Saga of depopulation impacts one-time home of anti-colonial people power
Despair’s Ground Zero
Puerto Rico’s interior city of Lares is the metaphoric cradle of the island’s historical people power movement against colonial rule. It was the site of a long overdue 1868 uprising against the tyranny endured over more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule.
Ironically, the place where Puerto Ricans once finally stood their ground against centuries of slavery and often brutal repression under Spanish rule is now being left behind by its own people. Lares is being abandoned at an alarming rate by its native-born sons and daughters.
Locals once held on to their way of life, valuing its heritage. Now local residents are seeking to escape catastrophic collapse of the current “commonwealth” regime for “autonomous” home rule.
The sudden 21st century diaspora by people fleeing the collapse of a failed U.S. territorial client state regime in Puerto Rico is an island-wide seismic demographic shift. Tragically, however, Lares is the city losing more of its people, including many young, educated citizens, than any other community in Puerto Rico.
Once people from the island’s interior with aspirations for a better life moved to one of the larger coastal cities. Now many of the people evacuating Lares are seeking equal rights and opportunity by moving to one of the 50 states.
And it is not just the young who are leaving Lares. A diverse cross-section of up to 25% of the local population has joined the exodus of modern day Puerto Ricans leaving their cultural homeland, many if not most to live in a state of the union.
“Commonwealth” Regime Implodes
The depopulation of Lares as part of the out-migration to the mainland is caused by economic fatigue and political exhaustion under the “commonwealth” system of local civil government. It was supposed to combine features of statehood and nationhood in a “best of both worlds” status.
Instead, denial of the equal rights and opportunities of either statehood or nationhood under the so-called “commonwealth” experiment has become a “worst of both worlds.” It has produced a condition of political and economic status limbo, as well as developmental arrest.
The self-determination process in Puerto Rico for choosing between statehood, nationhood or more of the same under “commonwealth” has persisted since WWII. Statehood is now favored by majority rule in the territory.
Congress and the local political parties are still jousting over the terms and timing for historically normative transition to statehood. Meanwhile the 3.5 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico who are no longer willing to wait are voting with their feet for statehood by moving to an existing state.
Congress Embraces Judicial Imperialism
In the 1922 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Balzac v. Puerto Rico, the court’s opinion denied application of the U.S. Constitution by its own force in Puerto Rico even after U.S. citizenship had been granted by Congress.
This meant that instead of being an “incorporated territory” like Alaska and Hawaii based on conferral of U.S. citizenship, the court was giving Congress permission to govern the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico in the same manner as non-citizens in the “unincorporated territory” of the Philippine Islands were at that time.
For the first time in U.S. history a territory in which birthright U.S. citizenship was conferred by Congress under territorial law was classified as “unincorporated” by the court. What that means is that the U.S. Constitution applied and protected “fundamental rights” of U.S. citizenship only selectively if at all, as determined by Congress.
The unprecedented effect was that this “Balzac citizenship” in an unincorporated territory was not legally different than mere “national” status for non-citizenship in the Philippines.
Proving that the “U.S. citizenship” conferred by Congress and interpreted by the Balzac ruling was not constitutionally protected or equal to citizenship in the 50 states, the author of the court’s flawed and controversial ruling revealed more than intended by writing:
“It became a yearning of the Puerto Ricans to be American citizens and Congress gave them the boon…What additional rights did it give them? It enabled them to move into the continental United States…and enjoy every right of every other citizen.”
Reflecting the imperialist mentality of the times, the court actually thought it was being liberal and enlightened by ensuring millions of U.S. citizens denied equal rights of national citizenship could attain equality by relocating to a state.
As un-American and anti-democratic and discriminatory as that may be, that is exactly what many among the 25% of the population of Lares and 900,000 other U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico have done in the last decade.
Domestic Refugee Crisis Nears
Since citizens in Puerto Rico pay federal payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, they are eligible for full federal and state benefits in any state of the union. In Puerto Rico benefits are less than in the states, despite local payments of federal taxes for these programs.
That puts the “Balzac citizenship” and equality-by-relocation scenario in a new light perhaps not contemplated by the court in 1922.
For example, the current $123 billion unfunded obligations of the “commonwealth” regime and its resulting budgetary bankruptcy is driving Puerto Rico to a potentially catastrophic fiscal cliff due to an unsustainable Medicare funding shortage for the territory fast approaching a point of no return before 2019.
We’d like to believe a failed regime humanitarian disaster will not be allowed to come about, but given the current political dynamics in Washington the relocation for equal rights envisioned by the high court in 1922 may soon become a reality. If a new mass exodus does occur it could be not only for Medicare and Social Security refugees fleeing to the states, but all those unable to make a living as the economy shrinks more and sinks even deeper.
Failure to treat Puerto Rico like Alaska and Hawaii when those under developed incorporated territories were on the path to statehood in the 1950’s, or as an unincorporated territory on the path to independence like the Philippines in 1946, has resulted in a breakdown of America’s anti-colonial national purpose in its last large and populous territorial possession.
That national failure is careening toward a Medicare fiscal precipice, and could become an unprecedented domestic refugee crisis by 2019. The devastating impact of Hurricane Irma will only accelerate migration to the states, limited only by the availability of seats on commercial flights from San Juan to the mainland.
Transition from territorial status to statehood is the road to political stability approved in the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites on status. Only a stable permanent status will bring sustainable market driven rather than tax gimmick dependent investment and private sector led development.
Even more immediately, if Congress does not address the Medicare cliff in Puerto Rico the impact on Medicare budgets and health care costs in Florida and other states where refugees from Puerto Rico relocate will make the Supreme Court’s taunting in 1922 about mass migration for equal rights a lamentable self-fulfilling prophecy.