The Brood: Who is supposed to be accountable for the bureaucratic stalling in helping Puerto Rico get boots on the ground? Whoever that is, are they reasonably doing all they can? Or is someone screwing up?
The severe crisis, and the lack of an adequate response, happening in Puerto Rico has roots much deeper and more tangled than the typical American understands. This is not New Orleans, whose near-death blow from Katrina was intensified by the sheer incompetency of the Bush Administration’s response, and particularly by the incompetency of the levees’ engineering. Puerto Rico’s economic, social, and storm-induced crises are the legacies of the uncomfortable history of America’s quest for Empire in the late 19th century.
To make a complicated story short, the United States intervened in the Cuban War for Independence in the 1890s in what became known as the Spanish-American War. America had business interests in Cuba, and felt those interests would be better served in a friendly, independent (but not too independent) Cuba.
The war was won within ten weeks. The peace treaty, heavily inspired by the 19th century style imperialism of European powers (See this fantastic explanation of 19th century imperialism by John Green.) gave the US direct control over Spanish Colonies outside of Africa, which, for our purposes, included Puerto Rico.
From the get-go, the relationship between the Mainland United States and its quasi-colonial possession has been touchy, ill-defined, and complicated. The first 50-60 years of American possession of the island were characterized by Puerto Rican demonstrations and votes for independence, as well as outright revolts.
By the 1960s, the situation had stabilized somewhat, with the Puerto Ricans adopting a more democratic constitution (with American approval) and the island’s economy rebounding through government policies encouraging industrialization of the island. By the end of the decade, Puerto Rico was a major producer of pharmaceuticals.
None of this, though, solves the fundamental question at hand in the American-Puerto Rican relationship: Are Puerto Ricans Americans, and not just in a legal sense? It’s as much a question of identity as it is of economics. But the line between those two issues are getting blurrier and blurrier as the old, quasi-imperial commonwealth government system is showing just how poorly suited it is to delivering results for Puerto Ricans.
Starting in 1996, Bill Clinton signed legislation that would phase out subsidies supporting Puerto Rican industries over ten years, and when they were gone in 2006, many companies fled the island, creating huge tax shortfalls, rising unemployment, and a 12-year long recession. As an unincorporated commonwealth, Puerto Ricans had zero votes in determining this policy. To make up for the short fall, the commonwealth sold bonds, essentially government-backed “safe” loans, to fund its operation, but as the economic troubles encouraged skilled workers and young people to move to the mainland (or to the foreign nation of America?) for work and opportunity, the tax base shrunk, and it became impossible to service the governments debt obligations.
By 2015, the commonwealth government defaulted on these loans. In response, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) which created an American oversight committee in charge of restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt, and thereby necessarily infringing on Puerto Ricans’ sovereignty. This gets even more complicated when you take into account that much of the bonds were bought up by specialized hedge funds, often nicknamed “Vulture Funds” which counted on those bonds to fail.
All of this to say that, even before the last three hurricanes that just hit Puerto Rico, Harvey, Irma, & Maria, things were really bad. Now the situation is incredibly precarious. As said in one of the latest episodes of Vox’s podcast, The Weeds, this is not a crisis in which there are immediate causalities, but one in which the true damage will unfold over time.
Puerto Rico’s electric grid is designed differently from the one on the mainland United States, and the electricity is produced by antiquated oil-firing plants, which are not only damaged, but require specialized knowledge to operate. There are fewer people who have that knowledge, since the electrical company has lost 30% of its employees to retirement and migration out of the commonwealth, according to the Washington Post.
Assuming the grid and plants are repaired, there is still the question of supplying Puerto Rico with oil and essential supplies of fresh food and water. These efforts are made worse by the Trump Administration, which at best is incompetent, and at worst, doesn’t care enough to act for racially motivated reasons.
The President, whose duty it is to manage national-level emergencies, simply was not actively involved in preparing a response in the lead up to the storm, and instead passively let the government respond without direction. It turns out that the Presidency is an important job that has real life-or-death consequences for those citizens that office purports to represent.
To list some of the things Trump’s administration mishandled:
- Inadequate numbers of FEMA workers deployed to the island
- Has failed to recognize that the US Military has better capacity to serve more remote parts of the island than FEMA
- Failed to immediately waive the Jones Act, which Trump had waived for hurricane relief on the mainland just a couple of weeks ago, which makes shipping supplies easier.
- Spent the first 5 days after the hurricane focused on a feud with NFL players.
- Sent several tweets seemingly blaming Puerto Ricans themselves for the slow recovery from the Hurricane.
This despite some truly staggering statistics coming out of Puerto Rico, where almost half of the residents still lack access to drinking water. Puerto Rico suffers from its inbetween status. If it were a US State, it would have representation in Congress and access to key funds for infrastructure and emergency assistance. If it were an independent nation, it would have more control over economic policies, and perhaps it would not have to suffer from clumsy quasi-colonial management.
In the short-term, Puerto Rico needs assistance, and you can contribute to one of these organizations. In the medium term, it needs an economic plan that allows it to pay its debts and provide a future for its citizens. In the long term, Puerto Ricans need to decide: is Puerto Rico a sovereign nation? Or an integral part of the United States? Clearly, imagining it as anything in-between is a cruel disservice to the people of Puerto Rico.
Who do you think should be helping Puerto Rico, and are they doing it well? Should Puerto Rico be independent, or become a state? Comment and share your thoughts!
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Written and edited by Dylan Welch, co-host and creator of the Municipals podcast.