In the center of San Francisco’s Union Square stands a tall column crowned with an allegorical representation of military conquest. It’s a monument to the U.S.’s naval victory the Spanish-American War, and an inscription at the base includes the contents of an 1898 telegram sent to from the Secretary of the Navy to the Commodore Dewey: “War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to the the Philippine Islands and capture or destroy the Spanish fleet.”
After winning that brief imperial adventure, the U.S. took possession of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. And this column is also, effectively, a monument to the status of Puerto Rico today.
Hurricane Maria, the 10th-most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, was the most powerful to strike Puerto Rico since 1928. Killing at least 24 people on the island, it left widespread devastation; in many areas, water and power may not be restored for months. Food and potable water are scarce, and so are gas and medicine. This year’s crops have been destroyed, and the combination of poverty and disaster means mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue, chikungunuya, and Zika are primed to explode. A humanitarian catastrophe is developing in real-time. If you have family there, you know that many people are desperate to establish contact with relatives — especially older relatives in remote areas of the island’s interior.
It’s not a large island, and Maria raked across nearly all of it. At roughly 3,500 square miles, it’s smaller than Connecticut and about the same size as Mendocino County. Yet it’s home to 3.4 million people, or more than 1 percent of all Americans. But because it’s not a state and Spanish-speaking people live there, about half of all Americans don’t even realize it’s part of their country. (And, unlike issues such as climate change, it’s younger people who are the most misinformed on this one.)
The island’s status as a “commonwealth” sounds like it’s on par with Massachusetts or Virginia, but really, it’s an unincorporated territory, a deliberately hazy definition maintained for the sake of the mainland’s desire to hold it at arm’s length in perpetuity. And after all, unincorporated areas of counties are frequently where power plants and town dumps are located. Now, Puerto Rico is in crisis.
And because President Donald Trump is a white supremacist, he spent the weekend battling pro athletes — most of them people of color — for silently protesting racial injustice in America. He tweeted furiously at the NFL 24 times in four days, but it took him days to muster the energy to address Maria’s impact. And when he did so, it was basically to tut-tut Puerto Ricans for being poor.
In a statement accompanying the federal disaster declaration, the president noted that Puerto Rico was “absolutely obliterated,” word choice that reads as more excited than somber. (Above all else, Trump is obsessed is with telegenic forms of notoriety, such as mass destruction.) The response was feeble. It even took prodding from Hillary Clinton to get FEMA to OK dispatching a hospital ship USNS Comfort, which will be days in transit.
Worse, because of a 97-year-old law meant to deter a threat from Kaiser Wilhelm, we’re actively turning away help. The Jones Act requires foreign aid to be re-routed to Florida, unloaded, and reloaded on American-built ships in order to dock in San Juan. It’s so ridiculous that even John McCain doesn’t like it.
After World War I, America was worried about German U-boats, which had sunk nearly 5,000 ships during the war. Congress enacted the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a.k.a. the Jones Act, to ensure that the country maintained a shipbuilding industry and seafaring labor force. Section 27 of this law decreed that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. In addition, every ship must be built, crewed and owned by American citizens.
Almost a century later, there are no U-boats lurking off the coast of Puerto Rico. The Jones Act has outlived its original intent, yet it is strangling the island’s economy.
Under the law, any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.
In unusually intemperate language, the Times says, “This is a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico a captive market.”
Indeed, Puerto Rico was in serious trouble well before 155-mile-per-hour winds tore the roof off of hundreds of thousands of homes. It has an average annual income of $18,000 yet its cost of living is higher than most places in the U.S. The island holds a staggering $72 billion in debt, which is already defaulted on, yet its population has shrunk by 8 percent since 2010, rendering it all but un-payable. A vicious cycle, in which reduced economic opportunity leads to emigration and further economic decline, spurred Puerto Rico’s wealthy creditors to extort the electric utility. An unelected board had already taken over the island’s finances, to better serve the wishes of the disaster capitalists by raising water and electric rates, slashing pensions, and cutting funds to public schools.
Basically, Congress allowed the bond market to treat Puerto Rico the way Germany punished Greece after its debt crisis — and that was before Maria. The Intercept has all the gory details, but now the worshippers of austerity using the hurricane to inflict the shock doctrine and extract whatever they can. An island of 3.4 million people that cannot govern itself is an affront to democratic values, and it’s a direct result of colonialism. In that light, it’s almost understandable that Americans don’t think Puerto Rico is part of America, because we treat it exactly like the colony it’s always been.
Meanwhile, ordinary Puerto Ricans demand change. n a non-binding referendum held only three months ago, a whopping 97 percent of Puerto Ricans voted to become the 51st state. (At 23 percent, turnout was very low, however. Still, a two-question referendum on the same issue in 2012 resulted in a clear majority in favor of statehood.)
As with majority-Black Washington, D.C., is there any wonder why the question of Puerto Rican statehood is a non-starter on the mainland? If the aftermath of Maria, if statehood became a more pressing issue stateside, would not the right-wing blogosphere immediately brand Puerto Ricans as “other,” or some sort of inherently undeserving moochers because they’re mostly brown? Just as we’re watching the ugly racist heart of American imperialism compound a natural disaster, who really doubts that the English-only crowd would do everything they could to prevent statehood for the island.
Power is the power to make exceptions, yet the Jones Act remains in force. The same Republican-dominated Congress that can’t get it together to act on its bloodlust for denying health care to tens of millions — not that we object, really — is not a body that can be trusted to act responsibly when the lives of only 3 million people are on the line. The result is needless suffering, because America refuses to confront its colonial past and present.
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