Puerto Rico is in crisis. Yet, I hear from Boricuas on and off the island that the issues are the same as they have always been since the United States acquired Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War. It resembles the crises of many American cities, albeit intensified by natural disaster. The political situation is infested with corruption; it is seasoned with a deep loathing for the second-class legal status accorded Puerto Ricans by the United States; and it is energized by the emerging possibilities in the wake of the collapse of Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s failure as Governor as well as his administration’s actions. There are also issues from prior Governors and their respective administrations that have not been addressed.
Corruption has always been central to any conversation about Puerto Rican politics. From the understaffed and overworked police force to the politicians who run the legislative and executive branches of government, the government has never been in a position to address these issues. Moreover, Puerto Rico has been in a recession for decades, due largely to the Jones Act, according to many commentators. Passed in 1917, this law required Puerto Ricans to purchase goods from American-made ships with American crews. Instead of going to the island directly, merchandise is redirected to ports in the United States, unloaded from foreign ships, transferred onto American vessels, and then they are shipped to the island. Thus, businesses have to pay more for the same goods they would have been able to order straight from international sources. This has had an immense economic impact, as virtually everything not indigenous to the island must be imported. This hurts entrepreneurs on the island while the American government that lauds free markets does nothing to change the law. And because Puerto Rico is not a state, its citizens do not have a voice within the U.S. Congress to change this law. They are at the mercy of the American government.
“Then why do they not apply for statehood?” my friends and colleagues often ask. The answer is simple: they can’t. In order to achieve statehood, Puerto Rico must ratify a state constitution and apply to the U.S. Congress. The polarized politics in Congress virtually guarantee that the debate would take place along party lines, with lawmakers prioritizing party interests. How likely is it that Republicans would support the admission of a state almost guaranteed to vote blue? At the end of the day, one of the biggest barriers to Puerto Rico statehood is not the politics of the island, but the politics of the mainland. Puerto Rico’s status will likely remain as a Commonwealth territory for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, the only political avenue open to Puerto Ricans is their own legislative assembly and government institutions, and these have been compromised by the island’s history of corruption. Those millions of Puerto Ricans who have emigrated to the mainland could, in theory, prove to be effective advocates for the island’s interests on the American political scene – and many are – but while they remain attached to Puerto Rico, they have little confidence in its government institutions. Many view faith in the government as ignorant and because of the issues being ignored election year after election year, as Puerto Ricans flee to different parts of the United States, faith remains a pipedream in itself..
Matters were no different under the Rosselló administration. The difference between this disaster to the previous ones is only in how technologies like social media exposed the government and mobilized opposition and resistance. Puerto Ricans quickly organized after the revelation of Rosselló’s text messages to various members of government complaining about his own citizens. From a psychoanalytical perspective, the people of Puerto Rico have reacted not only in a rebellion against a figurative father in the guise of their governor, but also with anger at the Other that divides a collective identity of Puerto Ricans in the world. We are proud Americans, but we are prouder Boricuas – just as a Texan will forever love Texas and have certain ideas about what it means to be Texan. Rosselló’s successor should take note.
The question remains if the precarious political balance between Puerto Rico’s main political parties – the New Progressive Party (PNP), the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) – will persist. PNP are for statehood, PPD are for the status quo, and the PIP are for independence. If one party is under-represented in politics, one of the others will push back as their plans are usually against one another and they hardly can come to an agreement over statehood and independence. Should the balance shift, and PNP loses influence because of the governor’s texting scandal, then the U.S. government would likely seek to contain the damage. And there could be significant uncertainty if the PIP gains traction in the current situation.
How would the Trump administration, as well as the U.S. Congress, respond if the PIP have their way? What would this mean for the question of Puerto Rican citizenship? There are those who, like myself, were born on the island, yet immigrated to the U.S. mainland in very much the same way as many Latin Americans immigrants have. The only difference is that for the moment Puerto Ricans are legally U.S. citizens. We can travel freely without a passport. But in the event of independence, would those on the island lose their citizenship? Would those born in the United States be considered Dreamers? Would those living within the United States with their own lives, fluent in both Spanish and English, be allowed to continue living their lives in the United States? How would the military react to Puerto Ricans already serving the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard?
Even if the status quo continues, questions remain. Would it lead to agitation for greater autonomy that would allow the island to mend its own wounds and repeal old laws? We can continue asking these questions relevant to the political situation but there’s one that rears its head every election cycle, regardless of issues, that is hardly addressed in American Congressional and Senatorial hearings: What can be done to empower the populace of the island to recover?
The tourist areas have recovered well in the aftermath. Those still suffering offer little in the way of tourist endeavors; they are mostly pueblos nestled in the rainforest, or ordinary cities and towns away from the more touristed parts of the island that would be of little interest to investors funds allocated to their recovery. Some have mom-and-pop shops fueling their local economies, they have a look and feel as small town America except you hear Salsa, Reggaeton, and the fast, clipped Spanish of the unique Puerto Rican dialect.
The current political crisis is only the latest in a long history of protests against corruption. From education secretaries pocketing funds, to rumors of governmental policies being fueled by bribes, this is a story with a long history. Rosselló, who is widely loathed for his handling of emergency supplies sent to the Commonwealth after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the messages sent within his administration leading to his resignation, replaced Padilla, who was accused of nepotism (one of his relatives was given a directorship of the commonwealth’s Medicaid program and was convicted). Prior to Padilla, Fortuno worked towards statehood with the U.S. Republican Party under a Republican initiative, while at the same time laying off 30,000 government workers, closing schools, reducing pension benefits, hiking gas and sales taxes, and raising tuition at the university. To this day, there is no accounting of the $9 billion dollars that were spent under his watch. The list goes on from one governor to the next.
There is hope that, this time, things will be different. However, Rosselló’s likely successor, Wanda Vazquez Garced, is also under investigation. Should she become the governor, I have to wonder how long her administration will last. Will it be a break from the cycle of scandals, and the beginning of a new era for Puerto Rico, the status quo under a new mask?