Misunderstanding Puerto Rico

Even when appearing neutral, reporting that reflects media bias distorts the nation’s real choices on Puerto Rico’s political status

Ever wonder why so many Americans reveal ignorance and spout revisionist history when the subject of Puerto Rico’s future comes up? Here’s a case study on how and why the political narrative on Washington’s anachronistic policies in Puerto Rico is so uninformed and at odds with American values.

The Orange County Register is a venerable newspaper serving the bustling urban – and increasingly metropolitan – region between Los Angeles and San Diego. In its May 7 edition, OCR’s editorial board asked readers “Should Puerto Rico become a new state?” (Register May 7).

The piece began with a list of “what we know” about Puerto Rico, focusing primarily on the hurricane and recovery efforts. “But would any of these issues be helped if the island territory were instead elevated to full statehood?” the writer then asked. “That’s our question of the week for readers.”

The skewed political and economic equities articulated by OCR inevitably elicited a spate of one-sided letters from readers opposing statehood.  The OCR invitation for reader comments began with a callously cavalier and dehumanizing characterization framing reader perception of natural disasters inflicting death and destruction from which Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover.

OCR blithely observes “we all know Puerto Ricans” were “blown about” by Hurricane Maria. Harvard’s School Public Health just released a study reporting social cohesion remains so disrupted by that catastrophic natural disaster deaths have been grossly under-reported, estimating a more accurate total of more than 4,000 fatalities. “Blown about,” really? So I guess we could say “New Yorkers” really had to “scurry about” about when those WTC towers came down on 9/11 and over 3,000 died.

As if being erudite and detached, OCR observes “long term financial mismanagement by its own local leaders…contributed to infrastructure problems” making the storm even more lethal. As if that made the answer obvious, with a wink OCR asks if statehood really would have helped Puerto Rico at all.

Puerto Rico is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware, comparable to Connecticut. Since it is home to 3.5 million U.S. citizens, as a state it would have more voting members in Congress than 20 current states.

Is there really any question if it were a state the federal response would have been comparable to what followed after the same two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico made landfall in Texas and Florida?  If Puerto Rico had proportional representation in Congress and the Electoral College do you think Washington would have reacted to Puerto Rico’s suffering with less curiosity and more concern?

States have one Congress member for every 500,000 residents. Puerto Rico has just one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives for a population that in recent years approached 4 million U.S. citizens. That was before recent events causing over 100,000 to join the exodus of those voting for statehood with their feet by moving to the 50 states.

Not only does Puerto Rico also have no presidential vote or a two member delegation in the U.S. Senate, powerful Congressional committee leaders control federal spending on infrastructure and development in the last large American island territory. Local leaders have limited powers over purely local matters not otherwise determined by Congress. The “commonwealth” regime of local territorial government that went bankrupt in 2015 was propped by unsustainable federal tax shelters for mainland corporations in states that unlike Puerto Rico are fully represented in Congress.

Residents of Puerto Rico pay billions in federal payroll and income tax on off-island earnings, and high local taxes imposed by the “commonwealth” regime. Since the “commonwealth” regime is a surrogate for Congress, its taxes are surrogate federal taxation. For six decades Congress simply has looked the other way while diversion of federal funding for “state-like” standard of living left no resources to harden infrastructure up to state standards.

The “commonwealth” territory regime was going bankrupt before the hurricane. That’s why a 78% percent voter turnout in a 2012 referendum resulted in a 54% majority to end “commonwealth” and territorial status. On a separate ballot question 61% voted for statehood over separate nationhood. OCR misses entirely the meaning of 23% voters turn out for a 2017 vote approving statehood again over other options by 97%. That reflected the reality that – local politics aside – the future status issue had been decided in 2012.

OCR observes Puerto Rico “citizens” serve in the U.S. military, but the people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, not citizens of a separate nation.  So it is based on allegiance to and citizenship of our nation that ethnic Puerto Ricans serve in the U.S. military at a rate higher than our fellow Americans in most states.  Returning home, they do not get to vote for representation in Congress or the Electoral College, because our Constitution limits federal voting rights to voters in a state.

Puerto Rico is more integrated into the U.S. political, economic, social and legal system of our nation than most of the 32 territories that have become states. The percentage of English speaking fellow Americans in Puerto Rico is higher than Louisiana or New Mexico when those territories became states.

The “commonwealth” regime of territorial government created by Congress in 1950 was a failed experiment in “autonomy” without accountability. That is why the “commonwealth” constitution has been suspended as needed to restore fiscal order.

Puerto Rico is America’s last large and heavily populated territory. Statehood is the only model of a political economy that allows citizens to compete on an equal footing, pay their way in the union, and sink or swim with the nation as a whole.

It is the status quo that will require tens of billions annually in federal taxpayer subsidization in perpetuity. That’s why if Puerto Rico is not going to be put on a path to future statehood when it is ready, it needs to be put on a path to separate nationhood.

Author Howard Hills served as senior counsel on territorial policy in the Executive Office of the President and National Security Council in the Reagan Administration. President Reagan supported statehood for Puerto Rico, predicted the failure of the “commonwealth” regime.

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