Jesuit ethicist: Puerto Rico can no longer be a U.S. colony

In this Nov. 15 photo, Pedro Deschamps helps workers hired by FEMA to carry out the installation of a temporary awning roof at his house, which suffered damage during Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) In this Nov. 15 photo, Pedro Deschamps helps workers hired by FEMA to carry out the installation of a temporary awning roof at his house, which suffered damage during Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

On Sept. 20, Puerto Rico was devastated by Maria, a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 miles per hour, only two weeks after receiving tropical-storm winds from Hurricane Irma. According to official estimates by Puerto Rico’s government, Maria left close to $94 billion in damages.

The storm knocked out practically the entire power grid, as well as the great majority of cellular antennas and towers, crippling the island’s telecommunications system. About 200,000 houses were damaged by Irma or Maria, leaving thousands without a roof over their heads. As of mid-December, no one seems to know how many families and businesses remain in the dark. But we do know that entire townships and large sections of metropolitan San Juan are still without electricity.


The human, financial and environmental costs of the lack of power are enormous. There are an estimated 500,000 diesel and gasoline generators in use, but that option is cost-prohibitive for lower-middle-class families and for small businesses. Besides electricity, there are problems with another essential service: potable running water. According to official numbers, 91 percent of the population has access to running water, but many isolated areas are still without service. Moreover, there are questions about the quality and safety of the water that is now running in the pipelines.

This calamity has come at a difficult time for Puerto Rico. With a crushing public debt of over $70 billion, the government is literally bankrupt.

This calamity has come at a difficult time for Puerto Rico. With a crushing public debt of over $70 billion, the government is literally bankrupt. It functions under the supervision of a Federal Oversight Board and a special bankruptcy court, established by Congress as part of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016. But the commonwealth has been suffering from a severe economic crisis since 2006. About 44 percent of the island’s population were living below the federal poverty lineevenbefore Maria, and the Center for Census Research at the Cayey Campus of the University of Puerto Rico estimates that the poverty level may now hit 60 percent. Unemployment has also grown, since many businesses have been unable to reopen after the storm. According to Puerto Rico’s Labor Department, the island lost 31,600 jobs during the month of October alone.

Not surprisingly, emigration has increased significantly. Between 2006 and 2016, Puerto Rico lost 525,769 inhabitants, falling from 3.9 million to 3.4 million people. Over the next two years, it may lose another 400,000 people. Many younger families and professionals are leaving; this depopulation means a reduced tax base and increased poverty. For example, there are 15,000 licensed physicians registered in Puerto Rico, but many have left to practice elsewhere without canceling their local licenses. In 2016 alone, 600 physicians did cancel their licenses and move to the U.S. mainland, where many find attractive opportunities. To this list of calamities we now add the possibility that the new tax law will cost Puerto Rico thousands of manufacturing jobs.

While the main responsibility for renewal belongs to the Puerto Rican people, the mainland United States has its share of moral responsibility for the dire situation of the island.

We often speak of “natural disasters,” but I take exception to that phrase. Disasters are hardly ever purely natural. Perhaps the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was a purely natural disaster; it affected the lives and homes of everyone, poor and rich, in that unfortunate city. But for the most part, natural events do not affect everyone in the same way. Those who are in better socioeconomic positions are better protected than those who are worse off. It has been that way here after Maria. The hurricane affected daily routines and access to services for practically everyone in Puerto Rico, but those in weaker social positions are suffering more. Maria removed the delusions of prosperity and first-world status that blinded so many to the realities of Puerto Rico: the fragility of its infrastructure, the high levels of social inequality (higher than in any of the 50 states), and decades of governmental mismanagement, corruption and colonialism. It is a time of reckoning. Hard as it is, this moment can be salutary—a kairos—if we decide to deal with the harsh truth in a responsible and visionary manner.

Puerto Rico needs to regenerate. This is not only a matter of physical and financial reconstruction but also an ethical overhaul of our lives. We in Puerto Rico need a culture of integrity and solidarity, both in government and in the private sector. Renewal needs to begin at the grassroots level, and there are several actors that can have pivotal roles in this renewal from below, including the media, academia, religious organizations and other third-sector initiatives. They are called to foster an agenda of change, social responsibility and solidarity beyond our traditional local political parties and divisions.

We Puerto Ricans need to take on the lion’s share of responsibility. But those on the mainland United States cannot remain aloof. The United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, and it has kept its colonial power over the island ever since. U.S. citizenship was granted to island residents in 1917, but Washington continues to exercise full sovereignty over Puerto Rico; we do not vote for the president and have only a nonvoting member in Congress.

It is true that Puerto Ricans, and U.S. and foreign companies doing business in Puerto Rico, do not pay federal income tax for income generated from Puerto Rican sources (a fact some use to justify our lack of parity in federal, social or infrastructure programs). But with few exceptions, everyone gainfully employed in Puerto Rico pays federal payroll taxes. Puerto Ricans have also served in every war fought by the United States since World War I. While the main responsibility for renewal belongs to the Puerto Rican people, the mainland United States has its share of moral responsibility for the dire situation of the island.

How can the United States contribute to a sustainable future for Puerto Rico? First, we need to raise awareness on the mainland about Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. Second, the long-term solution does not lie solely in social welfare programs, as essential as they might be at the present time, but in economic development. Economic development is the basis for the third point in the agenda: a process of decolonization for Puerto Rico, whether that means statehood or independence. In the 21st century, colonialism does not serve the interests of either Puerto Rico or the United States.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James MacGregor
1 month ago

They can always move in with their relatives in Manhattan as in the 1950s.

Dionys Murphy
4 weeks ago

Let us know when you're moving back to Scotland to be with your distant relatives, leaving behind your family and home. Thanks.

Gabriel Marcella
1 month ago

As a long time student and admirer of Puerto Rico my heart goes to the people that are suffering through this tragedy. We can be certain that if Puerto Rico had 2 senators and the requisite representatives in Congress conditions on the island would be much better. Their votes would be taken seriously on Capitol Hill and the White House. But that would mean statehood, something that various referenda have turned down. Perhaps the tragedy will accelerate the decision for statehood. Independence is supported by a small minority and does not appear to be an option. The current status of commonwealth should not survive.

Richard Bell
1 month ago

What would convince the U.S. that it should offer Puerto Rico statehood?

Joseph J Dunn
4 weeks 1 day ago

For Mr. Bell
As the NY Times reports…, the people of Puerto Rico have been less than clear in expressing their desires. And in the most recent referendum, taken before the devastating hurricane, only 23% voted. Put simply, do the citizens of Puerto Rico want statehood, or some other representation (a la District of .Columbia) or, as was a choice in one of their referenda “none of the above”? The history of U.S. relations with territories, which have included a range of options from statehood (every mainland state west of the Mississippi) to independence, in the cases of Philippines and Cuba, shows that the first step is a formal request from the people of the territory stating their desire.

Richard Bell
4 weeks ago

Yes, that is the first step. Assume it has been taken. My question: What would convince the majority of U.S. voters, or the majority of their representatives in Congress, that the desire of Puerto Ricans should be satisfied -- the Puerto Rico should be made a state?

Joseph J Dunn
4 weeks ago

I would like to believe that a majority in Congress would be persuaded to grant whatever petition was presented by the citizens of Puerto Rico out of a commitment to the principle that people are free to establish (or dissolve) their own form of government. More practical pressures would arise out of (1) the commitment of most mainland US citizens to that principle, (2) the large number of people with their own or ancestral ties to Puerto Rico who live on the mainland and therefore vote in Congressional elections and (3) the international opprobrium that would arise out of Congressional disregard of such petition.

Richard Bell
4 weeks ago

Well, I wholeheartedly espouse the principle you state, which is basic to democracy. But I do not see how that principle implies that a majority of Puerto Ricans have the political or moral power to opt in to statehood for Puerto Rico. Nor can I imagine those practical pressures that you list ever being strong enough to persuade a majority of congressmen.

Joseph J Dunn
4 weeks ago

Well, for that we are left with the wisdom of Winston Churchill: "You can count on the Americans [which in this case includes the Puerto Ricans] to do the right thing--after they have exhausted all other possibilities." Cheers.

Gabriel Marcella
3 weeks 3 days ago

The pertinent reference in the Constitution: ARTICLE IV, SECTION 3, CLAUSE 1 OF THE US CONSTITUTION
"New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress." Congress would have to approve. In June 2017 Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly for statehood, it was a non-binding referendum. and only 23% of eligible citizens voted. The task is to convince Congress to hold a binding referendum and set in motion the procedures set forth in the Constitution. It will take hard work by Puerto Ricans, Americans, and champions for statehood in Congress. The current mess cannot continue. Puerto Ricans deserve full citizenship, especially since they are allowed to fight and die in our armed forces to help defend the nation.

Rudolph Koser
2 weeks 5 days ago

Agree totally but the present political climate doesn't allow for more people of color ala #MAGA

Ysais Martinez
2 weeks 4 days ago

Padre Jorge, with all due respect, I am SHOCKED with your suggestion of independence for Puerto Rico. The independence movement in Puerto Rico is almost non-existent and not rooted in the reality of the island. The island survives thanks to US programs and it's no where ready to be an independent country with the enormous burden such responsibility carries. Here is what I suggest: education in the mainland about the fact that Puerto Ricans are US Citizens and tweaks in some silly rules for example the one preventing Puerto Ricans to vote for the president. Renew the relationship with us in the island and and let us have representation in the mainland; independence is a far away dream.


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