When a Puerto Rican Wins the Powerball

When a Puerto Rican wins the Powerball, it’s time to invoke the second amendment and load our guns. That is the message that went out when a $564 million Powerball lottery was held on February 11 and one of the three winning tickets was sold in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Almost immediately, Latino Rebels reported a national spate of offensive tweets, which were soon picked up global outlets such as NBC News, Buzzfeed and The Daily Mail, to name a few. Some of the more memorable ones:

“It’s completely outrageous someone from Puerto Rico won the Powerball, thought this was America!”

“Puerto Rico won the Powerball? Thanks, Obama.”

“Since when could you win a Powerball jackpot in Puerto Rico? Don’t they use the Euro as currency?”

Other tweets were written in language too offensive, or grammatically inept, to print. The legality of Powerball in Puerto Rico is beyond question: the island is a U.S. territory, and its inhabitants are U.S. citizens. But the animus behind these tweets —particularly the unprintable ones— indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S.

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Let’s try to correct that.

The U.S. “liberated” Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898. Later that same year, Hurricane San Ciriaco destroyed thousands of the island’s farms and nearly the entire year’s coffee crop. Of 50 million pounds, only five million were saved.

American hurricane relief was bizarre. The U.S. government sent no money.  Instead, the following year it outlawed all Puerto Rican currency and declared the island’s peso, whose international value was equal to the  U.S. dollar, to be worth only sixty American cents. Every Puerto Rican lost 40% of his or her money overnight.

In 1901, the U.S. passed the Hollander Act, which raised the taxes on every farmer in Puerto Rico.

With higher taxes, crippled farms, and 40% less cash, the farmers had to borrow money from U.S. banks. But with no usury law restrictions, interest rates were so high that within a decade, the farmers defaulted on their loans and the banks foreclosed on their land.

The U.S., which was undergoing its industrial revolution, then turned a diversified island harvest (coffee, tobacco, sugar, and fruit) into a one-crop, cash-cow economy.

By 1930, all of Puerto Rico’s sugar farms belonged to 41 syndicates. 80% of these were U.S.-owned and the largest four syndicates —Central Guánica, South Puerto Rico, Fajardo Sugar and East Puerto Rico Sugar— were entirely U.S.-owned and covered over half the island’s arable land.

With no money, crops or land, Puerto Ricans sought work in the cities. When the Puerto Rican legislature enacted a minimum-wage law like the one in America, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. This decision was reached despite AFL-CIO President Samuel Gompers’ testimony that “the salaries paid to Puerto Ricans are now less than 50% what they received from the Spanish.”

To make matters worse, U.S. finished products —from rubber bands to radios— were priced 15% to 20% higher on the island than the mainland. Again, Puerto Rico was powerless to enact any price-fixing legislation.

Today, U.S. federal agencies control Puerto Rico’s foreign relations, customs, immigration, postal system, radio, TV, transportation, Social Security, military, maritime laws, banks, commerce, currency and defense. That’s without the people of Puerto Rico having a vote in U.S. elections.

The U.S. did give Puerto Ricans one gift. Over the objection of the Puerto Rican legislature, Puerto Ricans were declared U.S. citizens in 1917, just in time for military conscription into World War I.

For decades, the extent of military control over the island was particularly striking. No one could drive five miles in any direction without running into an Army base, nuclear site or tracking station. The Pentagon controlled 13% of Puerto Rico’s land and operated five atomic missile bases.

The island of Vieques, after 62 years of non-stop bombing, resembled an asteroid more than an island. From 1984 through 1998, over 1,300 warships and 4,200 aircraft used the island for target practice, and pounded it with 80 million pounds of ordnance. In 1998 alone, 23,000 bombs were dropped on Vieques.

In 2014, the U.S. Congress finally recognized the 65th Infantry Regiment —also known as the Borinqueneers for their service in every U.S. conflict since World War I. In Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, this service meant disproportionately high casualties and deaths, since the Borinqueneers were frequently – and sometimes maliciously – assigned to the front lines. The Borinqueneers received the Congressional Gold Medal for the blood they spilled, while defending America.

It is thus clear that when a Puerto Rican pays for a lottery ticket and manages to win, that person has nothing to be ashamed about. They are not a second-class lottery winner… or a second-class citizen.

It is equally clear that the U.S. public education system has some serious holes in it, when a nation so sadly misunderstands eight million of its own citizens.

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Nelson A. Denis is a former New York State Assemblyman and author of the upcoming book, War Against All Puerto Ricans.

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