By Robyn Wilson
As America comes to terms with the terrible reality of Hurricane Maria, what does the future hold for the unofficial 51st state?
Since adopting (kidnapping?) Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, the United States has refused to consummate its relationship with the companion it castrated. Willing to grant the island neither statehood nor independence, the United States has kept Puerto Rico impaled on a fishhook and dangled it over hot coals for more than a century.
It is the pleasure-dome of bored, wealthy parasites that Cuba ceased to be in 1958. For far too long, Americans have taken their unofficial 51st state for granted. So much so that only 43% of them are aware that the submerged subjugates they watched sink following Hurricane Maria are actually their fellow American citizens.
President Trump came under fire for his apparent reluctance to send aid to Puerto Rico when the hurricane struck. Implying that the islanders were to blame for their own lack of self-sufficiency, he tweeted that they expected ‘everything to be done for them’ whilst San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz stood waist-deep in the wreckage of her city, manhandling her citizens to safety (the President was playing golf at the time).
Why shouldn’t they expect something to be done for them? A 40,000-strong military force was on hand to sweep away the ashes of Hurricane Irma in Florida. Why did it take 8 days for 4,400 troops to reach Puerto Rico? The United States invested greater military assets in Haiti following its devastation by earthquake in 2010.
So why abandon Puerto Rico? More than 4,600 Americans died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. Surely, they are 4,600 reasons why the administration needs to make the island a priority. But, apparently, they’re not good enough. So close the President can hear its citizens begging for help, yet separated by an insurmountable cultural, social, and language barrier, the island has become a problem of the only kind grave enough to get the President’s attention: a financial one. So instead, he has found 73 billion reasons to punish Puerto Rico.
Trump is holding Puerto Rico to ransom until the $73 billion dollar debt it supposedly owes ‘to Wall Street’ is ‘dealt with’. The origins of the Puerto Rican debt crisis are loftier than I’d dare to reach for and as far over the President’s head as a North Korean missile, but it was certainly American hands that moulded the crisis.
It was American investments that imploded and American bonds that were left free-floating on the waves that Hurricane Maria sent crashing back to shore. Puerto Rico was once a tax haven, which meant that large US companies could conduct business on the island with fewer financial repercussions than they’d be victim to on the mainland.
However, the US tax code gradually eroded these advantages, prompting companies to flee the island, and snapping Puerto Rico’s economic backbone. Favourable tax conditions also inspired the bulk-buying by Americans of municipal bonds in Puerto Rico. This allowed bondholders to reap income from their investments without being taxed interest.
It allowed them, too, to throw their bonds into the ocean and disappear without a trace, leaving Puerto Ricans to flounder in a tidal wave of immense financial and literal proportions. One such investor was the President himself, whose failure to successfully rebrand a Puerto Rican resort in his own image pumped up the debt to the tune of $33 million.
If President Trump wants this debt ‘dealt with’ then he had better deal with it himself. If the United States will insist on playing empire, then it had better act like an empire. It is useless to besmirch Puerto Rico for the misuse of a freedom it does not have.
The United States cannot expect its unincorporated colony – for want of a better word – to have the resources and manpower of an independent state; to bow down for a billionaire’s footstool, and then act independently when it needs help. Puerto Rico deserves better. Puerto Ricans are proud people.
They are proud of their beautiful island, but they are proud, too, to be Americans. So why isn’t America proud of Puerto Rico? Its single delegate to the House of Representatives cannot vote. Its federal taxes total over $3 billion per year, yet it has no representation in the Electoral College (no taxation without representation? Anyone?). There have been five statehood referendums in Puerto Rico, the most recent of which saw 97% vote in favour.
However, these ballots tend to have very low turnouts, and nobody seemed to listen to the result anyway. A 2012 poll saw 52% of Puerto Ricans express dissatisfaction with their satellite status. If the United States respected Puerto Rico, if it shared any sense of pride in the island, it would listen. But there seems to have been no movement – not in 1898, not ever – to grant it either statehood or independence.
Why doesn’t the United States want Puerto Rico? What did it do so wrong to warrant this abandonment? Of course, a $73 billion debt is a problem, but are 3.5 million more Latinos a problem too? His condescending reassurance that at least survivors of Hurricane Maria didn’t have to deal with a ‘real catastrophe’ like Hurricane Katrina makes you wonder if President Trump would build a wall between the United States and Puerto Rico if he could.
If it is the case that the United States has no intention of ever initiating Puerto Rico into the union, then why not let it go? The desolate Limbo that traps Puerto Rico is more – or, as it were, less – clearly defined than ever. Desperation characterises the White House’s current foreign policy, as the nation’s greasy fingers start to slide off the fishing hook that impales its tentative empire.
As President Trump flogs the island’s carcass, screaming at it to get up, Puerto Ricans are left to wonder what will happen when they do. What is waiting for them on the other side of the hurricane? Because surely, it cannot go on like this. Perhaps it is the wrong time to force the United States and Puerto Rico to make their decisions right now. In fact, it’s definitely the wrong time. But Hurricane Maria and the heartbreaking recalibration of its death-toll is the cataclysmic catalyst that’ll set the wheels in motion. The trajectory of that motion may be unclear, but its time Puerto Rico received closure. It’s time to empower a community of people who deserve so much better than they’ve had.