Territory’s Loss of Military Hurt Recovery
Hurricane Maria catastrophically disrupted social, political and economic order in Puerto Rico. Cool-headed leadership was needed to control panic and reassure people their government understood the community’s desperation and extreme human need.
History will judge if San Juan’s municipal mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz made a wise choice when she declared that federal logistical inefficiency was killing people. To millions she was crying for help to save her people when she said, “We’re dying!”.
For millions who saw it differently, Yulin Cruz took a political cheap shot at federal agencies delivering thousands of helping hands and billions in relief as fast as humanly possible. Governor Rossello and Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, the congressional representative from Puerto Rico, praised federal relief efforts. Rossello is a Democrat, and Gonzalez-Colon, the Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico is a Republican, so this is not a partisan issue. Which strategy is more effective for helping Puerto Rico now and in the future?
Former Attorney General of Puerto Rico José Fuentes and CNN commentator Maria Cardona took opposite sides on that question in the CNN segment on the subject. Watch the video for more details.
What’s known now is that over a decade ago the anti-statehood political parties in Puerto Rico in which mayor Yulin Cruz is a leader were at the forefront of protests stridently demanding closure of a U.S. military base in Puerto Rico. That unexpectedly led to island-wide base closures that arguably crippled the logistical and humanitarian relief capabilities of the federal government in Puerto Rico, including help that could have been critical in the hours after Maria struck.
U.S. military presence could have made a difference.
If the Roosevelt Roads Navy Base were still open, federal recovery support in Puerto Rico might have been closer. Americans can count on solid support from the military during emergencies in the 50 states. If Puerto Rico’s early federal response was less efficient than Texas and Florida, one factor was the lack of military presence. In the states, the U.S. military contributes resources and manpower to emergency readiness in local communities near bases, and statewide as well. The Department of Defense has made an enormous difference in Puerto Rico — but it took time to get that help to the Island.
The Roosevelt Roads Navy Base was a large military complex compared to most American military installations in the 50 states and overseas. It reportedly contributed an annual $300 million and 6,000 steady jobs which were lost to the local economy when it was shut down.
The loss of that federal military presence in 2004 also contributed to the economic contraction leading to Puerto Rico’s financial hurricanes before Irma and Maria. The mayor and her party blame the fiscal meltdown of the “commonwealth” on Washington, without assigning any local responsibility.
Yulin Cruz refuses to recognize that the anti-statehood “commonwealth” regime’s eventual insolvency was partly self-inflicted. A pillar of the anti-statehood “autonomy” party platform was dependence on federal “corporate welfare” tax shelters in Puerto Rico.
Those local and federal tax concession devices were corruptly abused by Wall Street syndicates to evade billions in tax liabilities annually. Yet, the tax scams the anti-statehood “autonomy” party defended did not produce proportional benefits to the local economy. Multi-national corporations washed profits through Puerto Rico without providing jobs or even significant tax dollars for the territory government.
Because reliance on those tax haven schemes prevented development of a more diversified and sustainable local economy, federal tax gimmicks in the territory were ended under a 1996 agreement between President Clinton and U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Military Base Closures and Political Status Limbo Linked
Although the accidental death of a civilian military base contractor employee during training of U.S. troops was the flashpoint, local support for closure of the accident site training facility really expressed frustration with a century of U.S. territory status. That includes denial of equal rights of U.S. national citizenship – starting with voting rights in federal elections that come only with admission to the union as a state.
That legacy of less than democratic status and equal rights made the political symbolism of a base closure politically irresistible. Even the most patriotic pro-statehood citizens realized U.S. operations on the island would not be allowed in a state, taking local citizens for granted, denying equal rights while imposing undue burdens.
Too few realized, however, that closing the training facility where the accident occurred and support operations for its mission at other facilities in Puerto Rico would end Pentagon and Congressional military budget support for all other major military installations in the territory.
Revealing the true colors and patriotism of citizens who love their country even if denied equality, the 3.5 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico still volunteer and serve in the U.S. armed forces at a per capita rate higher than most of the 50 states.
Yet even among the most patriotic citizens in Puerto Rico, the denial of equal citizenship when they return home to the territory is politically toxic and bitterly poisons the civic culture, just as it did in territories like Tennessee, Louisiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii before they gained statehood.
Congress needs to re-learn the history of the 32 territories that became states, admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state, and re-establish a necessary military presence at the southeastern-most border of our nation.