‘Do not mak e peace until we get Porto Rico,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1898 to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, his closest friend and political partner. Lodge’s answer was reassuring: “Porto Rico is not forgotten and we mean to have it.”
A few weeks after that exchange, American troops landed in Puerto Rico, seized it, and proclaimed it part of the United States. The colonial experiment has not gone well. By most standards — health, education, per capita income, rates of violent crime — Puerto Rico compares poorly to even the most backward US states. Now it is broke.
Puerto Rico’s governor has restricted withdrawals from the government development bank and placed the highway authority in a “state of emergency” so creditors cannot seize its assets. Hundreds of businesses have closed. Schools lack electricity. Hospitals have reduced their services. The Zika virus is spreading and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may afflict one-fourth of the population by the end of this year. Planeloads of Puerto Ricans are emigrating each week, including many teachers and other professionals. The remaining population is older, poorer, and more in need of services the government cannot provide.
This parlous state of affairs is called “fiscal emergency.” Puerto Rico’s economy is shrinking, and it cannot service its $72 billion foreign debt. Last week the US Supreme Court ruled that although any of the 50 states may permit cities and utility agencies to declare bankruptcy and begin restructuring, Puerto Rico cannot. Congress is working to create a “control board” to direct the island’s finances, but even if it succeeds, the board will only address immediate issues, not the deeper problem.
Puerto Rico occupies an extraordinary position in the global cartography. It is property of the United States and its residents are US citizens, but they have no voting representative in Congress and may not cast ballots in presidential elections. As a result, Puerto Ricans must obey laws they play no role in shaping, follow the rulings of judges they have no role in appointing, and accept a range of US policies without being able to influence them. The island is called a “commonwealth,” an “unincorporated territory,” or a “free associated state,” but those are semantic tricks invented to disguise the fact that Puerto Rico is one of the world’s last colonies.
In 1901 the Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Ricans are not entitled to the rights of other Americans. “The Constitution does not apply to foreign countries,” it found. “There may be territories subject to the jurisdiction of the United States which are not of the United States.” That principle still guides Washington’s relationship to Puerto Rico. Caught in seemingly eternal limbo — neither a state nor an independent country — the island is doomed to be ignored until trouble erupts. Even if fiscal and social catastrophe can be temporarily avoided, the central question remains.
The operation in which the United States seized Puerto Rico was an afterthought. Puerto Ricans had just accepted a far-reaching autonomy agreement with Spain and installed an elected government, but that meant nothing to American invaders of 1898. The United States had defeated Spain on the battlefield in Cuba, and expansionists in Washington reasoned that by the principle of war conquest, the United States had won the right to own Puerto Rico, the last remaining Spanish colony in the Western Hemisphere.
As is often the case after Americans intervene abroad, we quickly forgot about Puerto Rico. Sugar companies took over much of the island’s land, depriving many small farmers of their income. In the 1950s, embarrassed by terrible conditions in Puerto Rico, Congress enacted a series of measures aimed at making it a “showcase” for American beneficence and a “shining star” in the Caribbean. That created a short boom, followed by a long decline that led to poverty and a culture of dependence. Puerto Ricans pay no federal income tax, and more than one-third of them receive food stamps.
In a 2012 plebiscite, 54 percent of Puerto Ricans pronounced themselves opposed to the island’s current political status. They disagree on whether statehood or independence would be a better alternative. Congress, however, is highly unlikely to accept Puerto Rico as the 51st state. That makes sense. When asked their nationality, Puerto Ricans usually reply “Puerto Rican,” not “American.” Most do not speak English. They send their own team to the Olympic Games and are even more passionate than Texans in guarding their native heritage.
Puerto Rico has a population of 3.5 million, larger than that of 20 American states. Holding it was considered essential during the Cold War, but that argument has evaporated. The current political arrangement has failed to serve the needs of either Puerto Ricans or mainland Americans. Since Congress is not prepared to admit Puerto Rico to the union, it should consider laying the groundwork for decolonization and eventual independence.
Arguments about the 1898 invasion — and whether Puerto Ricans would have been better off without American tutelage — are now the province of historians. Charges that Puerto Rican leaders bear much blame for creating today’s crisis, though true, are also beside the point. This crisis is a disaster for the island and an unwelcome distraction in Washington. It will prove a blessing in disguise, however, if it leads us finally to address the root cause of Puerto Rico’s trouble: its eternally uncertain political status.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.