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With the current push for statehood for the District of Columbia, we should also remember Puerto Rico.

It is common among conservatives to oppose statehood for Puerto Rico, ostensibly because it’s too poor and suffers from infrastructure that is inferior to mainland standards. This is perhaps a cover for their discomfort with the island’s Hispanic language and culture, or more likely, with the tendency of Puerto Ricans to vote Democratic.

It has recently been established that the Trump administration intentionally held up federal aid to the island in the wake of two catastrophic hurricanes in 2017.

Trump alleged that things were so bad because the infrastructure was a mess before the hurricane. Well, it wasn’t bad by Caribbean standards, but it certainly was poor compared to the mainland USA. Whose fault is that? 

The US occupied the island during the war with Spain in 1898, and decided it was so important to our naval control of the Caribbean that we should not give it up. But for nakedly racist reasons we refused to treat it as a territory eligible for statehood. For five decades the island was administered directly by Washington. Failure to invest adequately in infrastructure started then.

Puerto Rico was underdeveloped when it was taken from Spain, and has remained so during more than a century of US occupation. Who’s to blame for that?

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After World War II, embarrassed to admit it was a colony, we set it up as a self-governing “Commonwealth” (estado libre asociado, or “associated free state”). But the Puerto Rican government never had the tax base it would have needed to catch up to mainland standards of infrastructure, because the preceding US colonial government had never made it a priority to create a self-sustaining economy that could raise incomes. Instead, the island was left underdeveloped by an authority that really only cared about the island’s strategic value. Indeed, existing industries such as sugar and tobacco were neglected and allowed to decay.

The Commonwealth government in the 1950s and 1960s undertook “Operation Bootstrap” (Manos a la Obra) that gave tax concessions to corporations that would set up manufacturing plants, but that program dried up in the 1970s when Congress failed to renew the tax incentives. This is just one major example of how Puerto Rico lacked political autonomy, even as its citizens reaped considerable benefits from their US citizenship (after 1915), and exemption from US income taxes. 

More recently, Puerto Rico could tax pharmaceutical firms under the same rules as a state. There was a very strong and competitive pharmaceutical industry until the tax provision was cancelled by Congress. The pharmaceutical firms left, and the economy of Puerto Rico lost its economic mainstay. The economy tanked in the last decade. 

The perverse result was a government that lacked the resources and autonomy to implement systematic policies to promote economic development, and a citizenry that struggled to make a living on the island while having easy access to a better life on the mainland. About one third of the island’s population receives the federal nutrition assistance that serves Puerto Rico in lieu of food stamps.

Puerto Rico was underdeveloped when it was taken from Spain, and has remained so during more than a century of US occupation. Who’s to blame for that?

Puerto Ricans have been arguing for decades about whether to change its current status, and if so, whether to seek statehood or independence. But if it wasn’t clear before the 2017 hurricanes, it’s certainly clear now that its current limited self-government is inadequate because the island remains subject to federal controls that won’t necessarily be exercised in Puerto Rico’s best interests. Moreover, it is also clear since 2017 that the island’s economy has been so stunted and distorted by more than a century of colonial rule that it would not be viable as an independent country. 

impeachment unavoidable

Statehood is the only viable option. As Congress considers statehood for the District of Columbia, it should add Puerto Rico to the mix.

John Peeler