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Hurricane Maria Portends US Bailout, Statehood
|As Maria is downgraded on its path into the Atlantic, few Americans realize
that hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation-state but is
instead under suzerainty to the dominant United States, which has ultimate
authority over that U.S. territory’s defense, diplomatic and financial affairs
ever since it was “liberated” during the Spanish-American War of 1899. An
older generation, especially along the East Coast, is somewhat more familiar
with Puerto Rico through the cultural influence of the salsa dancing scene,
yet most Americans know next to nothing about their country’s self-appointed
financial and reconstruction responsibilities for what happens in Puerto
Rico, especially in the wake of disasters.
The island’s status as a U.S. territory is a cloak for de facto colonialism, which is strongly opposed by the Monroe Doctrine in its singular recognition of the legitimacy of independent republics. The signers of the Declaration of Independence fundamentally opposed colonialism and never intended that the Republic hold colonies in perpetuity. The evasiveness of this twilight status, much like that of a mistress of a married man, has enabled the U.S. Congress to cut subsidies and otherwise renege on its financial obligations to the dependent island with impunity, contrary to the terms of relationship.
As a consequence of congressional infidelity, a powerless Puerto Rico has been sliding into ever-deeper debt and depopulation due to migration to the U.S. Today, the majority of Puerto Ricans, 5.5 million men, women and children, reside inside the U.S., whereas only 3.4 million residents remain on the home island. This massive exodus is much like Ireland during the potato famine, but without the compulsion of a food shortage, since this historical crisis is driven by fiscal mismanagement on both sides, a swelling debt and consequent joblessness in the island's dying economy.
Hurricane Maria is bringing the issue of Puerto Rico’s massive debt crisis to the forefront of American policy, something the White House and Congress are unwilling to face squarely. Conveniently, the White House is bashing faraway North Korea to distract American taxpayer attention away from the looming burden of debt relief for Puerto Rico, which lacks the funds to fix its cracked dam or restore electrical power to the island.
Tropical storms of bad debt
The Puerto Rican fiscal crisis can no longer be ignored, which is why a majority of island residents now support admission as the 51st state of the Union, since a state can legally file for Chapter 9 debt relief and receive a federal bailout for the island’s $70 billion public debt and $50 billion overhang in back-due pension outlays.
Statehood for Puerto Rico promises to be an explosive issue pitting the populist electorate that voted for Donald Trump against any funding from White House or Congress. The State of Puerto Rico would have a voter base larger than 21 existing states. With a native Spanish-speaking population, el Estado del Puerto Rico would be the powerhouse of the Latin electoral bloc, permanently ending white-majority dominance of American political life.
Thus far, leading Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, along with George W. Bush, have indicated their quiet support for Puerto Rican statehood. This repeatedly delayed issue of statehood will soon be at the forefront of American political debate due to the need to cover the overdue debt exposed by Hurricane Maria. With full comprehension of the political stakes, the storm damage is being hyped by Puerto Rican government officials as an “unprecedented total disaster”, which in reality it is not. The real disaster is the island’s looming financial bankruptcy and possible default, which are far more ominious than the flooded real estate along seaside lowlands or the power blackout.
This complex issue is being tossed on an American public, most of whom know nothing about Puerto Rico other than “She Bangs” by singer Ricky Martin and West Side Story, which is ironically emblematic of the illicit political affair raised by the passing tropical storm.
“Maria! I’ve just kissed a girl named Maria
And suddenly I’ve found how wonderful a sound can be
Maria! Say it loud and there’s music playing
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.” (from West Side Story)
While Puerto Rican leaders are praying for a hurricane relief fund, Congress is marching to a different tune toward war with North Korea in denial of the intractable problems much closer to home. An attack on Venezuela is off the menu, probably because that Caribbean country is much too closer to Puerto Rico, which as the jumping-off point for an invasion would be a slog though the mud.
Mass migration to American cities
It’s sad to say but Hurricane Maria is being shilled as one of those “crisis is opportunity” moments for good reasons. The Puerto Rico Electricity Authority is unable to get power back up across the island following the total outages from Irma and Maria but because of its lack of competent linemen and engineers due to the brain drain of skilled Puerto Ricans to higher-paying jobs in the U.S. Local taxes pay for primary education and trade schools, but that investment in talent is sucked off to places like Miami, Houston, New Jersey and Connecticut. It’s no secret that the immigrant success story is somewhat of a myth when so many Puerto Rican youths end up in gangs, in jail for burglary or armed robber, or simply as drug-wasted wrecks, and the unlucky girls end up a strippers or in sex industry.
Another crippling consequence of out-migration is a constant drain on the island’s income tax base. To cover falling tax revenues and cuts in federal subsidies, the territory’s government issued municipal bonds for its public works and national infrastructure in early 2008.The Puerto Rico Bonds, structured by Banco Santander of Spain, were palmed off to gullible individual investors by Citibank and Wells Fargo, just weeks prior to the Wall Street financial collapse. The municipal bonds for the electric power utility, highways and ports were supposed to be paid back by future revenues from those operations, but as the island’s economy crashed, the ratings agencies downgraded them to junk bond status in 2014, leaving hapless American investors holding the bag. Without an injection of cash, which requires investor confidence, the dam cannot be fixed and darkness will prevail.
Independence as the sole viable path
Given the powerful opposition among Trump supporters to immigration from Spanish-speaking countries, statehood is politically improbable, especially after a major bailout for Hurricane Maria damage from U.S. taxpayers.
The alternative path toward economic sustainability for Puerto Rico is national independence. A self-governing Puerto Rico can obtain long-term very low-interest loans from the World Bank, tap into funding from the EU, and gain access to development programs of UN agencies, relieving the U.S. of a financial burden that it can no longer realistically provide. A self-managed Puerto Rican economy could also more closely participate in new trading partnerships with South American nations. Most important of all independence should rally Puerto Ricans in the US to rally behind their homeland’s effort to be a proud and vigorous nation among other nations.'
Don Quixotes of nationalism
Puerto Ricans are generally a hard-working practical people who’s survived under foreign colonialism since the island of Borinquen was claimed in 1493 by Christopher Columbus and renamed San Juan Bautista. Therefore the concept of independence is widely viewed with skepticism as a pipe dream of hopeless romantics and fallen heroes, starting with Pedro Albizu Campos. His Nationalist Party staged a rebellion in the mid-1930s, which was crushed by National Guard airstrikes and arrests by the FBI, which categorized their members as terrorists.
Their most audacious action occurred in 1954 when four Nationalist Party members stormed up to the gallery of the U.S. Capitol building to fire shots during a session of the House of Representatives. The subsequent FBI sweep forced independistas underground, but in the 1960s Puerto Rican militancy resurfaced in Chicago and then New York City with the rise of the Young Lords movement. The radical youth group combined neighborhood improvement campaigns with agitation for independence. Their upstart media-savy defense lawyer was named Geraldo Rivera.
Nuyorican Lower East Side
The growing popularity of the Young Lords was based on their promotion of Puerto Rican American culture, which came to known as the Nuyorican movement of poetry, art and salsa music. In the 1970s, New York’s Lower East Side became America’s salsa capital with top band leaders like Tito Puente and Ray Barreto as regulars at local dance clubs. But then, as if on cue from the Pentagon and State Department, the FBI and Federal attorneys launched a crackdown on the Lords, culminating in a armed raid on their headquarters at 4th and Avenue D.
At the time of these upheavals, I was starting a job in magazine layout in New York, my entry point into journalism, and needed an apartment that matched my crappy pay. The Young Lords headquarters lay vacant as a high-risk no-go zone for drug pushers who mobbed the streets, so I rented it for a song. The security features included a bulletproof solid steel door and back windows with metal shutters with gun slits, not exactly Bruce Wayne’s mansion but still a dark quiet hideaway in Gotham.
Hurricane Maria revived bittersweet memories of that fabled decade of Saturday Night Fever and the punk rock club CBGB, but the heart of that era was in the “Loisaida” aka “Alphabet City:, the Puerto Rican district with its salsa beat, seafood yellow rice on fish Fridays, bold murals and the boy group Menudo starring a fresh-off-the-boat kid named Ricky Martin.
As a long-lost resident of the “Nuyorican” district of New York n the heyday of salsa, I have a tremendous gusto for but also a streetwise wariness of everything Puerto Rican. While the majority of Puerto Ricans are supporting statehood as the seemingly only way out of debt default, my youthful contact with their urban cultural life encourages the argument for Puerto Rico’s independence.
Independence promises not to be a neat divorce proceeding, since Puerto Ricans have been American citizens, albeit second class, before the grandparents or parents of most of white European newcomers arrived to the United States. Though a bicultural independent Puerto Rico will stretch everyone’s notion of nationhood and nationality, a comparison of the music videos, English and Spanish, of Ricky Martin’s “La Historia”, proves that the romantic Hispanic roots and Afro-Caribbean rhythms run deeper in the Puerto Rican soul.
Although for the bereft children of the bicultural relationship, it may feel like a bitter divorce, mutual consent to independence is the more honorable and viable long-term decision. Ironically, it will be the anti-immigration movement among Trump’s electoral supporters that could become the strongest backers of independence, making for one of the oddest alliances in U.S. political history. In any case, there’s hardly any salsa left in the New York scene, and those days of West Side Story are long gone, though the lyrics from “America” (West Side Story) remind us of the humor at this crossroad.
ROSALIA: Puerto Rico, you lovely island, island of tropical breezes.
Always the pineapples growing, always the coffee blossoms blowing . . .
ANITA: Puerto Rico, you ugly island. Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing . . .
And the money owing, and the babies crying, and the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan. Smoke on your pipe and put that in!
NEIGHBORS: I like to be in America! OK by me in America!
Everything free in America . . . for a small fee in America!
ROSALIA: I like the city of San Juan.
ANITA: I know a boat you can get on. Bye-bye!
NEIGHBORS: Immigrant goes to America. Many hellos in America
Nobody knows in America: Puerto Rico's in America!
ROSALIA: I'll bring a T.V. to San Juan.
ANITA: If there a current to turn on!