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Fair Observer

The Puerto Rico Crisis: A Reflection of a Flawed US Democracy

The recent resignation of Governor Rosselló should be understood within the larger framework of a flawed US democratic state that continues its economic stranglehold over Puerto Rico.

San Juan, Puerto Rico/USA in July 2019 (Photo: © Osvaldo Olmos / Shutterstock)

San Juan, Puerto Rico/USA in July 2019 (Photo: © Osvaldo Olmos / Shutterstock)

On August 2, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló of the New Progressive Party (NPP) — nominally affiliated with the Democrats, although once linked to the Republicans under Governor Luis Ferré Aguayo — finally resigned. The decision came after weeks of mass protests over the island’s fiscal instability, alleged political corruption and most recent scandalous chats on the Telegram messaging app.

His resignation will go down as one of the most important in Puerto Rico’s political history because it signified a victory for the island’s varied and creative activist community. Even some Puerto Rican celebrities, including singer-songwriter Ricky Martin and actor Benicio Del Toro, joined the mass protests against Rosselló and his administration.

Yet Puerto Rico’s problems are closely aligned to its colonial relationship with a supposed US democratic state. In 1950-52, the US established the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico/Free Associated State of Puerto Rico. Since this political-constitutional arrangement, many US citizens in Puerto Rico expected to fare much better than its Caribbean neighbors that would later experience their own postcolonial and political-economic transitions. These expectations for a thriving social, political and economic life were based on Puerto Rico’s relative autonomy under an expansive US federal constitutional system or what others may call American imperialism that dates back to 1898.

Puerto Rico was supposed to thrive under the protection of the US Constitution and its underlying liberal democratic ethos. However, the reality has been that Puerto Rico’s autonomy is more than ever before inextricably captured by the colonial tentacles of a US democratic system recently deemed dysfunctional or flawed.

In other words, Puerto Rico’s social and political problems are rooted in the territorial government’s dependency on the economic policies of the US federal government. These economic ties between the US and Puerto Rico are reflected in the more recent corrupt politics on the island and the befallen Governor Rosselló, as well as the subsequent politics of succession to power that followed his resignation.

Dependent Puerto Rico Under a Flawed US Democracy

Most people forget, or perhaps do not know, that Puerto Rico is not an independent country but rather an unincorporated territory under the plenary power of the US Congress. This fact alone should place doubts on the minds of those who maintain the position that the US is a democratic state. Nevertheless, all the major news outlets, some online sites, and even elected officials and well-intentioned political and social activists often treat Puerto Rico as a sovereign entity that is solely to blame for its social, political and economic problems.

There may be some truth to this claim, considering the recent revelations made public by the leaked Telegram chats surrounding Rosselló’s regime.  Still, as an unincorporated territory, and although considered “autonomous,” Puerto Rico is under the absolute sovereign control of the US federal government for its financial and economic viability, which directly affects its political and social life.

Most recently, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), in its annual review of countries adhering to democratic values around the world, found US democracy to be flawed even without considering its vast overseas territorial possessions. The review shows that most Americans — this author would include those US citizens in Puerto Rico — have lost “confidence in the functioning of public institutions.” Mistrust in US political institutions extends to not only Congress and President Donald Trump, but also to the federal agencies responsible for post-hurricane recovery efforts.

For example, between mid-September and early October 2017, the category 4 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, which at that time was recovering from Hurricane Irma. As this author previously argued, the policy response of the Trump administration after Maria hit was wrongheaded, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) efforts were ineffective at the time. Yet these two major storms revealed much about the disorganized and corrupt nature of Puerto Rican politics, alongside the flawed US federal system as both inappropriately dealt with these national disasters.

Post-Hurricane Maria and the Politics of Blame

Post-Hurricane Maria brought out the best and the worst in the US and Puerto Rico. The politics of blame took center stage, especially on Twitter. US President Donald Trump stated that Governor Rosselló’s administration was solely to blame for the lack of leadership in mismanaging, quite ineptly, the so-called humanitarian aid provided by both FEMA and, later, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), among others after both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. More recently, Trump tweeted that “Congress foolishly gave 92 Billion Dollars for hurricane relief, much of which was squandered away or wasted, never to be seen again … much of their leadership is corrupt, & robbing the U.S. Government blind!” 

Rosselló, in turn, claimed the federal government under Trump failed to uphold its constitutional and ethical responsibilities to US citizens in Puerto Rico. The governor expected the US government to allocate comparable resources similar to what it had already provided Texas and Florida after their own hurricane disasters, and not allow for questionable contracts to be handed out to inexperienced construction companies.

Both Trump and Rosselló were, nevertheless, complicit for allowing thousands of fellow US citizens in Puerto Rico to perish — as this author has previously stated — amid social scandals, political corruption and overall incompetence. This public blaming between two equally ineffective political administrations shows the deep-rooted colonial ties between Puerto Rico and the supposed US democratic government.

The US Jones Act of 1920

Another example of a flawed U.S. democracy is the enduring Jones Act (or Merchant Marine Act) of 1920. This is a federal law regulating maritime commerce in the US, including its non-contiguous and unincorporated territories such as Puerto Rico. This measure says that any goods shipped between US ports are supposed to be transported by US-built, owned and operated ships. Although President Trump temporarily waived these requirements several weeks after Hurricane Maria for supposed short-term relief, retaining and reapplying this law to the island’s ports places long-term burdens on Puerto Rico’s economy.

Even the conservative Cato Institute recognizes the antiquated and undemocratic nature of the Jones Act and its negative impact upon Puerto Rico’s economy:

“Puerto Rico’s recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria has reinvigorated debate about a relatively unknown law that has hampered its recovery efforts and bogged down its economy. Since 1920, maritime commerce between Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States has been governed by the Jones Act, a law that mandates that vessels transporting goods domestically be U.S.-crewed, U.S.-flagged, U.S.-owned, and U.S.-built. While defenders of the law have argued that the Jones Act provides reliable shipping services from the mainland to Puerto Rico, critics have pointed out that such restrictions significantly raise the cost of domestic imports, placing an added burden on the already economically struggling island.” 

This law fundamentally serves as a stranglehold over Puerto Rico’s economy in the long- and short-runs, leading to other undemocratic alternative approaches for dealing with present and future financial instabilities on the island. As Nelson A. Denis recently reported, two “University of Puerto Rico economists found that the Jones Act caused a $17 billion loss to the island’s economy from 1990 through 2010. Other studies have estimated the Jones Act’s damage to Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska to be $2.8 billion to $9.8 billion per year.”

Congress Controls Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis

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In 2016, then-US President Barack Obama signed into law the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), a measure responsible for “restructuring [the island’s] debt, and [expediting] procedures for approving critical infrastructure projects” in Puerto Rico. Ironically, or perhaps euphemistically, the word promesa in Spanish means promise. In this case, the US federal government expected Puerto Rico to keep its promise of paying “back” its loans on time and with interest. Unfortunately, Rosselló’s government defaulted on about $2 million, exacerbating further the spiraling fiscal instability of the island.

Prior to these climate change-induced hurricane disasters, Puerto Rico had been in the midst of a long-time financial crisis (see the “Krueger Report” that pre-dates Rosselló’s regime). This led the much-maligned Governor Rosselló to announce the privatization of the Commonwealth-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which is one of the largest public power suppliers in the US.

However, the federal Fiscal Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico established by PROMESA devised its own fiscal plan to deal with the crisis. The board’s plan was vehemently opposed by the governor because it recommended “steep cuts in government spending and pensions.” This has been a long-running dispute between the US territorial government and the US-controlled Fiscal Board.  For instance, Rosselló, in May 2017, filed for what amounts to federal bankruptcy protection in order to “restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations,” despite opposition within and outside his own party.

In April 2018, the Professors Self-Assembled in Solidarity Resistance (PAReS) group put out a clear statement against these types of top-down plans to dealing with the fiscal crisis impacting the island’s political and social life. The statement read: “[The] Financial Oversight and Management Board, an unelected body pushing for the privatization of electricity and schools, increased costs of basic services, massive cuts in public education, pensions, vacation time, and other rights — all in order to pay bondholders a $73 billion debt that was patently unpayable, illegal and illegitimate. The net result was to leave the majority of people in Puerto Rico without a hopeful future, and that was all before Hurricane Maria hit our shores.”

There were other related protests after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as debt crisis management struggles that have been ignored by the US mainstream media. For instance, the Puerto Rico Teachers Union had been fighting against the closure of hundreds of public schools and the privatization of education for years.

Governor Rosselló’s Telegram Chats

What turned the tide, where the beleaguered governor was forced to step down, was the leaked offensive Telegram chats that were made public by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) in Puerto Rico, an organization that should be recognized more often for its superb, independent, investigative reporting. CPI revealed almost 900 pages of vulgar email exchanges between high-ranking NPP members, including Rosselló himself showing misogynistic, homophobic and immoral statements about political opponents, the Puerto Rican LGBTQ+ community, and victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The mostly, if not exclusively, male-dominated Telegram chats also reveal how out of touch Rosselló’s administration and the larger NPP have been with the various social and political movements, such as the anti-harassment #MeToo collective. Rosselló’s actions are similar to the kinds of insalubrious and hateful mocking President Trump has engaged in for years over social media.

As Rosselló stepped down in defeat, he appointed Pedro Pierliusi as secretary of state and thus next in line for the governorship. Pierliusi previously served as Puerto Rico’s non-voting resident commissioner in the US Congress, among other positions for the NPP. His eventual swearing-in as the new governor also came under fire because of his potential conflicts of interest. He is currently employed with the law firm O’Neill & Borges (San Juan), which represents the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board.

Pierliusi’s appointment was immediately challenged by the Puerto Rico Senate. At the forefront was Rosselló’s rival, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz — acting president of the NPP and long-time party operative dating back to Governor Pedro Rosselló Gonzalez, Ricardo’s father — although the House had approved the governor’s decision. Rivera Schatz, who in the past expressed interest in the governorship, asked the Puerto Rico Supreme Court to intercede in this constitutional crisis, which it did, overturning the appointment on August 7 with a unanimous 9-0 vote. The Supreme Court declared the swearing-in of Pierluisi unconstitutional since he had not been confirmed by both chambers of the Puerto Rico legislature, as required by the island’s constitution.

Subsequently, Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez — also of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party — was sworn in on August 7 as a replacement for both Rosselló and Pierluisi. She has become only the second woman to serve as governor in the island’s history.

Yet Vázquez is sitting under a cloud of suspicion as well because of her clashes with various feminist groups over women’s rights, her own history of alleged corrupt activities, numerous fund mismanagements post-Hurricane Maria and her long-term strained relationship with Rivera Schatz. These rapid transitions are a consequence of the century-long colonial relationship between a supposed US democratic state and its pseudo-autonomous territory where the US Congress maintains economic sovereignty, leading to a never-ending cycle of corruption and political instability in Puerto Rico.

To be clear: This author is not suggesting that Rosselló and his ilk are not corrupt and incompetent, something they have repeatedly demonstrated over several years. Rather, that the larger and structural problems (especially the political and social ones) in Puerto Rico stem from the problematic constitutional arrangement and deep-rooted economic dependency the island has with the US despite its increased autonomy since 1952.

The Stranglehold Over Puerto Rico Must End

There are at least two reasons Puerto Rico’s political problems persist. First, the so-called PROMESA Act of 2016, the anti-democratic austerity measure signed by Democratic President Barack Obama to oversee Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, basically dictates what the US territorial government can and cannot do. Second, the 2017 post-Hurricane Maria devastation and lack-luster recovery efforts under Republican President Donald Trump and the equally complicit Governor Rosselló eventually resulted in at least 2,950 casualties, as per a George Washington University study, or more according to other reports.

Thus, the recent resignation of Governor Rosselló based on his corrupt and degenerate behavior — as exposed by the leaked Telegram chats — should be understood within the larger framework of a flawed US democratic state that continues its economic stranglehold over Puerto Rico. This dual dependency must end for the sake of ever achieving any kind of real democratic future in either Puerto Rico or the US.

Carlos Figueroa

Carlos Figueroa has a dual Ph.D. in Political Science and Historical Studies from The New School for Social Research and currently teaches in the Politics Department at Ithaca College. He writes critical commentaries on U.S. Puerto Rico affairs, racial and class politics, and immigration/migration issues and the politics of U.S. citizenship. He is currently finishing a book on Quakers, race and U.S. Empire.

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