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Commentary Human Rights

It’s Past Time for the United States to Get Out of Puerto Rico’s Way

Julia Sharpe-Levine

Before appointing itself Savior of Puerto Rico and asserting even greater control over the island, the U.S. government must acknowledge and take accountability for its role in molding current conditions, as well as reckon with the injurious effects of U.S. imperialism and colonization globally.

After almost two weeks of mass protests in which an estimated half-million Puerto Ricans—more than 15 percent of the island’s population—took to the streets to denounce government corruption, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló finally announced his resignation. Puerto Rico Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez is expected to replace Rosselló next month.

Though the immediate stimulus for the protests was a leaked group chat from the governor’s inner circle revealing flagrant corruption, rampant homophobia, misogyny, ableism, and shameless mocking of the Puerto Rican people, including victims of Hurricane Maria, the events of the past two weeks have unearthed deeply rooted and multifaceted sentiments of distrust and anger on the part of the Puerto Rican people, fed up with years of corruption from their local government, as well as patronizing and neglectful treatment from the U.S. government.

In the face of growing unrest and political uncertainty in Puerto Rico, it comes as no surprise that some in the United States are calling for more federal oversight of the island. However, it’s critical that those people consider the role U.S. imperialism has played in shaping the current political crisis, and resist the pernicious and paternalistic narrative that Puerto Ricans are unable to govern themselves.

On July 14, in a now infamous series of tweets, Trump urged a group of unnamed progressive Democratic congresswomen—widely believed to be Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ilhan Omar (MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), and Ayanna Pressley (MA)—to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

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In addition to being wildly xenophobic and factually inaccurate—Tlaib, Pressley, and Ocasio-Cortez were all born in the United States, and Omar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, came over as a Somalian refugee at age 12—Trump’s comments failed to address the role that U.S. imperialism has played in shaping conditions in the countries and territories in which Congresswomen Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Ortez have ancestral roots: Somalia, Israel/Palestine, and Puerto Rico, respectively. (Trump perhaps does not realize that Pressley, a descendent of slaves, has ancestry in this country going back more generations than he does.) Further, his comments fail to consider the violent and compulsory terms under which many of the people he considers “outsiders,” such as the people of Puerto Rico, Guam, and other U.S. territories, were forced to join the United States against their will, as well as the country’s role in driving immigrants and refugees from regions destabilized by U.S. imperialism to the country.

In the case of Puerto Rico, Trump’s comments are particularly ironic for a number of reasons: that he labels Ocasio-Cortez, who was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, an outsider even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and have a legal right to live in all 50 states; that many of the very problems facing Puerto Rican people were engineered by U.S. policy; and that, in fact, by opposing Trump’s disastrous policy agenda and advocating for ameliorative measures, Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats are doing their very best to address the issues concerning these countries, as Trump’s tweet claims they should be.

Trump’s comments do not reflect a new attitude toward the country’s largest territory. Rather, they are emblematic of the same disdain that undergirded his response to Hurricane Maria in 2017, and that has led Congress to routinely dismiss all recent legislative attempts at granting statehood, despite clear support from U.S. and Puerto Rican majorities.

The colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico first began in 1898, when Spain ceded the island at the end of the Spanish-American War. In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans (conveniently, right as Woodrow Wilson was initiating the draft for World War I), but stopped short of giving them presidential voting rights or equal representation in Congress. To this day, Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents are represented by one non-voting resident commissioner. Although Puerto Rico was granted partial self-government in 1947, allowing the people to elect their own governor, the federal government has continually undermined the island’s autonomy, denying aid in times of great need, restricting opportunities for trade and economic growth, and periodically seizing control of internal affairs whenever it deems necessary.

In 2016, when the island was in dire economic straits and nearing bankruptcy, the U.S. Congress established the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, tasking its seven unelected members from Washington with handling Puerto Rico’s finances. Since its creation, the board has mandated mass layoffs, cuts in health-care spending, school closures, and tuition hikes, and it cut the minimum wage for workers under 25 to $4.25 while the cost of living continues to rise. (At just over $19,000, Puerto Rico’s median household income is less than half that of West Virginia, the U.S.’s poorest state.) Still, despite the significant power wielded by the board, some fear it may soon seek more.

These fears are not unfounded, with many in the United States calling for increased federal control over the island’s governance in response to the events of the past two weeks. In an opinion piece published on Friday, the Washington Post editorial board urged Congress to “take steps to strengthen the [Fiscal Control] board” in light of the corruption scandal. “Aggressive law enforcement is an effective antidote in rooting out corruption,” it wrote.

Like Trump’s tweets, what this proposal fails to consider—apart from the close collaborative relationship the leaked messages revealed between Rosselló and the board, and the clear rejection of the board by the Puerto Rican people—is the central role that colonialism played in laying the groundwork for today’s political and economic crisis. For instance, the 1920 Jones Act, which decreed that only U.S.-built, -crewed, and -owned ships could carry goods between U.S. ports, has had devastating repercussions for Puerto Rico’s economy, which pays twice as much for goods from the U.S. mainland as neighboring islands not covered by the act, such as the U.S. Virgin Islands. A 2012 report from two researchers at the University of Puerto Rico estimated that the island lost $17 billion from 1990 through 2010 as a result of the Jones Act, and other studies have estimated even greater losses for Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Alaska, ranging from $2.8 billion to $9.8 billion each year.

Before appointing itself Savior of Puerto Rico and asserting even greater control over the island, the U.S. government must acknowledge and take accountability for its role in molding current conditions, as well as reckon with the injurious effects of U.S. imperialism and colonization globally. U.S. leaders are well practiced at critiquing nations or localities that the United States has considerably influenced without any awareness of how the tentacles of colonialism continue to impede efforts at progress and self-determination, and it’s time that the people of the United States begin holding its government accountable for this deeply paternalistic and colonial practice. In 2016, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization called for the United States to “expedite” self-determination for Puerto Rico; given the events of the past three years, it’s high time that the United States start listening.

This piece has been updated to reflect the news that the Puerto Rico governor has resigned.

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