them the social problems associated with poverty.

This is perhaps the most important part: they killed Tony in West Side Story.

Puerto Ricans are good people. I was married to a Puerto Rican, and I went through an acrimonious divorce, but I would vouch for my ex-wife’s family despite what they’ve done to me personally. When I lived there, most of the people I knew genuinely wanted to help me, and I definitely needed the help. It was important to them that an estatounidense (loose translation is “United Stater”) like me have a good impression of the place and the people. I wish I could say that Puerto Ricans who move to the mainland are treated as well as I was. Despite my personal issues, I was really disappointed that I had to leave. I loved it there. I loved that it hasn’t snowed in Puerto Rico in recorded history.

It doesn’t really matter how I feel about Puerto Ricans, though. It’s not relevant. They deserve to live with access to the same services the rest of us enjoy because they are citizens and because we volunteered for the job. Puerto Rico was taken by the US as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898. We didn’t have to capture it. No one forced us to invade and occupy it. That makes us, the United States, responsible.

The infrastructure was definitely third-world, and it was better when I lived there twenty years ago than it was when Hurricane Maria hit. There was a Category 1 hurricane when I lived there, and water and power were out for more than a week. When it rained, I had to go outside with everything I had that could hold water so I could flush the toilet. That would never have happened in the fifty states from a measly Category 1 — at least, it’s not that likely.

Puerto Rico’s now-nonexistent infrastructure was in such bad shape because Puerto Rico has been consistently starved for funds since, well, forever. Their tax base hasn’t been what it was since American pharmaceutical manufacturing and the oil refinery left for cheaper labor abroad. They borrowed billions of dollars to try to expand that tax base, but it wasn’t successful. Now they’re under crushing debt because they were unable to repay their loan obligations. Because of federal regulations, they’re not allowed to restructure their debt without consent from Congress, and Congress isn’t keen on the idea. The bondholders have forced Puerto Rico to make deep cuts into infrastructure maintenance, education, bureaucracy, and a lot of the other things needed to run an industrialized country.

We need to rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure so that it’s up to mainland standards. We owe them that, and we’ve never really tried that hard to do it. Then we and Puerto Ricans have to make a choice: either make Puerto Rico a state with representation and full enfranchisement or cut them loose and let them determine their own destiny.





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