The people of Puerto Rico have been through a lot in the past few years.
Hurricane Maria devastated the island, killing an estimated (and heavily disputed) 2,975 people and knocking out electricity across the entire island, with some residents in the dark for 11 months. This came in the wake of Puerto Rico declaring bankruptcy on a massive $123 billion, after Wall Street firms took advantage of Puerto Rico with predatory bond deals.
With the dramatic leak of nearly 900 pages of private chat messages between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his aides regularly engaging in corrupt and offensive behavior, the people of Puerto Rico are reaching a boiling point. An estimated 400,000 Puerto Ricans recently took to the streets demanding that Gov. Rosselló resign in one of the biggest protests in the nation’s history.
While it is Gov. Rosselló’s private messages that have sparked recent protests, it is America’s colonial relationship with Puerto Rico that has laid the groundwork for political unrest on the island.
Here are a few key aspect of America’s relationship with Puerto Rico that exemplify modern colonial rule:
Lack of Fair Political Representation
This is the most obvious way to recognize Puerto Rico as a colony.
Even though residents of Puerto Rico were declared U.S. citizens after the federal government enacted the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917, Puerto Ricans were not given equal political power to Americans living in states.
Despite having a larger population than roughly a third of states, Puerto Ricans are unable to vote in U.S. presidential elections (though they can still vote in presidential primaries). They are also deprived of the congressional representation afforded to states, such as having House Representatives and Senators. Instead, they are given one Resident Commissioner who represents the island’s interests in Congress, but is not allowed to vote.
Puerto Ricans who move to the mainland U.S. are afforded all of the same rights as any other U.S. citizen, but if their permanent address is in their homeland, they are relegated to this odd sub-citizen status.
How does any of that sound fair?
We have millions of American citizens who are deprived of equal voting rights, simply because of the American territory they call home. In fact, it is that phrase “American territory” that masks their lack of political rights. If we called it by it’s proper historical term “colony,” perhaps more people would realize.
The economic relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is another glaring example of the colonial relationship between the two.
While it was the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 that gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, ironically it was a different Jones Act (otherwise known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) that cemented the unfair economic relationship between the two.
The act requires that any goods shipped between two U.S. ports be transported in a vessel built in the U.S. and primarily operated by Americans.
On it’s surface, the law sounds simple and meaningless. In practice, however, a 2010 study from the University of Puerto Rico found that it costs the island $537 million a year.
Due to the lack of vessels that qualify under the Jones Act, there are less shipping options for Puerto Ricans to choose from. Qualified vessels take advantage of this and charge higher prices to ship to Puerto Rico, which then leads to higher prices for goods on the island.
The exploitation of the island by large corporations for tax relief is another factor that has led to Puerto Rico’s economic turmoil.
Section 936 of the U.S. tax code, passed in 1976, allowed manufacturing companies to avoid paying federal income taxes on profits earned in U.S. territories. This led to an influx of corporations into Puerto Rico and an increase in manufacturing jobs. For a while the law really seemed to benefit the island’s economy.
Eventually, complaints of corporate welfare and unfair tax burdens for Puerto Rican companies led to a 10-year phaseout of section 936 from 1996–2006. It is hardly a coincidence that Puerto Rico’s economy entered a recession in 2006, from which it has yet to recover.
Due to their status as a colony, decisions regarding Puerto Rico’s economy are often made by the U.S.without adequate input from the people living there.
It is important to remember that when Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, they had no say in the matter. They went from having one colonial ruler to another.
Though they have been given numerous chances to voice their opinion on their status, unless the U.S. Congress acts to change it, their referendums on the issue are just that: non-binding opinions.
However, it is still important to analyze these opinions to see whether the will of the Puerto Rican people was/is being respected.
For a while, many seemed relatively content with their status as a territory. In a 1967 referendum, 60% voted to remain a Commonwealth with 39% choosing statehood. That margin narrowed to 49% Commonwealth and 47% statehood in 1993.
By 1998, when given the choice between Commonwealth, statehood, independence, and none of the above, 47% chose statehood with 50.5% choosing none of the above. Attitudes were clearly evolving on the issue.
In 2012, another referendum represented a turning point. Voters were posed two questions:
- Do they agree to continue with Puerto Rico’s territorial status?
- If the status were to change, would they prefer statehood, independence, or a free association (similar to commonwealth, but with more sovereignty)?
For the first question the Puerto Rican people voted no 54%–46%, meaning they were ready to move on from being a colony. On the second, statehood got the most support (61%), followed by free association (33%), and then independence (5.5%).
In the most recent referendum in 2017, 97% of people chose statehood (vs. 1.5% independence and 1.3% current status). Despite the low turnout of 23% of eligible voters, it was the most emphatic vote in favor of statehood yet.
Due to their lack of true self-determination, these referendums are all powerless until Congress chooses to act. However, there is hope.
Numerous referendums demonstrate that the people of Puerto Rico are ready for statehood. Public polling shows that the large majority of Americans are too. It is time for Congress to respect the will of Puerto Ricans and finally give them the political representation that they deserve.