Public Comment

Puerto Rico: The High Toll of Being Colonized

Harry Brill
Saturday January 06, 2018 - 05:30:00 PM

An important indication that a government is disinterested in the basic needs of a population is almost always reflected in its statistics. An uncaring government underestimates the extent of a problem that really should have been and still should be addressed. Puerto Rico's recent major Hurricane, Maria --- shouldn't it be named Hurricane Trump! -- killed according to the official count 64 people. President Trump praised the low number of deaths, although he objected that its officials were asking the U.S. Government for more resources. He criticized local officials for wanting "everything to be done for them”. 

If the damage was so relatively mild a reasonable argument can be made that Puerto Rico needs very little assistance. But It is not only that three months since the hurricane about half the households still lack power. According to the New York Times over 1,000 residents were killed as a result of the storm. The Times checked the same time period of recorded deaths in 2015 and 2016, which averaged over a thousand fewer who had died. But it is not just hurricane Maria that bears the blame for the immense damage. By contrast, the rich suffered far less in degree and kind. Most Puerto Ricans lack a safe environment, adequate infrastructure, and access to good and readily available medical services. 

Among the greatest killers anywhere is living in poverty, whether due to low paying jobs, unhealthy jobs, or unemployment. Unfortunately for those who reside in Puerto Rico, their misfortune is proportionately greater than anywhere else in the United States. The official unemployment rate exceeds 10 percent, which is over twice the national rate of 4.1 percent. The average annual income in Puerto Rico is about $15,200. That's half of Mississippi's, which is the poorest state in the union. In other words, if Puerto Rico was a state, its average income would be the lowest than all other states in the union. The widespread poverty creates conditions of living which makes the impoverished more vulnerable to disastrous events. 

Nelson Denis in his remarkable book, "War Against All Puerto Ricans", reports additional burdens that Puerto Rico's population bears is that water rates were hiked by 60 percent, and sales taxes have been increased to 11.5 percent. For electricity Puerto Rico's consumers pay more for their power than consumers in every state except Hawaii. Also, the costs to every Puerto Rican to cover the interest on Puerto Rico's public debt will be more than $1500 a year, which on average is at least 10 percent of their income. The abysmally low income and high taxes of most Puerto Ricans have pushed many of its residents into deeper poverty.  

Also, foreclosures have more than doubled in the last decade. About a third of Puerto Rican homeowners have fallen behind on their mortgage payments. Like the judicial process on the mainland, lenders must follow federal guidelines on notifying borrowers and must give them an opportunity to pay their debt. But to save time, inconvenience, and uncertainty for the mortgage lenders, the foreclosure notices are sent in English even though many residents speak only Spanish. Despite this outrageous violation, the federal government has looked the other way. 

To explain the desperate economic situation of many of the Puerto Rican residents, their basic problem is that they are colonized. They lack the democratic rights to build a better life for themselves. Although they are citizens, they are deprived of the right to vote for president. They are allowed one representative in the House of Representatives, but their rep is not allowed to vote on the floor of the house. Puerto Ricans do have their legislature. But Congress can veto any decision that the legislature makes. 

In fact, Congress passed in 2016 a notorious bill that completely eliminates any political and judicial rights of Puerto Rican citizens. The purpose of this 

horrendous law is to repay creditors for the money they are owed. A Financial Control Board (FCB) was established and pro-business appointments to the board were made to manage the entire Puerto Rican Economy. The FCB approved an austerity plan for 2017-2026 that includes cuts in health care and pensions, and massive cuts in education. Also 300 public school buildings will be closed and sold. Also, the FCB is empowered to preside over all leases, union contracts and collective bargain agreements.  

Clearly, Puerto Rico's population is painfully aware from their horrendous experience that the lack of democracy and their massive poverty are inextricably linked. For very good reason, they prefer political independence from the United States or at least statehood. But legally speaking, that decision is not up to the people. In fact, during the 1950s there was a growing nationalist movement for independence that was crushed by several thousand American troops. Also, two towns were bombarded. This is the only occasion in American history that the U.S. government deliberately bombed its own citizens. 

What have we learned from the routine contempt of Puerto Rican residents by many government officials? It is not only that they can be very tough. Too often these officials are also cruel. Being mistreated by those in control of the American colonies is the heavy price that is paid by those who are colonized. 

To Err is Human. But to Exploit and Humiliate is Not