The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico     —by Jinny Batterson

Like many mainland Americans, I’ve been watching a fair amount of television reporting these days about the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Nearly all the island’s electric, transportation, and communications infrastructure was decimated by the back-to-back hurricanes. Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, and pummeled the island only thirteen days after a lesser blow from Irma had disrupted power for up to a million residents. 

The news coverage sent me to the Internet to try to get some additional background on factors that contributed to this disaster impacting the estimated 3.4 million Puerto Ricans—about 1% of the total U.S. population.

Of course, the immediate causes are the hurricanes themselves—two of the most powerful storms ever seen over land. But there is also a backstory of decades of neglect, indifference, and discrimination that contributed. It seems somewhat cruel in the current circumstances to note that 2017 marks the centennial of Puerto Ricans’ American citizenship—on March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, establishing limited U.S. citizenship for all islanders born during or after 1898, when the island was acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.

At the time of the U.S. takeover, Puerto Rico was primarily an agricultural economy. Its principal exports were coffee and sugar. That began to change after World War II. In 1950, the U.S. initiated an “operation bootstrap” program to encourage industrialization and economic growth, and for a while the economy boomed.  Puerto Rico’s economy began a long-term decline in the late 1990’s after a change in the U.S. tax code phased out a provision that had allowed mainland-based companies to avoid corporate taxes on profits made in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. During the decade of 1996-2006, as the phase-out program took effect, manufacturing jobs declined from about 160,000 to about 110,000. More and more Puerto Ricans left for the mainland, where job prospects might be better. By 2016, over 4.6 million Puerto Ricans resided on the mainland, with the greatest concentrations in metropolitan New York City and in Florida.     

Politically, Puerto Rico chafed under near-colonial rule that seesawed between periods of development support by mainland politicians and periods of repression. Successive votes by islanders to change their status generally supported some variation of the status quo until 2012, when a majority of islanders voted to become a state. The referendum was controversial—opponents had tried to get people to abstain from voting altogether and later argued that the vote was invalid.

Once immediate crises ease and redevelopment plans begin to be developed, it might be wise to consult extensively with this “other 1%” to learn what Puerto Ricans, those with the most at stake, want their still-proud island to become.    

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