Caribbean, Politics

What you need to know about Puerto Rico

October 12, 2017

Due to Hurricane Maria, many of you are hearing about Puerto Rico for the first time in terms of the larger social, economic and political issues of the island. After the hurricane, it was reported that nearly half of Americans were unaware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. So, I feel compelled to shed some light on Puerto Rico and their current situation.

First, some facts:

  1. A brief history: The Taíno indigenous people were the first inhabitants on the island, which they called Borínquen. They referred to themselves as Boricuas, which is still true today. The Taíno were there for at least 1,000 years prior to the Spanish arriving. When Columbus arrived on his second voyage in 1493, he claimed the island for Spain calling it San Juan Bautista and the first settlement was called Puerto Rico (rich port). Later these two were reversed and the island was called Puerto Rico and the port became San Juan. The Taíno did not fare well — many died from smallpox brought from Europe, while others were forced to work as slaves. The Spanish ruled until the Spanish American War in 1898, when Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States.
  2. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory or commonwealth of the United States and it is the most populated of all U.S. territories.
  3. The ethnic and cultural identity of Puerto Ricans comes from a mix of 1) the indigenous Taíno people 2) the Spanish and 3) West and North Africans (that were brought as slaves by the Spanish). Puerto Ricans do not see race the same as other Americans do. They strongly identify as Puerto Rican, but do they identify as black or white? It’s complicated.
  4. The island is 100 miles wide by 30 miles tall, making it similar in size to Connecticut. It is a very biodiverse island.
  5. The population of Puerto Rico is 3.4 million, making it more populated than 21 U.S. states.
  6. More than 5 million people of Puerto Rican descent live in the United States. They are commonly referred to as the Puerto Rican diaspora.
  7. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. The first citizenship rights and laws went into effect in 1917 as part of the Jones-Shafroth Act, but later were amended and replaced with The Nationality Act of 1940. This act conferred birthright citizenship for Puerto Ricans.
  8. Puerto Ricans serve in the military and can be drafted just like any Americans. Puerto Ricans have a proud military history and have served in every conflict since World War I. There are currently around 10,000 Puerto Ricans that are active duty military.
  9. Puerto Ricans are not granted the right to vote for the president of the United States. However, if a Puerto Rican establishes residency in one of the 50 states, then they can vote for the president.
  10. Puerto Rico has a delegate in the House of Representatives, but it is a non-voting position. The title is Resident Commissioner and it is currently held by Jenniffer González-Colón.
  11. Puerto Ricans pay some federal taxes, but not all. They do not pay federal income tax unless they work for the government. However, Puerto Ricans pay many other federal taxes like payroll taxes, social security, medicare, import/export taxes, business taxes, gift taxes, estate taxes and so on. Even though there has been an economic downfall, Puerto Rico still contributed $3.6 billion to federal coffers in 2016. That’s not much less than some states where residents do pay income tax: Vermont and Wyoming paid $4.5 billion in federal taxes that same year. Also, it is important to note that while they fully pay for Medicare, they do not get the same level of benefits that other Americans do.
  12. The Jones Act of 1920 is an archaic shipping law that has made goods cost up to 50% more in Puerto Rico than in the US and neighboring islands, thereby greatly driving up the cost of living.
  13. Puerto Rico has the highest unemployment rate and poverty rate in the nation. Unemployment is 11.5%. The poverty rate is 45%, which is nearly double that of the most impoverished state, Mississippi.
  14. Puerto Rico has struggled for years with an ever mounting debt crisis and essentially declared bankruptcy in May 2017 and is working with Congress to restructure debt that exceeds 120 billion.  
  15. In June 2017, Congress passed a law known as PROMESA, establishing a Control Board over the Puerto Rico Government. It has broad sovereign powers to effectively overrule decisions by Puerto Rico’s legislature, governor, and other public authorities.
  16. Puerto Rico has lost about 10% of its population, or 446,000 people, over the last decade due to the economic situation. And, now after the hurricane, many are fleeing the island for the U.S., especially to Florida.

My personal experience

I am a Virginian who lived, studied and worked in Puerto Rico. I studied Puerto Rican history and culture at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras and later worked in the State Department in San Juan. I fell in love with the island and coincidentally also fell in love with a Puerto Rican, who I later married.

Erick and I in Old San Juan

As Puerto Rico has been elevated to the national spotlight in this time of crisis, it has brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. It has put Puerto Rico on the tip of everyone’s tongue whether that be to share their solidarity and compassion or offer unwanted criticism about a place they literally know nothing about.

We have friends and family who have freely given money to help us send direct help to family, friends and others in Puerto Rico. We are so touched by their kindness and grateful for the help.

On the flip side, I have had to witness my husband seeing and experiencing racism in what he feels is a very personal attack on him, his family, his people and his homeland — certainly not for the first time, but definitely in a bigger, broader way and especially harsh during a time that you would hope everyone would extend tolerance and empathy.  

I constantly find that people don’t believe us when we tell them that he has experienced racism. So, here’s an example. A few years ago at a fancy company dinner, a new employee that my husband supervised, said, “It’s hard to believe that you are a Network Engineer — shouldn’t you be washing cars?” No, he was not joking and I wanted to lunge across the table at him. He not only felt it was ok to say it at all, but to say it to his superior and to say it in front of everyone sitting near us at a company dinner.

In this case, it came straight from the top when Trump told the Puerto Ricans that Maria was not a “real catastrophe,” then alluded to them being entitled and lazy and of course threw paper towels at them as if they were dogs to perform tricks. My typically easy-going, unflappable husband was visibly shaken and angry at this blatant display of treating Puerto Ricans as second class citizens.

We felt a collective shift in some people’s opinions and an erosion of compassion after Trump did and said all of these things.

Erick said to me, “People are treating us like we aren’t Americans.”

We have heard people say something like this: “The federal government has “given” Puerto Rico some amount of aid (doesn’t matter what) and so the islanders should just be thankful for what they get and that we don’t owe them anything.” This is not only morally wrong, but just plain incorrect and not in accordance with U.S. law.

Whether they are speaking from their heart or repeating some of the president’s sentiments, it matters little to my husband who upon hearing some of this, wells up with tears.  

We have heard people say, “they need to go to the grocery store and buy their own food.” I honestly can’t believe the ignorance and audactity of people to make these statements.

Let’s a paint a picture. You have lost all of your belongings in the flood. Your car was flooded and it is inoperable. You may have a neighbor with a car, but you would have to get gas. But wait, you need cash to get gas, and you probably need gas to go find a bank to get cash. See the conundrum? You have to find an ATM that is operable (it needs power!) and you have to wait in line. Not a typical line — we’re talking up to a mile long. Maybe you get lucky and get money out. So now you try to get to the gas station if you had enough gas to begin with and you wait all day.  Now, you have to make it to a store. You might not be able to due to the impassable conditions of the roads and lack of bridges. But, if you do get to a store, you wait in line all day to get in and may get turned away. If you do get in, there is likely nothing left or there never was to begin with. This is the reality of what may be possible in the city now, but not even close in the island.

It’s easy to sit over here in our high castles and judge, but what if this were your family in this situation? Well, guess what — it IS our family in that situation.

The response to the crisis

The federal response to the crisis in Puerto Rico has been extremely disappointing, inadequate and incongruous with other recovery efforts. The short version is that it’s been too little and too late. It has not had the same sense of urgency or sufficiency that we’ve seen in response to other natural disasters. Puerto Rico will likely never see the historic amount of aid that was promised to Florida and Texas. That doesn’t mean I am ungrateful for our military and others’ efforts.  It is an issue of leadership from the top.

Yes, the U.S. is responding with money, supplies, troops and equipment. I am thankful for each individual that is on the island working so hard. That is true. It is also true that many places and towns still remain unreached 20 days out. It is true that in many cases, when aid arrives, it is water for 2,000 people in a town of 40,000. For every photo of servicemen rappelling down a rope from a helicopter, there is also a photo of desperate people getting their drinking water from a river. Both are true, however the fact remains that the assistance remains inadequate.

Photo taken by my mother-in-law in Ciales, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is not asking for a handout, they are requesting money that is guaranteed to them by law and that they have paid into. The Stafford Act, which governs federal response to major disasters, says the government must provide help to Puerto Rico like it would to any other state. It doesn’t say that help should be based on the state’s economic situation. The difference is that states such as Florida or Texas don’t find themselves having to beg for basic rights promised to them.  

Puerto Ricans are helping themselves to the extent of doing everything in their power. I have seen countless stories of Puerto Ricans helping one another with no outside help and little to no resources. Like erecting a pulley system over a downed bridge in Utuado to help their stranded neighbors by sending them food and water in a basket over the river.  We shouldn’t expect for them to not need help during a time of such crisis. They do not command their own military. We are ONE country and they serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, which they obviously have no governing power over.

We must do better. Why? Because people are dying. There are double the amount of deaths from the aftermath of the hurricane than in the days immediately following the hurricane. Death toll has risen from 16 to 45 and growing rapidly. People are dying because of lack of oxygen, dialysis, other healthcare issues and now dying from leptospirosis, a bacterial infection most likely due to their water sources.

Puerto Rico’s nemesis

As for long-term recovery, the root of Puerto Rico’s economic downfall has a name –The Jones Act. It’s a colonial shakedown that has crippled the island in far-reaching ways.

Left in place, it will continue to greatly hinder the Puerto Rican economy and prevent long-term recovery efforts. The act is a 1920 protectionist law created to promote American shipping in the years after World War I. It requires that goods shipped from one American port to another be transported on a ship that is American-built, American-owned, and American-manned. That has resulted in making everything that Puerto Ricans buy unnecessarily expensive compared to items purchased in the U.S. or other Caribbean islands.

An example of the Jones Act in action: a ship containing cars coming from Asia comes in through the Panama Canal, passes by Puerto Rico, continues on to Florida, unloads, reloads onto another ship and then goes back to Puerto Rico. This results in cars costing 40% more on the island. Food in particular costs up to twice as much as it would on the mainland. Another example is that goods can be sent from the U.S. to other islands, like Jamaica, and end up costing Jamaicans half as much as Puerto Ricans would pay. Seems ridiculous, right?

One interesting aspect of the Jones Act is that the neighboring territory of the Virgin Islands is not subject to these devastating shipping laws. Doesn’t seem fair.

A 2010 study at the University of Puerto Rico concluded that the island lost $537 million per year as a result of the Jones Act. It’s no wonder the island has been in a recession for 11 straight years.

U.S. shipping lines that benefit from the law have fought successfully to keep it in place and not surprisingly are represented by powerful lobbying groups. After public backlash, the president did end up waiving The Jones Act for ten days, but that ended on October 8th. Senator John McCain has proposed a bill in Congress to permanently retire the Jones Act restrictions on Puerto Rico.

Let’s be honest — Puerto Rico is a colony. Territory is just a more palatable name. Puerto Ricans themselves are torn on their political status — some want to keep things as is, some want to become a state and some want to become independent. There have been five non-binding referendum votes. Referendums held in 1967, 1993 and 1998 reaffirmed Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status. In 2012, a majority of residents indicated their preferred choice was independence over statehood. And, most recently in June 2017, there was a referendum where the majority who voted indicated that they would like to become a state, however there was extremely low voter turnout at 22% due to a boycott by some of the political parties. Ultimately, the government and people of Puerto Rico are powerless when it comes to their political status, regardless of what they want, as any change would come from Congress alone.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of Puerto Ricans want change now– whether that is in the form of becoming a full-fledged state with all of the rights and benefits that it entails, or cutting ties all together to finally control their own destiny.

It’s not fair

It’s just not fair for Puerto Rico. The U.S. has put them in a no-win situation. We annexed the island for military and economic benefits without granting them statehood. We have strangled them with this ridiculous shipping law. They have no control over major policies that hamper their efforts to compete and succeed. They have no vote in Congress, nor can they vote for the president who controls them. They literally have no voice, no choice and no power.

Our generation is not responsible for setting them up for failure, but we must be the ones to now give them a fighting chance and to right this wrong.  

Take action

If you are moved to take action, here are some things you can do:

  1. Call your two senators and ask them co-sponsor Senator McCain’s legislation (S.1894) to exempt Puerto Rico permanently from the Jones Act. Also, ask them to request and approve aid packages for Puerto Rico commensurate with what we have seen for Texas and Florida.
  2. Call your representative and tell them the Jones Act must go. Ask them what they can do. Also, ask them to request and approve aid packages for Puerto Rico commensurate with what we have seen for Texas and Florida.
  3. Find a good place to donate to. If you don’t know of one, my husband and I are taking donations to send direct aid to families on the island. You can follow our efforts here. You can also shop our Amazon list directly.

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  • Fred Cohen

    An accurate reflection with one really crucial situation…. the island has been bled dry by corrupt Liberal politicians that learned their trade from the U.S. Congress. As Forrest Gump aptly put it — Stupid Is As Stupid Does. I lived on St. Thomas in the U.S, Virgin Islands for 12-years and its governing legislative body of 16 Senators for only 105,000 people on 3 islands were careful taught to emulate the same U.S. Congress. The beautiful people of PR and WSVI deserve better but the people will need to make the necessary changes.