February 21. 2024. 6:45

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After hurricanes, earthquakes, financial crises and mass emigration, Puerto Rico contemplates its future

At the large retail and entertainment complex near the convention centre in San Juan, fans are preparing for that most American of festivals, the Super Bowl.

On the green artificial grass in the central courtyard, groups sit in red chairs in front of a giant screen while waiting staff ferry beer and food from the surrounding bars.

Apart from the 80-degree heat, it could be anywhere in the United States on Super Bowl Sunday, a day when much of the country essentially shuts down for the football game.

But Puerto Rico from a political perspective is not like most other parts of the United States. It is a territory, not a state.

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Puerto Ricans are US citizens. However, they lack full congressional representation in Washington. A single member of the US House of Representatives, known as the resident commissioner, represents the island’s interests but has no voting power. Puerto Rico has no senators and inhabitants have no vote in presidential elections.

Some advocates contend Puerto Ricans have a “second class of American citizenship”.

The political future of Puerto Rico has been hotly debated for decades. Opinion has been divided between those who wanted to retain the existing arrangements for governing locally – known as commonwealth status; those who preferred full integration with the island becoming the 51st state of the union; and a smaller number who believed there should be total independence.

Events over recent years would seem to be bringing this argument to a head.

Puerto Rico has been ravaged by economic problems and hit by natural disasters including two hurricanes, an earthquake as well as the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year the Center for Foreign Relations in Washington described the island as “a US territory in crisis”.

To deal with the island’s $70 billion (€66.2 billion) debt crisis, the Obama administration drew up a recovery plan, including the appointment of a financial oversight management board which, critically, had control over Puerto Rico’s finances rather than the island’s politicians.

The old argument that existing arrangements allowed the island essentially to govern itself was significantly undermined.

Last December the US House of Representatives backed moves to allow Puerto Ricans to vote on three options for their future. These were: becoming a full state of the US; independence; or an arrangement that would leave Puerto Rico with sovereignty but ceding control to Washington over areas such as foreign relations and defence.

The one thing off the table under reform proposals backed by the White House, the Democratic Party and some Republicans, was the status quo.

The proposal was never considered by the US Senate and will have to start all over again under the new Congress. However, the exclusion of the existing arrangements is considered to be a significant milestone in the debate over the political future of Puerto Rico.

Political paradox

Sixteen hundred kilometres from Miami, Puerto Rico has been described as a political paradox. It has been a US possession for nearly 125 years. Its people have citizenship and can move freely to and from the mainland US but do not have full political representation in Washington.

It has had a nationalist movement with a militant wing on occasions. In November 1950, two nationalists attempted to assassinate the then president Harry Truman, while there were bombings on the mainland in the 1970s and 80s.

There is wealth here. The road from the airport is wide; the palm trees and the high-rise buildings could be mistaken for Florida; San Juan is a hub for cruise ships plying the Caribbean and its main airport is one of the busiest in the region. Private jets can be seen regularly roaring into the sky while the marina is full of private boats.

On the other hand, there is poverty and the population has fallen precipitously over recent years. If Puerto Rico was a state, it would be by far the poorest in the US.

And in some places houses still have blue tarpaulins instead of the roofs that were blown off by two hurricanes in recent years.

Leaving the island

Ricardo Marrero Passapera tells of seeing many friends and contemporaries leaving Puerto Rico to move to the US.

His girlfriend, who is a lawyer, now lives in Washington.

The population of the island has declined by nearly 12 per cent in a decade, the US Census Bureau said in 2021.

Marrero Passapera says it is the young and the professionals who are departing, leaving older people behind on the island.

“They have made a decision to leave the island for better opportunities.

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“The quality of living in Puerto Rico is not the same as the United States and it is very difficult to start growing a professional career in Puerto Rico, as right now we do not have the opportunity to find jobs with the same salary as the United States and the cost of living is very high.”

He says if the US Congress does not take a decision on the political future of Puerto Rico to allow it to have equality with the mainland US or to become independent, problems on the island will get worse.

He says high inflation is compounded by low incomes. He adds there is no real urban transportation system, which means that many families have to buy a car if they want to travel for jobs, but some cannot afford to do so.

Fr Enrique Camacho, director of the aid agency Caritas Puerto Rico – a sister organisation to Trócaire in Ireland – says the island is much poorer than Mississippi – the poorest state on the mainland.

The Center for Foreign Relations report last year said the island’s average household income was about a third of that of the US average and its poverty rate was more than twice that of Mississippi.

Fr Camacho says the financial oversight board was “very strict in the control of funds”. He maintains there were fewer opportunities for government companies to raise salaries.

“In the last 10 years, we have lost almost one million people because they moved to the US, they have more opportunities.With the same job and less hours, they receive more money.

“Doctors, architects, lawyers, here they have to work in three places at the same time – but if they go to the mainland they receive double for less hours.

“So it is difficult to get an appointment for a specialist; we don’t have enough people to work in construction; we don’t have enough policemen. They don’t have to get a visa to move to the mainland.

“The other problem is that as young people have left there are a lot of old people alone – the families are not here, it is really complex.”

The answer for some is integration, for others it is independence.

George Laws Garcia is executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, a non-profit body seeking for the island to become a US state.

He says “democracy is incomplete without statehood”.

He maintains that the most immediate and tangible benefit of statehood for the average person would be “the equal application of federal tax laws and programmes”.

He says it would boost access to health coverage programmes such as Medicaid.

“The amount of power that any given senator wields and the capacity they have to direct resources to the jurisdiction they represent is huge in the US.

“If Puerto Rico had two senators they would hold an equal amount of power as any other senator in the US and that means being able to get more federal contracts directed at Puerto Rico.”

He suggests statehood could bring convergence between the island’s economic growth rate and that of the US as a whole.

“That would be a game-changer for Puerto Rico because it would allow for a lot more economic opportunities, good-paying jobs and a lot more certainty in Puerto Rico’s future, especially for business people to invest in the island. Right now if you invest in Puerto Rico you always have to take into account a political risk that the island could get treated unequally by the federal government at some senator’s or representative’s whim. And then there is even the worse political risk that Puerto Rico could vote for independence and then you could be at risk of becoming a Dominican Republic in a best-case scenario or a Cuba or Venezuela in a worse-case scenario.”

Traditionally, support for full independence has been small but it has been growing. The pro-independence party in Puerto Rico won nearly 14 per cent in the 2020 election for governor compared with two per cent in 2016.

Independence

Raúl Santiago Bartolomei, an assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico, backs independence. He says the idea is becoming popular with younger people.

“In the past different ruling parties in Puerto Rico – with the help of the federal government in different areas – have conveyed the idea to the general public that independence is somehow akin to communism, that it has echoes in Cuba. Many of these political monsters are used to scare people. I think that for younger voters that have grown much more detached from those years. That type of discourse doesn’t find any echo with them.

“It was heavily repressed both by the local ruling parties in Puerto Rico and by the US government, particularly the FBI. It was heavily criminalised and they kept surveillance in those years on many pro-independence advocates.”

He accepts that many support statehood as it brings with it a degree of certainty.

“At least you know how things might work under the US and there is some comfort in that.”

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He says in today’s Puerto Rico, the path of violence to achieve independence is not contemplated as it was by some 40 or 50 years ago. “Times are very different.”

So what will happen next after the Bill to establish a referendum on the future did not proceed through the Senate?

US president Joe Biden has backed statehood.

His predecessor Donald Trump opposed any such move; on one occasion suggesting it would lead to more Democrats being elected to Congress.

Some influential figures believe there cannot just be a return to years of infighting about the future. Some believe that the appointment of the financial oversight board changed the political dynamic fundamentally.

Oversight

Christina Ponsa-Kraus is originally from Puerto Rico and is now professor of constitutional law and American legal history at Columbia Law School in New York.

She was one of the proposers of the legislation passed in the House last December on the future options for Puerto Rico.

She says that for 70 years after the island became a commonwealth with its own local government, there had been arguments about its political future.

One political party supported the status quo with perhaps some improvements, another backed statehood and a third was in favour of independence.

However, she argues that the appointment of the board undermined the idea the island had a compact with the US government to essentially run its own affairs locally – the concept which underpinned the commonwealth arrangement.

She says the board was given very broad powers including authority to review, approve and reject budgets and to tell the governor what to do in certain circumstances.

“In other words, Congress did exactly what the opponents of commonwealth status said it could do – it stripped Puerto Rico substantially of its local self government. We still have an elected governor and legislature but there is the board overseeing the whole thing.”

She contends that following the appointment of the oversight board, the debate over the compact guaranteeing local government is basically over.

Ponsa-Kraus maintains that in the absence of the existing commonwealth arrangement the options for the future boil down to statehood, independence and free association – although there are some who argue the local government compact could be resurrected through an amendment to the US constitution.

Free association would involve Puerto Rico securing sovereignty but ceding key powers to Washington in areas such as defence.

She says the downside of free association is that either side can drop out at any stage and there are fears this could potentially place in jeopardy Puerto Ricans’ right to US citizenship and residency at some point.

She says polling indicates that when the commonwealth arrangement is off the table, a majority want Puerto Rico to become a state.

“Some just want statehood. Those who do not love the idea of statehood, still prefer it over independence and most prefer it over free association as they are afraid of the association coming to an end.”

Ponsa-Kraus believes the Bill passed by the House in December setting out a referendum on the three options will provide a template for the future. However, it will involve the measure being reintroduced in Congress and fought over once again.