Welcome to “Commonwealth Zoo”
On July 19 an Associated Press report on substandard conditions at Puerto Rico’s only zoo was featured on the Drudge Report. Once again, more bad news about the U.S. territory known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico went viral on social media.
Unfortunately, these days most national news on Puerto Rico is about turmoil in the last large and heavily populated U.S. territory due to its bankruptcy. The AP and Drudge features on the desperate circumstances in Commonwealth Zoo was simply a “local color” focus piece illustrating the impact of bankruptcy in the territory.
Even encouraging reports that smash pop music hit “Despacito” revived the local tourist industry backfired. In the same news cycle reports appeared repudiating the hit song driven tourism revival reports. They were “fake news” generated by Puerto Rico’s tourism industry.
Fair or not, true or not, even people who don’t understand public bankruptcy and territorial political status got the message of the Commonwealth Zoo story. Readers formed a vivid picture in their minds of helpless captive animals languishing without adequate food, water, shelter and care in a derelict tropical zoo.
Across the nation and around the world people imagined a deplorable scene due to public insolvency in a U.S. territorial dependency under a failed client state regime.
It was not lost on observers of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy and related political status debate that the saga of Puerto Rico’s zoo is the perfect metaphor for the saga of the territory’s failed “commonwealth” regime of local government. There is a valid analogy between the island possession zoological crisis that endangers animals and the territory’s political and economic crisis that endangers the people of the territory.
It is ironic that two of the most widely read national media reports about the “Commonwealth Zoo” featured by Drudge Report and the AP focused on deteriorating conditions endangering animals trapped in zoological limbo. What about deteriorating economic conditions and political status limbo endangering the well-being of 3.4 million U.S. citizens in the territory?
Certainly reports of malnourished zoo creatures seem shocking, sad and unacceptable. But what about the breakdown of political cohesion as the “commonwealth” regime collapses and the social safety net for the most vulnerable human beings unravels in Puerto Rico?
U.S. Citizenship an “Endangered Species”
Puerto Rico is a domestic U.S. jurisdiction with a population of U.S. citizens larger than 20 states of the union. Yet, it is still governed under a 1952 territorial constitution with limited democratic political rights imposed by Congress.
Still, after 65 years under the undemocratic “commonwealth” regime the U.S. Congress has done little or nothing to manage the territory’s transition to a politically and economically stable and fully democratic future political status. Instead Congress has subsidized the “commonwealth”regime, impeding the path to statehood or even nationhood so Puerto Rico could compete on an equal footing in the U.S. or international marketplace.
Meanwhile millions of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico now are facing more than denial of the fruits of equal democratic freedom and economic opportunity we take for granted in the states. Today the risk of disease, unmet child nutrition needs, homelessness, poverty and a humanitarian health care crisis is mounting expotentially. All due to a state of political, economic and developmental arrest under the “commonwealth” regime created by the U.S. Congress.
Unlike captive animals in the zoo that are helpless unless rescued by humans, U.S. citizens in the ideological zoo and political jungle of the undemocratic “commonwealth” regime are rescuing themselves. Each of the last several years as many as 90,000 U.S. citizens fleeing “ commonwealth” have voted with their feet for statehood and equal rights by moving to the U.S. mainland.
The exodus of over 800,000 U.S. citizens seeking equal rights and opportunities under statehood may accelerate and decrease in cycles of the next few years. But the number of stateside Puerto Ricans will reach 1 million sooner than previously expected. More than that will come unless the political status of the territory is resolved so that economic recovery becomes possible.
The impact of this stampede from the ideological zoo of “commonwealth” for both the 50 states and the territory is only beginning to be understood. For example, those exercising the legal right to relocate to the 50 states are citizens who already pay in Puerto Rico the Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes Americans pay across the nation.
However, U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico receive far lower benefits under the “commonwealth” regime than they would in the 50 states. It is estimated that over 40% of Medicare eligible citizens leaving Puerto Rico for the states are doing so for access to 100% of benefits for which residents of the 50 states are eligible.
Suddenly the defenders of the status quo in Congress are waking up to the realization that the cost of Medicare and Social Security benefits for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico is less than in the states. Only too late has Congress realized the U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico fleeing “commonwealth” and relocating to the 50 states will add tens of billions in the years just ahead to federal and state budget costs.
Florida, New York, Illinois and a few other states will be most affected. In each of these states residents from Puerto Rico have become an important swing voter bloc.
That takes on added significance because the U.S. Congress now faces a “fiscal cliff” in 2018 that will impact all Americans from Puerto Rico nation wide. That is because even current less than equal Medicare funding for Puerto Rico in the federal budget expires in less than a year. If federal health care funds for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are reduced by more than 50%, the exodus of Medicare eligible citizens to the states will escalate dramatically.
When that happens federal territorial officials will not be so smug about the 1922 federal court ruling that dismissed discrimination against U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico as a feature of territorial status. In doing so the court observed in a cavalier tone that if citizens in the territory didn’t like less than equal rights they could simply “ …move into the continental United States…and enjoy every right of any other citizen.”
As the July 25 anniversary of the “commonwealth” territorial constitution nears, that is exactly what huge numbers of U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico are doing. Not because they prefer to leave their families and homeland behind, but compelled if not coerced by failed client state syndrome into which Puerto Rico is descending.
The ideological zoo and political jungle of the “commonwealth” regime has become unsafe for people desiring freedom and opportunity. All due to decades in which the U.S. Congress has abdicated its duty under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution to manage transition to a permanent and democratic status for U.S. territories populated by human beings, in this case U.S. citizens since 1917.
That means nationhood or statehood in Puerto Rico are the only options to end anti-democratic zoo-like conditions there under the “commonwealth” regime. Since the local population has had U.S. citizenship for a century, and in 2012 and 2017 has exercised the right of democratic self-determination in favor of statehood, failure to resolve the status question democratically can have only one result, which is accelerated exodus to the mainland.
That will leave Puerto Rico what a former U.S. Senator once termed “a tropical Bleak House” when referring to the prospects for small island territories in the Pacific. To inform voters in the territory and mainland about how to avoid that result, an immediate commitment to imperatives for democratic self-determination leading to statehood or nationhood must be undertaken by Congress without delay.
Reality Based Solutions
The U.S. has three choices.
Congress can maintain Puerto Rico as a failed client state with a subordinate class of citizenship. It can be a generous and benevolent colonial regime, but Puerto Rico will never succeed without domestic and international empowerment that comes only from being a state or a nation.
Congress can unilaterally declare Puerto Rico’s future to be independence and begin to phase out U.S. sovereignty, nationality and citizenship. Terms for succession of sovereignty would be complicated only if a treaty of free association is negotiated to govern the transition process, but Puerto Rico would have little leverage on the terms.
Congress can base its status resolution policy on self-determination, and adopt a national political and legal framework for traction to statehood. In that context, the national law on health care, taxation and funding will apply in Puerto Rico. U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico will get the same answers to that and all questions on every federal issue as citizens in the states.
Only statehood on equal footing with other states will allow Puerto Rico to realize its economic potential and pay its own way in the union. That’s how it works under the U.S. Constitution.