“Autonomy” Without Accountability Leads Puerto Rico To Brink
A perfect storm of adverse economic conditions and fiscal mismanagement led to the 2015 financial collapse of Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” regime for local territorial self-government. It is well-known several economically impactful events coincided that did not alone cause but contributed to meltdown and insolvency of the “commonwealth” system for local civil administration.
A major contributing factor was loss of 6,000 high paying jobs with good benefits when the U.S. military was forced by local opposition to end joint exercises at Vieques island. This led to closure of all major bases in the territory, ending annual military spending inputs for the local economy of $300 million.
Another contributing factor was phase out of federal tax credits for mainland corporations investing in the territory. Because tax benefits to giant companies based in the states were disproportionate to local economic benefits and job creation, in 1996 the Clinton administration agreed to a gradual termination of those tax shelter benefits over the ten year period ending in 2006.
However, the primary cause of fiscal and economic crisis in 2015 was the false promise of the “commonwealth” regime that it could sustain a “state-like” political status and standard of living, without seeking a commitment to future statehood from Congress. Instead, the “commonwealth” regime made promises for prosperity and redistribution of wealth that could not be kept without without borrowing more than it could afford to pay back.
Other U.S. territories have at times become sufficiently over-extended that the Office of Territorial Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has had to intervene to restore sound fiscal practices. Unlike other territorial governments put back on a track to supervised recovery by DOI, during the Cold War era Puerto Rico hired the best lobbyists money could buy to convince Congress and the White House to end DOI oversight of the territory fiscal policies.
It was during the Kennedy administration that Puerto Rico leaders and their lobbyists invoked the positive-sounding word “autonomy” to convince JFK to sign an executive order ending the role of the Office of Territories at DOI in the “commonwealth” regime’s fiscal and financial policies. That later enabled the “commonwealth” regime to undertake debt-driven expansion of government programs and services by floating bonds on Wall Street.
Instead of due diligence and good faith disclosures, local officials in the “commonwealth” party and Wall Street banks exploited the illusion that federal subsidization of the local government meant federal backing of the territory’s obligations. In 2015 investors holding Puerto Rico bonds found out that “autonomy without accountability” meant the only recourse on defaulted bonds was the insolvent local territorial government.
“Dependent Sovereign” Status Worse Than “Banana Republic”
The “commonwealth” party and the pro-independence faction in Puerto Rico are predominantly socialist. The “commonwealth” party espouses a nationalist ideology but opposes independence in order to retain U.S. citizenship and federal subsidization.
This doctrine of “autonomy” is really a scheme pretending to be a nation while remaining a territorial dependency. As such, “commonwealth” was instituted locally based on the false promise it guaranteed entitlement to redistribution of wealth from mainland society in the states to the island through federal subsidization.
In contrast to the “commonwealth” model of autonomy, the independence faction openly emulates and promises a socialist future based on the Castro model in Cuba. Although the independence party never gets even 5% of the vote or gains enough seats in the Legislative Assembly to control “commonwealth” regime policies, when the “commonwealth” party is in power it colludes with the independence faction to promote a separate “national” identity and recognition of Puerto Rico as a sovereign foreign “country.”
That’s why in 1986 the “commonwealth” regime misled the government of Japan into believing it could enter tax sparing treaties for Japanese companies investing in Puerto Rico. Secretary of State George Shultz had to intervene at the highest levels to inform an embarrassed Prime Minister that the GOJ had been duped into interference with U.S. domestic territorial affairs.
When the “commonwealth” party favoring “autonomy” was in power during the 1990’s, Puerto Rico sent envoys to South American capitals to seek “diplomatic” recognition. Secretary of State Colin Powell had to send classified cables to all U.S. embassies directing ambassadors to inform all nations in the hemisphere that the U.S. conducts foreign relations for all U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico.
False promises “commonwealth” ensured “state-like” standards of living led to failed experiments in sovereign autonomy, redistribution of capital wealth through the government, social collectivism and government ownership of the means of production. The “best of both worlds” ideology promising the best features of both statehood and nationhood left Puerto Rico far less prosperous than territories than became states.
Then came fiscal collapse and bankruptcy, followed by U.S. Supreme Court rulings and Congressional measures suspending the local “commonwealth” constitution as needed to restore fiscal order under the rule of law. JFK had been told ending the “paternalistic” role of the Department of Interior territorial office would promote autonomy. Abuse of that “autonomy” without accountability to the Department of Interior led to a far more paternalistic federal takeover of the “commonwealth” regime under the 2016 recovery act imposed by Congress and upheld by the federal courts.
Before federal intervention could impact much less reverse Puerto Rico’s flirtation with banana republic policies and practices, an atmospheric storm came out of the Atlantic and ended Puerto Rico as we knew it. Hurricane Maria finally brought Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” regime to its knees, ending the hubris, denial and ideological vanity of “commonwealth” party leaders and their “autonomy” ideology.
Now a hemispheric political storm emanating from the South American mainland is threatening the nations of the region, and the eye of that storm is stalled over Venezuela.
Hemispheric Political Storms Threaten Puerto Rico
The social, political, economic and cultural meltdown in Venezuela may seem to have little importance to Puerto Rico. To the contrary, comparing the two regimes reveals at great deal about each.
Venezuela has imploded, thousands upon thousands have abandoned their families and fled across borders to seek refuge and a new life. Social cohesion is frazzled and frayed, not at the edges but emanating from what once were the centers of social normalcy, wealth production and civic governance. Venezuela is a post-modern dystopia cratering sociologically before our very eyes.
That once vibrant and proud country and its culture are now a case study in what happens when a nation state body politic becomes collectively delusional and narcissistic, obsessed with its own idiosyncrasy, without any objective criteria for collective self-awareness and evaluation of consequences.
Venezuela dealt itself a very bad hand, and then played it very badly. All those who once visited and knew it as a stable society can do is point to the narratives of tragedy and say read ‘em and weep.
Puerto Rico has been pretending to be a nation, and in doing so it has emulated Venezuela to a greater extent than it should. Puerto Rico has emulated the U.S. to a far greater extent, but “state-like” status does not secure equality or even a permanent form of union.
As the “commonwealth” regime has collapsed we see some of the same symptoms of dystopia evident in Venezuela, including mass migration. For now, migration to the U.S. is an unrestricted outlet for dislocated and dispossessed U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. But that could change, faster than anyone can imagine. Just ask the former U.S. nationals of the Territory of the Philippine Islands whose ability to travel between the U.S. and their homeland was ended after a half century of unincorporated territory status.
From 1900 to 1946 federal territorial statutes and court rulings defined the status of Filipinos as “nationals” of the United States. That status is legally more closely akin to the statutory U.S. “citizenship” granted to “nationals” born in Puerto Rico. For both “nationals” in the Philippines and nationals in Puerto Rico classified as “citizens” under federal territorial law, birth outside a state of the union means denial of equal rights of full constitutional citizenship under the 14th Amendment.
That is why Philippine nationals who had been living in the U.S. from 1900 to 1946 were involuntarily repatriated to the Republic of the Philippines after it was granted independence. That policy stripping territorial natives of U.S. “national” status based on birth in a U.S. territory was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court and upheld.
That same protocol might not be repeated in the case of Puerto Rico, at least for those from Puerto Rico domiciled in the states. But there is no question that Congress could restrict migration to the states for the purpose of establishing full citizenship, end conferral of new citizenship, require an election of U.S. or Puerto Rico citizenship, and end derivative citizenship for the next generation. Based on historical and legal precedent there is no reason to doubt such measures would be upheld by the court.
Immigration Crisis Next Blow To Puerto Rican Self-Determination?
In the U.S. we quibble over a “legal status” for children brought to the U.S. unlawfully, which may or may not provide a path to citizenship. Meanwhile, not just at the Mexico-U.S. border, but all over Latin America, we see borders collapsing just like what happened in Europe in recent years. Ironically, if conditions get as bad as it appears increasingly possible, the current debate in the U.S. over “immigration rights” could be overtaken by events and become irrelevant.
The idea that it is “anti-immigrant” to stop illegal migration across borders is becoming increasingly unsustainable. The idea that every citizen of every other nation has two homelands, the one where they have nationality of origin and the USA, is no longer accepted in the United States. That debate was based on conditions in the U.S. as receiving country and Latin American sending countries that are changing radically.
Conditions in Venezuela, Brazil and other once top tier national success stories have become ambiguous, at best. If natural or man made storms unloose a wave of refugee migration, in less than 24 hours the U.S. as a body politic could form the political will to end the tolerance for border violators.
The lack of will to stop illegal migration and misguided notions about “welcoming the stranger” are on a collision course with the realities of open borders in a world of population explosion and unending refugee crises. Allowing border violators to come and be exploited as cheap labor to serve our families and business is spinning out of control.
It increasingly is recognized that U.S. open order policy is now inducing mass abandonment of children by parents coming to the U.S. illegally, destroying family and economic cultures – mostly of the poor – in sending countries. That is because the southern border of our nation is now a permeable membrane instead of a maintained boundary.
The socio-politically illiterate sloganeering on yard signs that assert “No person is illegal” could suddenly be gone the morning after a cataclysmic event, be it the work of man alone or an act of God. All human beings deserve compassion and refuge, but that does not mean nation states lose the sovereign power to control borders to preserve an ordered scheme of civil society.
That’s true even when there is no external threat. It becomes a national purpose when there is an outside threat.
The time when people with no allegiance to the U.S. feel entitled to enter unlawfully is coming to an end. The idea of a “legal status” for illegal aliens to enjoy enough of the benefits of citizenship to make denial of equality tolerable can end in a 24 hour news cycle.
If events cause the political will to secure U.S. borders to coalesce one reality will become very clear: The U.S. may be the only nation in the western hemisphere able effectively to close its borders, and limit border crossings to legal immigration. The U.S. alone may be able to virtually end illegal migration.
Migration by border violators is not “immigration” as threat term is used under U.S. law. People are not illegal in the abstract, but being present in the U.S. unlawfully is an illegal status for human beings in those circumstances. The decision to impose consequences for illegal status could be made in less time than it took after Pearl Harbor to declare war.
How Will Migration Crises Impact Puerto Rico?
For 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, the question is clear: Without statehood as the only permanent status defined by the U.S. Constitution, will people born in the territory still acquire birthright U.S. citizenship under federal territorial law 20 years from now? Just as Hurricane Maria was a force-of-nature/act-of-God that radically changed federal-territorial relations, seismic political, social and economic shocks can produce unpredictable results impacting political status and citizenship rights.
Just ask the autonomists who thought Puerto Rico was sovereign until 2016. All those who believed the autonomous myth that the U.S. Supreme Court and/or Congress could not suspend the local “commonwealth” territorial constitution deserved to be shocked when that is exactly what happened in 2016.
The statehood party warned it could – and would – happen. Now statehood supporters point out that Congress could pass and the President could sign into law a measure repealing the federal territorial statute conferring citizenship based on birth in Puerto Rico. That act also could declare unilaterally that Puerto Rico will be an independent nation on a date certain.
Anyone who thinks that could not happen needs to read U.S Supreme Courts rulings on termination of U.S. nationality for residents of states, including Rabang v. Boyd (1957) and Cabebe v Acheson (1950). Also relevant are applicable U.N. resolutions implementing the right of all nations to independence and self-determination, including General Assembly Res 472 (1953) and Res. 1514 and 1541 (1960).
The U.S. has a right to independence from Puerto Rico, and vice versa. Congress can unilaterally declare its right to independence without association to a territory not incorporated into the union under the U.S. Constitution.
Those who acquired US. citizenship during the territorial period presumably would be offered a choice to retain it, subject to the power of Congress to regulate travel between the territory and the mainland, and to require a choice between U.S. nationality and that of a sovereign Puerto Rico. Just ask the U.S. citizens of Guam, who had to get government permission to travel or enter the territory because it was a security zone until 1965.
Sky’s Not Falling, But Watch For Stormy Weather
The Cold War era mentality that the U.S. was a destination and that the tradition of legal immigration had been replaced by open borders is passing into history as the global refugee crisis deepens and nations like Venezuela spiral into chaos. The question for Puerto Rico is whether it can secure a permanent constitutionally defined status.
The autonomists in Puerto Rico squandered 70 years pursuing the ideological vanity of a mythical “nation-within-a-nation” status that became an obvious and conspicuous lie decades ago. Now even territorial status continues on borrowed time as well as borrowed money.
The U.S. arguably owes the choice of statehood to Puerto Rico, now that it has lived with U.S. citizenship under federal law for a century. That is especially true now that statehood is the choice of the people by majority rule. But that unredeemed promise could be taken off the table in a heartbeat or the blink of an eye if Puerto Rico hesitates once more, or if events beyond anyone’s control make Puerto Rico statehood impossible.
The real difference between Venezuela and Puerto Rico is that Venezuela does not have any historical claim or the choice to seek more perfect union with the U.S. through statehood. Puerto Rico has no real alternative to statehood with full constitutional citizenship, or nationhood without a permanent status or relationship under U.S. law, which means loss of the right to pass U.S. citizenship to the next generation in Puerto Rico.