Puerto Rico may well be the most unusual and paradoxical situation in world affairs, and now it ranks among the most tragic. The existence of more than 7 million Puerto Ricans would rank Puerto Rico among the 15 most populous U.S. states, except that more than half of these Puerto Ricans—like I—no longer live on the island, if they ever did. Economically, it is considered a high-income country [by the World Bank], and yet its economy doesn’t compare with that of the US mainland; Puerto Rico’s per capita income is only half that of Mississippi’s, the poorest state. In the last 50 years, the gap between Puerto Rico and Mississippi has gotten worse, not better. Despite the presumed benefit it gets from being part of the U.S., Puerto Rico actually ranks 10th among Caribbean nations in terms of GDP per capita.
The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico as part of its spoils after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Eventually, the Philippines and Cuba were set free, but Guam and Puerto Rico remained U.S. territories. (The population of Guam is one-twentieth that of Puerto Rico’s.) Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917. After WWII, when it became unfashionable for Western countries to have colonies, Puerto Rico gained the right to an incomplete form of self-government called commonwealth status.
This arrangement has become increasingly unsatisfactory for both U.S. mainland and Puerto Rican leaders. Although its American status no doubt benefits Puerto Rico in some ways, it also creates unusual burdens on its economy; for example, Puerto Rico’s international trade is governed by U.S. law, preventing it from pursuing potentially more beneficial trade arrangements with its Caribbean and Latin American neighbors. Earlier this year, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization called for Puerto Rico’s independence. Puerto Ricans keep holding flawed plebiscites to determine their final status; in the last vote this June, statehood won, but only 23 percent of the electorate participated after the anti-statehood contingents called for a boycott. Leaders in Washington DC, which once viewed Puerto Rico as an important asset in the battle against Castro’s Cuba, now probably consider it a nuisance. The prospects of Puerto Rico becoming a U.S. state under a Republican administration appear nil; even though it’s the Republican Party in Puerto Rico that is pro-statehood, most political observers believe Puerto Rica would prove to be a blue state in the electoral college.
Puerto Rico is a living testament to the folly of expedient and self-serving decisions. In the early days of the commonwealth, the populist Puerto Rican government nationalized key industries, such as the telephone and electric utilities; mismanagement and corruption ensued. The telephone utility has since been privatized but the electric utility, PREPA, remained an embarrassment; Puerto Ricans suffer several times more electric outages than other Americans despite paying among the highest electric bills; when I visit my remaining relatives in Puerto Rico, their choicest invectives are reserved for PREPA. Years of mismanagement have left PREPA cash-starved, unable to upgrade its infrastructure (even before Hurricane Maria) and suffering a significant brain drain; 30 percent of its employees reportedly have retired or migrated to the mainland since 2012.
And so now we come to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico, both by accident and by malfeasance, is tragically ill-prepared to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude. And the U.S. government lacks the resources and perhaps also the political motivation to respond as forcefully as it should. We should not underestimate the logistical challenges of serving a small island devastated by a massive storm. But it is evident that the catastrophes in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands are not attracting the same public attention that recent storms on the U.S. mainland have gained.
In addition to revealing yet again that ethnicity and identity remain active variables in the U.S. political system, what else can we learn from Puerto Rico’s dismal experience?
Expediency fails. Washington DC and San Juan have been kicking the can down the road on Puerto Rico’s status for decades. During these same decades, Puerto Rico’s public debt has grown, its economy has declined, and its brain drain has accelerated. Admittedly, no one can guarantee that a resolution to Puerto Rico’s status would have left the island better prepared to deal with Hurricane Maria. But a lengthy crisis in Puerto Rico will be blamed on U.S. government inaction. Already, commentators have been contrasting unfavorably the difficulties in Puerto Rico with Cuba’s experience after a similarly powerful Hurricane Irma. Fairly or not, our Latin American neighbors, already suspicious of U.S. intentions, will not look kindly on a policy failure in Puerto Rico.
People will vote with their feet. Last year 2 percent of Puerto Rico’s population decamped for the mainland. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans move freely between the island and the 50 states. Many Puerto Ricans speak decent English, and I daresay all of them have relatives in the states willing to help. It is not alarmist to think that more than a hundred thousand boricuas could come to the U.S. mainland in the next year.
Worst-case scenarios happen. In my career at the CIA, I learned that policymakers had a distressing tendency to assume that a worst-case scenario was also unlikely. If a policymaker complained that they had not been warned of a disaster, I could always respond that we had in fact acknowledged it as a worst-case outcome. It was the policymaker who assumed this also meant it was unlikely. But there’s also no denying that we analysts would use the worst-case formulation to hedge our bets. All of us need to do a better job of assessing and preparing for the worst that could happen.
In Puerto Rico, it just did.