As Hurricane Fiona slowly travels north, it leaves Puerto Rico — a U.S. colony — devastated. With dozens of towns inundated; several bridges collapsed; and much of the main island without electricity or water, Puerto Rico is experiencing a crisis of epic proportions, evoking immediate comparisons to the devastation seen during hurricanes Irma and Maria that hit in 2017.
While immediate crisis response is underway, it will not be enough, as a more dire situation continues to burden the Caribbean island-nation: A colonial relationship with the U.S. For Puerto Ricans to be able to adequately respond to natural and man-made disasters, the island-nation must be decolonized.
Acquired by the U.S. in 1898 by right of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico’s economy was molded to fit the extractive interests of the United States. Whether it be through the sugar industry (1900-1930s), industrial initiatives (1930s-1970s), tax exemptions reserved for intellectual property (1970s-2000s), or more recently, tax exemptions afforded to high-net-worth investors via the Act 20/22 (2012-present), Puerto Rico’s ability to develop an effective tax regime to fund basic government services has been compromised.
The colonial state’s historical response to inadequate tax funds — coupled with prohibitive import costs imposed by a U.S. shipping monopoly — has been to indulge in unsustainable bond emissions, thus, resulting in a $73 billion-dollar public debt. As debt quickly accrued and tax revenue remained insufficient, operational funds for public services suffered, resulting in massive layoffs. These issues further perpetuated a longstanding brain drain which continues to shrink the archipelago’s tax base in the present. And as the nation’s ability to invest in basic infrastructure has dwindled, so has its ability to respond to — let alone rebuild — after hurricanes.
Before this debt crisis, Congress — Puerto Rico’s ultimate legal authority — responded by imposing a fiscal oversight board to ensure debt repayment. However, rather than helping the nation prosper, the congressionally appointed board decided to withhold necessary funds to education, essential government services and even disaster recovery funds after hurricane Irma and Maria had hit, all while privatizing the nation’s electrical grid, thus complicating the nation’s sustainability even further.
As if this were not enough, only a small fraction of the money assigned to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was ever dispersed, and was given predominantly to LUMA Energy, a subcontracted electrical company in charge of energy distribution that has an embarrassing response record and no interest in rebuilding Puerto Rico’s decrepit electrical infrastructure. LUMA has, in turn, passed on its operational funds to Puerto Ricans by increasing their rates periodically. Despite these woes that came of Puerto Rico’s antiquated colonial relationship with the U.S., there are others that come with treating Puerto Rico as if it were like any other U.S. state, such as those pertinent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
While it is well known that FEMA has a history of inadequate responses to natural disasters in the U.S., it is rarely thought that this inadequacy comes from universalizing institutional engagements, a reality that has challenged the assumption that statehood for Puerto Rico would end the nation’s woes. Best illustrated by the organization’s denial of many claims coming from Puerto Rican homeowners and businesses, as evidenced by inequities cited by a U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report, FEMA has proved that it cannot adequately respond to the disasters that Puerto Ricans suffer.
The only option moving forward for Puerto Ricans must be a decolonization process with reparations, in service of a transition toward independence. This, however, will only happen if Congress is pressured to do so by Puerto Ricans and allies alike.