The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. has earned the respect of the nation and the world as a think tank. The CSIS has been non-partisan and impartial in recognizing the addressing the national interest as well as local and regional interest in Puerto Rico’s progress toward political and economic success.
Thus, it was significant that CSIS published the 2007 authoritative book by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh on the historical and constitutional context for resolution of the territory’s political status. Then in 2014 the head of the America’s Program at CSIS wrote the foreword to a CSIS report entitled “Why Puerto Rico’s Economy Matters for U.S. Security,” authored by Jose Villamil, a respected economist and adviser to the local territorial government.
Given this record of CSIS commitment to serious discourse on the trajectory of Puerto Rico’s social, political and economic development, in August of 2015 the significance of the moment was not lost on anyone knowledgeable on the island’s affairs when Meacham published an update on Puerto Rico, in which he stated:
“It may be time to reconsider Puerto Rico’s status, and, if Puerto Ricans prefer so, make the island the fifty-first state.”
It was in the context of the fiscal implosion of the “commonwealth” model of territorial administration that Meacham’s update in 2015 now has moved away from the ambivalence about the importance of status resolution to economic recovery. This recognition by Meacham that “commonwealth” has brought Puerto Rico to the brink of failed client state syndrome is particularly meaningful given the ambiguous treatment of uncertainty about political status as an economic factor in the territory’s underperforming economy in the 2014 report by Villamil for which Meacham wrote the foreword.
CSIS does not necessarily adopt positions taken by authors in its publications, but the decision of CSIS to publish a book on Puerto Rico by Thornburgh in 2007 and an economic report by Villamil in 2014, with a foreword by Meacham, bespeaks CSIS judgment that these publications are both credible and important. In that context, then, Meacham’s 2015 update recognizing the economic efficacy of statehood clearly reflects CSIS commitment to fully informed discourse on the issues.
While certainly welcome, for statehood supporters, Meacham’s independent conclusions really open up and begin the discussion that needs to take place on the relationship of economics and political status resolution.
For example, the pro-statehood movement in Puerto Rico long has asserted that statehood historically has been the engine for all territories with U.S. citizen populations to realize full potential for prosperity and converge with the U.S. national economy. Thus, the otherwise authoritative 2014 report by Villamil was critiqued by statehood supporters for understating the economic benefits of statehood as a permanent constitutionally defined political status.
Similarly, Meacham’s update in August of 2015 recognizing that the uniformity and equality that comes with statehood is economically as well as politically normative confirms the pro-statehood narrative going back 90 years. But in both his foreword to the 2014 study from Villamil and the 2015 update quoted above, Meacham makes two assertions that are robustly rejected by supporters of statehood.
First, Meacham states that elimination in over the decade from 1996 to 2006 of federal tax shelters created in the mid-1970’s explains Puerto Rico’s economic woes. Yet, as the 2014 paper by Villamil recognized, the current fiscal crisis is due to structural economic problems deeper and more complex than the effects of federal tax shelter policy, which proved politically unsustainable in Congress as other territories understandably demanded access to similar fiscal gimmicks.
Secondly, Meacham states that the 2012 vote shows the island remains evenly divided on status. That is simply wrong, which is why a sound legal and political defense of the 2012 vote results as a valid act of self-determination is now both imperative and timely.
The real meaning of the 2012 vote is that history calls on America to end the political purgatory of “commonwealth.” The recent statement by Meacham is important as it relates to the economic upside of status resolution and statehood if chosen by the people. But his failure to understand that the migration from the island coupled with the 61% vote for statehood in 2012 is historically transformational proves one truism:
Self-determination is too important to be left to economists!