The Washington Post’s editorial on Saturday, which argued that the current political crisis in Puerto Rico should lead Congress to strengthen the powers of the federal Fiscal Oversight Board, caused much controversy on the island and was seen as a reformulation of the same old jingoistic tropes of primitive Latin American populations rescued from their plight by the United States. I’ll first explain why and, second, make the case for an alternative approach based on more democracy rather than less.
In comparing the situation in Puerto Rico with that of the D.C. government in the 1990s, the Post’s Editorial Board made the common mistake of assuming that the island is just another jurisdiction under the U.S. flag. On the contrary, Puerto Rico is not some place in which by chance an American citizen decides to settle. We are a nation. As such, to say that Congress should take more control over our internal governance by further empowering an unelected and unaccountable oversight board is to say that the Puerto Rican people are inherently incapable of putting their own house in order.
Our local politicians have indeed failed us, much like U.S. political leaders have betrayed the trust of the American people. According to Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, 44 per cent of Americans believe that corruption is pervasive in the White House and almost 7 out of 10 believe government is failing to fight corruption. In the 2018 Index, the U.S. fell out of the top 20 least corrupt countries in the world, 13 spots behind Canada. Despite that, no one would seriously suggest that America’s neighbor to the north take over the country’s finances.
We need more participation by the people of Puerto Rico, not less. Our Constitution, which this week turns 67, and our economic program were touted by the U.S. government as a model for post-war democratization efforts around the world. More local control over economic and social policy worked. Puerto Rico went from being the “poorhouse of the Caribbean,” as Rexford Guy Tugwell, the island’s last American governor, described the situation when he arrived, to being the “showcase of democracy.”
That model has languished and now needs to be brought up to date. Politicians have held the people hostage. Political parties have too much influence and the results of popular elections aren’t reflected proportionally in the composition of the legislature. All elected offices are voted on once every four years on the same date as the U.S. presidential election, essentially shutting citizens out from participating in their government for long stretches of time, making public protests the only effective means of being heard. To make matters worse, the constitutional debt limit was exceeded time and again leading to the island’s bankruptcy.
I and others have proposed amending the Constitution to make government more participatory and to curb, through democratic means, the power of politicians and parties. Both the House and the Senate should more clearly reflect the diversity of political opinions on the island and make it harder for one party to have absolute control over the legislative process. Elections should be staggered, following the U.S. model, to give voters more power to correct course and to send political leaders clear messages through the ballot box. To rein in spending, oversight and responsibility should fall to the people rather than the federal Board, with referendums to approve new debt issues and taxes.
These and other proposals are the way forward in a world that long ago gave up on the idea that extraordinary circumstances call for dictators rather than stronger and more representative institutions.
Armando A. Valdés Prieto is a Washington Post contributor, lawyer in private practice, former director of the Puerto Rico Office of Management and Budget, and a candidate for mayor of San Juan. He tweets from @armandovaldes.