How Can We Get Rid of Puerto Rico?

March 13, 2014

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How Can We Get Rid of Puerto Rico?

Is a baseball mitt a toy? How about a trampoline? Is a goose a farm animal or a wild animal? Is chess-playing an art or a science? Do I shelve a novel about China with my fiction books or my China books?

These are problems of categorization. Each of us approaches the matter differently. “Hard” categorizers insist that everything should go into one bucket or another, while “soft” categorizers are more tolerant of ambiguity, more willing to leave objects in some fuzzy middle ground.

A clever political scientist has shown that persons of a politically conservative inclination are more likely to be “hard” categorizers. That’s me, and that’s why thinking about Puerto Rico drives me crazy.

I mean, what is the place? Is it a country, a state, a colony, or what? “A commonwealth,” is the official answer. What’s that?

As an ex-Brit, I can tell you all about commonwealths. Britain has one: the British Commonwealth. After the dear old British Empire was wound up in the mid-20th century, important people thought it would be a bit anticlimactic if nothing at all replaced it, so they invented the Commonwealth of Nations, a sort of club for all the countries that had once been British colonies (not counting those dreadful Yanks, of course).

“Plainly the USA should get rid of this millstone. That’s easier said than done, though.”

Matter of fact, Monday this week was Commonwealth Day. The Royal Family went to church. That’s what they do—they have a day. There are also Commonwealth Games and conferences and such. It’s fun if you’re one of the elite types who gets to attend these things. It can also be a bit fraught, though: Colorful Ugandan dictator Idi Amin staged his coup while the elected president was away at a Commonwealth conference.

I can’t see how Puerto Rico relates to any of that. Are there any other places in its commonwealth? Apparently not: It’s a commonwealth of one.

Puerto Rico is a case of soft categorization, that’s what it is. It used to be a good old-fashioned colony of Spain back in the days when civilized nations weren’t ashamed to have colonies. The USA acquired it in 1898 by the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War.

A succession of American military men ran the place for a couple of years, starting with Brigadier General Guy Henry, a leathery old Puritan who, according to one historian, thought the Puerto Ricans “had acquired very liberally the Spanish habit of lying and cannot be trusted.” Then Congress got around to dealing with the issue, making Puerto Rico a sort-of territory under a governor, but with its own House of Representatives.

In 1917 Congress passed the Jones Act, giving US citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. Folklore says, and Puerto Ricans believe, that Woodrow Wilson wanted Puerto Ricans as soldiers to beef up his army for World War I, which the USA entered a few weeks later.

In fact, the logic was preemptive. Germany was thought to have designs on the Danish West Indies next door to Puerto Rico, threatening approaches to the Panama Canal, and there was strong sentiment in the territory itself for independence. (The Puerto Rican House voted unanimously against US citizenship, to no avail.)

After some arm-twisting, Denmark sold their islands to the USA. The islanders became US citizens, their territories the US Virgin Islands, and the Jones Act followed to sweep Puerto Rico along with the local trend.

In hindsight it seems a bit careless to bestow citizenship on a million and a half people far from our shores. I’m not even clear how it squares with the 14th Amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Since Puerto Ricans are not “born or naturalized in the United States” and there is no “State wherein they reside,” how are they citizens? Talk about soft categorization!

There wasn’t much gratitude for the gift of citizenship, either. Independence activists committed numerous terrorist acts against the USA. They came close to assassinating Harry Truman in 1950, shot up the US House of Representatives in 1954, and bombed Manhattan’s Fraunces Tavern in 1975.

The appeal of independence to Puerto Ricans at large faded once the advantages of belonging to a modern welfare state became apparent. Of those favoring a change of status in 2012, only five percent wanted independence; 61 percent voted for statehood. 

Nowadays the place is—like the rest of the Caribbean behind a thin façade of rich-folk villas, tourist trinket markets, and tax-break corporate frontages—a slum. Thirty-five percent of the population is on food stamps; 35 is also the percentage of working-age Puerto Ricans actually in the workforce. Public finances are in a dire state: Debt is at $70 billion and bond issues are rated as junk.

Plainly the USA should get rid of this millstone. That’s easier said than done, though. In theory I guess Congress could simply end the “commonwealth” relationship and cut the place loose. In practice this would mean revoking the citizenship of the 3.7 million inhabitants. And what about the five million or so Puerto Ricans who reside in the USA?

Another approach would be to get Puerto Ricans thinking that independence might be a good idea. Perhaps we could try oppressing the place: Make them tenant farmers under absentee landlords, proscribe use of their native tongue, and shut down their churches. Hey, it worked for Ireland.

Or possibly we could fool them into thinking they are sitting on great wealth—a Caribbean Dubai. Underground oil might be hard to fake, but we could sprinkle a few raw diamonds or gold nuggets around.…

I’m fantasizing, of course. We’re stuck with the wretched place and its unproductive, unemployable people. Those Spanish qualities that General Henry noted are with us in perpetuity, one more legacy of the appalling Woodrow Wilson. Can’t we dig that guy up and hang him in chains, as the Royalists did to Oliver Cromwell?


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