They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and clearly we can see America has never learned the proper lessons from its imperialist past. America is heralded as a hope and beacon of democracy yet refuses to enfranchise over 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. This lack of representation has cost Puerto Rico dearly, as America’s consistent violations of Puerto Rican’s human right to self-determination is the major factor contributing to Puerto Rico’s current economic crisis.
Puerto Rico is an “Unincorporated Territory” According to the Department of the Interior, an “Unincorporated Territory” is a “United States insular area in which the United States Congress has determined that only selected parts of the United States Constitution apply.” The status of “Unincorporated Territory” originated from the Insular Cases, a series of court decisions made by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1901. The Insular Cases are what decided that only select parts of the U.S. Constitution apply to Puerto Rico. We continue to see those lack of rights today, as Puerto Ricans are not given voting rights in Congress and they’re not able to vote in national elections. This is important because Puerto Ricans are bound by policy made and determined within Congress without say. This is a legacy of America’s imperialist past, a violation of human rights, and something that needs to be changed.
Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states and recognizes that all people have the human right to self-determination. Self-Determination is integral to human rights. As stated in General Comments No.12 Article 1 of the ICCPR, “because its realization is an essential condition for the effective guarantee and observance of individual human rights and the promotion and strengthening of those rights.” America more specifically violates Puerto Rico’s right to Economic Self-Determination, as stated in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
The most notable violation of human rights America inflicts on Puerto Rico is Puerto Rican’s lack of representation in Congress, and by extension, Puerto Rican cannot give input on policy options that can benefit or detrimentally affect their nation such as the Jones Act of 1920. America continues to violate Puerto Rican self-determination today with the passage of the PROMESA Act of 2016. These examples prevent Puerto Rico from freely determining how to deal with their current debt and how America is violating the human right to self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico.
There are multiple congressional rules and regulations which come in conflict with the ICESCR regarding Puerto Rico. The first of these is the Jones Act of 1920, also known as the Merchant Marine Act. The Jones Act of 1920 prevents foreign goods from being directly shipped to various non-contiguous parts of the United States, such as Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The Jones Act's relationship with Puerto Rico is one of extreme economic burdens. As the Jones Act makes goods in Puerto Rico expensive when compared to the same goods within the United States. For example, due to the Jones Act cars in Puerto Rico cast 40% more than those same vehicles within the mainland United States. This discrepancy can be directly seen through the shipping cost of neighboring Caribbean nations. The Federal Reserve of New York states that “it cost $3,063 to ship household and commercial goods to Puerto Rico from the East Coast United States yet it only costs $1,504 to ship goods to the Dominican Republic and $1,687 to ship goods to Jamaica.” A report produced by the New York State Bar Association states that the Jones Act cost Puerto Rico $537 Million per year.
The next human rights violation we see is the PROMESA Act of 2016. The PROMESA Act of 2016, which stands for “The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, grants a board of appointed members power over the Puerto Rican government with no semblance of accountability. The Authority put in place by PROMESA can completely rewrite Puerto Rico’s budget if they so choose. The Authority also can issue bonds that the United States government is not liable for. PROMESA can further push Puerto Rico into debt and can restructure the territory's monetary policy. With the PROMESA Act, we see a governing body that is not able to be held accountable by the local state and can directly affect the infrastructure and economy of the territory.
These are just a few examples on how Puerto Rico, while not fully incorporated, is fully bound by the rules and regulations set in place by Congress without say.
It can be said that Puerto Rico’s debt was caused through governmental inadequacy and not by the U.S. Though with that assertion a step back must be taken to see what allowed for this accumulation of debt to occur in the first place. The U.S. gave Puerto Rico to ability to sell special bonds to attract investors. Puerto Rico also had favorable tax laws before 1996. After 1996 these tax laws started being repealed and to make up for lost tax revenue, Puerto Rico started selling more bonds which directly led to their current debt.
The U.S. laid the groundwork for Puerto Rico’s debt and has a responsibility to assist Puerto Rico economy. The first recommendation is to waive the Jones Act of 1920, the second recommendation is grant Puerto Rico statehood, and the third recommendation is to recognize Puerto Rico as a sovereign nation. Regardless, if America decides to do nothing, to continue allowing Puerto Rico to stay in the state it is currently in, then we are no better than the American Imperialists who came before us.
Kevin Bloodworth II is a freshman studying at the College of William and Mary planning on majoring in economics and/or public policy.
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