Chapter 14: Puerto Rico, U.S.A.: Possessed but Unwanted
Puerto Rico is the United States’ largest colony in a time period in which colonialism has largely ended. Because its residents are legal citizens, they are endowed with the same rights as those on the mainland, including minimum wage and workplace regulations. Simultaneously, their lack of voting rights or Congressional representation make Puerto Ricans exempt from taxes.
As the previous chapter explained, neoliberal trade created numerous economic problems in Puerto Rico, including increased poverty and unemployment. As a result, nearly half of all Puerto Ricans no longer live on the island, and a staggering percentage of those who do receive welfare benefits—all of which are paid from the tax revenue of mainland citizens. Many in the American public and in Washington find these facts troubling, which has led to a contemporary debate over the future of Puerto Rico.
Despite Gonzalez’s earlier claim that Puerto Rico’s FTZs failed, he explains how certain industries with low production yet high development costs—such as pharmaceuticals—have exploited duty-free tax loopholes to avoid paying federal taxes. This shows how Puerto Rico, despite its controversial relationship to the US, continues to be a large contributor of wealth to its colonial master.
Despite these boons for the US, Puerto Ricans experience high levels of unemployment, which have remained largely unchanged for decades. To explain this phenomenon, Gonzalez outlines the various factors that negatively impact Puerto Rican islanders.
Shipping laws dictate that Puerto Rican imports and exports can only be transported on US cargo ships, meaning that Puerto Ricans pay much higher shipping fees because of their isolation from the mainland. In addition, Puerto Rico is prohibited from free trade with nearby Caribbean countries, forcing the island to be dependent on US imports.
The language disparity between the lower courts on the island, which operate in Spanish, and the English-only federal courts create barriers for citizens whose cases require further litigation, while preventing many locals from serving on federal juries. Recent cuts to entitlement programs, including Medicaid and welfare, on which a large number of Puerto Ricans have grown dependent, exacerbate the struggles of the island’s poor. Although Puerto Ricans have been drafted in major wars, starting with World War II, they have no representatives who vote on Congressional declarations of war.
All of these factors communicate the notion that Puerto Ricans are second-class citizens undeserving of the same rights and protections afforded to other US citizens. This contradiction has given rise to various ideas about the long-term future of Puerto Rico, from the option of statehood to “enhanced commonwealth.”
The uncertain feelings about Puerto Rico stem from a variety of misconceptions from outsiders. Unlike other Latino groups who have come to the US, Puerto Ricans are free to return to their homeland because it is a US territory. This causes many middle-class Puerto Ricans living stateside to return to the island after amassing some savings so that they can enjoy a higher standard of living while staying closer to their families and culture. As a result, many Puerto Rican barrios in the US have relatively few middle-class residents, creating a perception that Puerto Ricans are willfully impoverished in comparison with other Latino communities.
In addition, Gonzalez describes how long-term colonial rule has contributed to the lack of a cohesive identity among Puerto Ricans. Whereas other Latino groups often grow up learning their peoples’ history and culture in schools, Puerto Ricans have always been restricted by the American education system that excludes the unique history of the island. The unifying force of cultural pride is absent in many Puerto Rican communities,...
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contributing to higher rates of poverty and mental illness, Gonzalez argues.
Next, Gonzalez traces the history of three distinct plans for the island’s future before advocating for his personal choice. He explains how the push for statehood relies on the notion that Puerto Ricans want to be treated as equal citizens with government representation. Various Congressional bills and island referendums, however, have failed to garner enough support from either Puerto Ricans or mainlanders.
Gonzalez argues that anxieties about a new voting bloc of mixed-race, liberal Latinos joining the union and a subsequent push from District of Columbia for statehood prevent the statehood option from ever passing Congress. Furthermore, many Puerto Ricans fear how changes to their tax-exempt status would impact their local economy.
The second option, total independence, would mean that Puerto Ricans would have to voluntarily concede their US citizenship status—a concession few are willing to make for the sake of cultural pride. With that, Puerto Rico would lose its current federal aid, which is crucial to many local residents’ survival.
The final option, endorsed by Gonzalez himself, is the “voluntary association” model. This means that Puerto Rico would retain its close association with the United States, entitling its residents to US citizenship and federal welfare programs, while providing the island government with more local control. Gonzalez envisions a mutually beneficial partnership, under which islanders will have more independence without sacrificing their rights as Americans.