Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Island In Collapse: Puerto Rico In Crisis

Julio Figueroa

"The Commonwealth is no longer a viable status option for the islands future"

Mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the US mainland during the middle of the 20th century proved to be one of the reasons the Commonwealth status achieved the success it did during its first few decades of existence. Because mass migration from the island to the US mainland relieved the state’s capacity to meet the needs and demands of a large population, the new political and economic model was able, with Washington’s help, to industrialize the island and bring its economy into modernity. But since it’s peek in around the 1970’s, the Commonwealth’s economic growth and potential has been in steady decline.

Unlike colonialism elsewhere, the nature of the Commonwealth status is to systematically devise means to perpetuate itself by establishing forms of control so as to secure its existence. One method of control is by ridding itself of “excess” population by forcing migration of those it denies opportunities to so that the demands and needs of the population that remains behind will become less burdensome to its atrophied limits. Yet the mass migration “relief valve” seems to be no longer enough and new data has finally shown the Commonwealth status for the failure it truly is.

If the pro-Statehood party proceeds with its plan, island residents will finally have an opportunity to express themselves in a two-stage plebiscite scheduled for next year. Faced with a new social, economic, and political paradigm, the Commonwealth as we know it may finally lose its legitimacy by popular vote. But, if we believe President Obama’s recent remarks, the Commonwealth may not necessarily come to an end even if it is defeated in the voting booths.

The President believes that in order for there to be a change in status, a clear majority would be needed. According to the President, if the plebiscite results are "split down the middle, 50/50 or 51/49," Congress' inclination would be "to maintain the status quo until there's a greater indication that there is support for change."

I understand the President’s reasoning, but I reject the notion that if Statehood wins the next plebiscite, even if by simple majority, nothing can be done to change the status quo and create a better environment for growth, wealth, and self-sufficiency for Puerto Rico and its viable prospects for Statehood in the future. I contend that, should Statehood win the next plebiscite, even if by simple majority, Congress must begin a process to incorporate Puerto Rico, with temporary incentives and powers aimed to help the island narrow the gap in areas it lags behind when compared to the States of the Union.

Washington shares a blunt of responsibility in the island’s crisis and has an obligation to act by Constitutional decree. While the office of the President has offered several reports that recommend ways to proceed forward on the economy, and on status - it is Congress that can ultimately “dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” Contrary to what the proponents of the Commonwealth would have Congress and the American people believe, the economy, as well as education and mass migration, are inevitably intertwined with the status problem. Hence, we can’t move our economy forward, or significantly improve our education or make the island attractive for business and jobs if we don’t attend the status problem first. Otherwise, it will just be another exercise in futility ultimately leading the island back to the crisis it currently faces.

Data from the Census and from other federal and state agencies show unprecedented deterioration of the Commonwealth. Island residents do not have to look at the data to know the island is on the verge of total collapse. The day-to-day experience is enough for the people to know that things are at their worse. The island’s virtual collapse, while heartbreaking, presents an historic opportunity I hope Congress and Puerto Rican voters take advantage of to overcome the dissonance that has permeated in every political status debate so far.

Results of all plebiscites held since 1967 show that a good chunk of the population had failed to make the connection that the island’s problems are not directly linked to the local parties per se. At the end of the day, it has never made much difference who or what party is voted into power in Puerto Rico. Rather, the problems, just like its current crisis, are linked to the ineffective political and economic system they elect local parties to administer and preserve. As a reality check, before Congress and the Puerto Rican people can begin to move forward, we must first take a cold hard look at what the island is currently going through.

The Data & the Political Status Problem
The 2010 census paints a very bleak picture for Puerto Rico over the past 10 years. Unless we make the hard choices needed to confront and solve the problems the island is currently facing, the future will likely be worse. According to the data, the island is undergoing a crisis in education, mass migration, and as a consequence, brain drain, dependence, and poverty. On education, the numbers indicate that 80% of public school teachers are not proficient in English while 60% of students do not have the basic skills in Spanish. 63% of the island’s population have only a high school education or less. 16% have a bachelor’s degree but only 37% of University students graduate. Only 6% have a post-graduate degree.

The data also shows that for the first time in Puerto Rico's census history, there has been a decline in population - the highest of any state of the nation, followed only by Michigan. During the last 10 years, more than half a million Puerto Ricans left the island. There are now more Puerto Ricans living elsewhere, mostly in the US mainland – 4.2 million compared with 3.7 in the island. According to a recent report of the data taken from El Vocero, a local Spanish language newspaper of mass circulation, the island’s population displacement is more ample than those of Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Palestine – all which have been displaced by either war or internal conflicts. So what does the recent wave of migration say about the island’s political status? A lot.

The political crisis and ideological divide on status that plagues Puerto Rico and its institutions, including public education, can only produce failure of this magnitude. For example, the pro-Commonwealth party has not made it a priority to improve the teaching of English on the island, and apparently Spanish has suffered the same fate. But how could the pro-Commonwealth party be expected to improve English language skills in the Puerto Rican population when doing so may defeat one of their arguments against Statehood? “That Puerto Ricans do not speak English, and that they do not want to learn it?”

It is like for the leaders of the pro-Commonwealth party, being Puerto Rican is somehow an impediment to unleash the enormous potential the island has. It is like being Puerto Rican is an impediment to achieve equality under the law as American citizens. This is not to say that the pro-Statehood party has faired much better but at least they have tried to improve the system in the past – that is until the pro-Commonwealth party assumes control and dismantles the few things the pro-Statehood party manages to achieve.

But by denying a good education to Puerto Ricans, particularly in English and now Spanish, the Commonwealth as a system is creating a recipe for perpetual dependence and poverty. The pro-Commonwealth party is the architect of the system Puerto Rico endures today, and they were also in power for eight years over the past decade. For me, the blunt of the blame of what the census data shows has to rest on a party that prefers to sacrifice the future prospects and potential of Puerto Ricans in order to preserve an outdated, unjust, and immoral system that only benefits a lucky few. For them, English is seen as a threat and preventing the population from becoming fluent in it will in turn prevent Statehood.

Adding insult to injury, pro-Commonwealth politicians often ally themselves with organizations such as Pro-English and other groups who misguidedly see Puerto Rico Statehood as a threat to their interests. Pro-English, for example, argues that before Puerto Rico can become a State, it has to adopt English as its only official language. Instead of going for a more pragmatic approach in order to help improve English language education in the island and in the nation, they choose to make the case for the very system and the very political party that hinders their raison d’ĂȘtre. They can choose to ignore that there is no Constitutional requirement for language or that the Puerto Rican government itself provides services in both languages. But to make the case for a local party that often puts barriers against English education in the island shows that Pro-English and other organizations like it are either ignorant or have ulterior motives or both.

The fact is that the majority of the people of Puerto Rico want to improve their English language skills. But there is no reason why anyone would require island residents to have to choose one language over another. Particularly, when achieving proficiency in both Spanish and English open doors of opportunity for business, education, and employment. What Puerto Rico lacks is a stable system of government that can focus on improving education and proficiency in both languages. Puerto Rico has a better chance to improve education if it solves its status problem. With the problem out of the way, and the ideological divide on status resolved – public education will stop being the victim of the political tug-n-war it currently endures.

Brain Drain & Crisis
Contrary to the mass migration wave of the 1950’s, this time around Puerto Rico has experienced a loss of highly educated professionals that mostly settle in Florida, Texas, and several States in the east coast. Nurses, police officers, teachers, and engineers – all are leaving. According to a Miami Herald report, 800 doctors left the island between 2005 and 2008 alone. Brain Drain on this massive scale, aggravated by the global economic crisis, has had devastating effects on a population already disadvantaged by virtue of being a territory. Instability in the island is in great part the result of the limited participation in the decision making process that takes place in Washington and an economy that can no longer grow because of the island’s atrophied political status.

As of September 2011, unemployment in the island was at 15.1% according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Currently, of the 3.7 million residents there are 726,000 with some form of disability. 250,000 families of 3.2 members live on less than $10,000 a year – which is about $800 a month or $240 for each family member. 37% of the population depends on social assistance. One quarter composes the total work force, and of all adults that can work only 39% do. 45% of the population, almost half, lives in poverty. The median household income for 2008-2009 was $18,314. A sharp contrast compared with $35,693 for Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, and $50,221 for the US. With this kind of record, it is easy to understand why so many people are leaving the island.

All these factors contribute to Puerto Rico’s growing violence and crime as well. As of October 2011, Puerto Rico has surpassed 940 murders, and more than 220 suicides – and it is certainly headed to break record numbers by the end of the year. According to government officials, most of the violence is drug related between gangs vying for control. They argue that Puerto Rico is an extension of drug trafficking and the violence that is plaguing the US-Mexico borders. As it becomes more difficult for drug traffickers to smuggle drugs through the Border States, traffickers use the island as a mid-point to ship their merchandise to the US mainland. While all this is true, we cannot ignore that Puerto Rico may have had a better chance to fight back provided the island had the proper tools to mitigate its economic and political problems – tools that States have and that the Commonwealth just isn’t equipped to provide.

Some argue that Puerto Rico cannot become a State because it is too poor. The data certainly shows the extent of poverty and dependence that affects the island. But the American people must begin to understand that Puerto Rico is poor and dependent because it is not a State. And it is time to change what no longer works, for something better for the benefit of both the United States and Puerto Rico. Since the Puerto Rican people have virtually closed the doors on independence or any of its other political status modalities – it is only logical to find a way to incorporate Puerto Rico, step-by-step towards eventual Statehood. During the period of incorporation, Congress and the Puerto Rican state government can work together to improve the island’s record in preparation for eventual Statehood and self-sufficiency.

Forging A New Path for Permanent Union
For 60 of the past 114 years, Puerto Ricans have ‘chosen’ to remain a colony. But the reality is that the system is set up so Puerto Ricans think they have the option to choose to remain a colony or change if they wish, when in fact they do not. Why else would Congress and the President insist in including the problem as an option in status plebiscites? Not surprisingly, members of Congress use past plebiscite results as convenient pretexts to take no action at all. And if President Obama’s recent remarks are any indication, should Statehood win by simple majority, it won’t be enough to move Congress towards legislating a change in the status quo. Doing nothing will only drive the island further into dependence, poverty, and ultimately, towards un-governability.

Puerto Rico has been an American territory for more than 114 years. Achieving Commonwealth status did not change the nature of the relationship between the island and the US mainland. Since 1917, island residents have been citizens by birth and have patriotically served in the Armed Forces since World War I – many making the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. Yet, with more than 200,000 Puerto Rican veterans in the island alone, including myself, none of them can vote for their Commander-in-Chief because Puerto Ricans residing in the island cannot vote for the President. They also do not have the minimum standard representation in their central government that we would expect of any democracy – and that often, we send our soldiers to foreign soils so that others can have what American citizens in Puerto Rico are denied.

Puerto Rico’s deficit in democracy is not, however, a question of citizenship, but one of residence. For example, any American citizen from any State that makes Puerto Rico their home will lose the right to vote for the President, and will lose the kind of Congressional representation they had while residing in a State. If President Obama were to make Puerto Rico his home, he wouldn’t be able to vote for himself in the upcoming elections.

It seems clear that the need to make other status arrangements is long overdue. Congress must understand that it has options to move the island forward even if it is not willing to move for immediate Statehood should it win in the upcoming two-stage plebiscite. One of the options Congress should consider is to upgrade the territory status and fully incorporate the island.

While incorporation itself is not a substitute for full Statehood, it is however, a practical way to provide the island with tools and temporary incentives to breach the gap between the island and the several States. It is a practical way for Congress to empower the island in order for it to make the necessary arrangements to improve its education record, improve proficiency in English and Spanish, and create a better business environment so that it can attract its professional and working class to stay. Empowering the island through incorporation may also provide the island with the political stability it desperately needs.

Critics of this idea will argue that incorporation does not solve the status problem since it does not fundamentally change the nature of Commonwealth under the “territorial clause of the Constitution.” Others will argue that they will not settle for anything less than Statehood for a territory for which Statehood is available. They are correct, but the idea of incorporation is not meant to solve the status problem immediately. Rather, it is to start a process that may provide the island with new tools to solve many of its problems in preparation for full Statehood.

Still others will argue that incorporation is too complex to understand and will only cast the island in permanent territorial limbo. As oppose to where Puerto Rico is now? The end result of incorporation is precisely Statehood. Congress and the Puerto Rican people can determine a timeframe during which the island will have to make the necessary changes to improve, and Congress will assist, guide, and ultimately grant admission once those changes are implemented.

Many Statehood supporters do not agree with me. But I insist that incorporation as a practical option and as a preamble to full Statehood should not be dismissed so easily. The Statehood movement is a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents all brought together by their understanding that equality under the law is above their own National Party divide. In approaching the subject, members of Congress ought to do the same. All viable options should be considered and given their proper time and weight, including incorporation as a preamble to full Statehood.

The opportunity to consider incorporation will likely present itself after the two-stage plebiscite held next year and Congress will have to act. Immediate incorporation as a procedural preamble for full Statehood is not only practical, but also the right thing to do. Once Puerto Rico achieves what incorporation is meant to be for, Statehood must result. Only Statehood will finally give the US and the Puerto Rican people the dignity that both have lost during 114 years of colonial experience. Incorporation is a road to get us there.

Julio Figueroa is the founder of "Be The Change Puerto Rico", an independent grass roots think-tank on status.  He has a BA in Philosophy from Morningside College, an MA in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma, and is currently a 2L in PUCPR School of Law in Ponce, Puerto Rico.  He is a US Air Force Veteran. He may be reached atjulio.figueroa.nunez@googlemail.com