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Opinion: Puerto Rico’s Crisis? Let’s Look At Our U.S. History

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The Puerto Rican flag flies in front of its Capitol building. Ricardo Arduengo / AP

There's a new kid on the block - Cuba 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.

Ironically, the histories of Puerto Rico and Cuba were 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.

While the countries' flags are similar, their colors are inverted. And now their paths are diverging in dramatic ways. At one point after the Cuban revolution in 1959, Puerto Rico was showcased as a democratic model. Now Cuba's possibilities are in the spotlight.

Yet whereas Cuba's present events are seen in the context of history- primarily 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 that is 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 further limit the scarce options Puerto Rico has as an “unincorporated territory” of the United States.

Our history as a useful - but unincorporated - territory

Contrary to the experiences of Hawaii, Arizona and Alaska, Puerto Rico did not become a territory -the legal space for lands conquered by the United States which could then become a state. Puerto Rico instead became an "unincorporated territory," meaning it "belongs to but its 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 enacted in 1920 - that forbids the 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).

Even worse, the U.S. Congress imposes life and death decisions on Puerto Rico, yet the commonwealth only has one “resident commissioner” who has a voice but no 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.

For those who question why Puerto Rico finds itself in this "territorial" situation, it is worth remembering that the island did not have a choice; Puerto Rico served a strategic military interest for the U.S. going back to the 19th century as one of the “coaling” stations around the world. In fact, 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 in 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 hands of Nazi Germany.

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. It wasn't until 2003 that the U.S. Navy left Vieques and closed Roosevelt Roads in 2004.

Uneven playing field

In 1984, Congress took away (no explanation provided) the possibility of Puerto Rico using the bankruptcy process in order to restructure its debts. Puerto Rico's legislature, whose powers are also limited by Congress, recently passed its own bankruptcy law to help its public corporations use the process to reorganize and alleviate the weight of the large debt. But 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. In 1909, President Taft said Puerto Ricans were given more power than was good for them. More recently, some stories in the media have reaffirmed that view of Puerto Ricans. In a July 2014 Wall Street Journal column under the title “Puerto Rico’s Borrowing Bubble”, Mary Anastasia Grady paraphrased Margaret Thatcher, “Here we go again: Another big government paradise is running out of other people’s money.”

Set Up for Failure: A Manufactured Crisis

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 - in terms of self-governance it was a step back. In the last few years of Spanish colonial rule, Spain granted autonomy to Puerto Rico in 1897. The island 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.

In alliance with Puerto Rico's governor Luis Muñoz Marín, a former socialist and supporter of independence, the U.S. created the so-called “Commonwealth” (the Estado Libre Asociado, or Free Associated State) which was presented to the United Nations 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.

Since the U.S. Congress had plenary powers it deleted that and other parts of the constitution that would have strengthened the educational process and given rights to Puerto Rico that even states did not enjoy.

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. One of the leading Popular Democratic Party (the party that supported the commonwealth status) intellectuals, Teodoro Moscoso was the architect of the island's industrialization program and 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 and 1993 the “Commonwealth” supporters won the referenda asking to enhance the powers of Puerto Rico. On both occasions, despite promises, the U.S. Congress ignored the results. The “Commonwealth” has remained the same since the 1950s.

Even progressive economist Paul Krugman misses the point when he writes in a New York Times column that “There was a time when Puerto Rico did quite well as a manufacturing center," or “Puerto Rico then, is in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The reality is that the place where Puerto Rico is currently was created by American policies and institutions, and it's a place set up for failure, not 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 began to sputter and 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 began to borrow because it felt it could not raise more revenues as the economy was cooling off.

Moving forward

The only solution to the Puerto Rico’s crisis is to have the tools it needs to increase its economy. Austerity measures will deepen the crisis and could likely create political and social instability.

Yet despite Puerto Rico's indebtedness, no changes are even suggested to its current colonial status. One reason is that the “unincorporated territory” is profitable for a sector of American business. Last year, (2014) about 36 billion dollars 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. 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, is the non-voting Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner in Congress - is trying to use the occasion to ask for statehood. Unfortunately, he is not aware of our historical context. Puerto Rico’s status was not created for statehood but for perpetual colonization or independence.

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: victor.rodriguez@csulb.edu.or his website.