OPINION: Saving Puerto Rico?

May 26, 2021
5:49 PM

A Puerto Rican flag flies on an empty beach at Ocean Park, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

On April 28 the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a remarkable document that calls on the federal government to come to Puerto Rico’s aid. “An Urgent Rescue Plan for Puerto Rico” is a comprehensive program to help the archipelago recover from the effects of natural disasters, a protracted fiscal crisis and a public health emergency. Virtually every sector of society would be favorably impacted if the rescue plan is adopted.

CAP is a liberal think tank that was created in 2003 in Washington D.C. to counter the right-wing Heritage Foundation. The Center is the creation of former senior officials in the Clinton administration, including chief of staff, John Podesta. It is currently headed by Neera Tanden. She is a well-connected establishment Democrat who worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations. She also had a leadership role in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Tanden was nominated by President Biden to head the Office of Management and Budget, but she was forced to withdraw her nomination after strong Senate opposition. Eventually, Biden did finally find a place for her in his administration as a “senior advisor.” That appointment does not require Senate confirmation.

The recuse plan calls on President Biden to re-establish the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico and to “give it resources and authority” to spearhead the relief plan. President Clinton established the first task force, and Presidents Bush and Obama reauthorized it. But the task force was just an advisory body. If CAP had its way, that would change. CAP’s plan includes action on debt relief, mitigating the “unchecked and opaque power” of the Financial Oversight Management Board, passing tax incentives to lure pharmaceutical firms and building hospitals in Vieques and Culebra. Other actions include waiving the Jones Act, restoring public safety, reigning in the police force, boosting federal agricultural support, ending discriminatory federal regulations, and mental health and disabilities programs for post-disaster victims. The Center also wants Biden to work with Congress on a federally binding process to end Puerto Rico’s colonial status.

CAP didn’t create this list of executive actions on its own. Most of the rescue plan consists of demands and recommendations that Puerto Rican officials, advocacy groups, grassroots organizations, and political parties have made for over a decade. The plan is a response to Puerto Rican demands for social justice, fair treatment by the federal government, and a transparent and responsible local government.

Only once, in the mid-1930s when the island was in the grip of the Great Depression, has the federal government implemented a large-scale relief and reconstruction program. Then —as now— Puerto Rico was mired in poverty, in an economic depression, heavily in debt, and recovering from the effects of a devastating hurricane. Insurgent political forces challenged the local government when it failed to resolve the crisis. The insular government seemed on the verge of losing control over the strategic Caribbean island. President Roosevelt established the Puerto Rican Emergency Relief Administration (PRERA) to mitigate widespread human suffering and to restore political stability. But PRERA couldn’t handle the enormity of the crisis and was replaced by the Puerto Rican Reconstruction Administration. This agency provided direct relief, promoted agrarian reform, and financed public works projects to create jobs. Unfortunately, this agency also failed to free Puerto Rico from its dire economic situation.

Puerto Rico is undergoing turbulent political and economic changes. The CAP rescue plan comes less than two years after Puerto Ricans by the hundreds of thousands, rose up to peacefully protest and oust a despised governor. The 2020 elections revealed a significant drop in support for the dominant statehood and commonwealth political parties. Electoral participation plummeted to 53%, the lowest in Puerto Rico’s modern history. Pedro Pierluisi, the statehood candidate for governor, claimed victory with only 33% of the vote. The opposition independence and self-determination political parties gained representation in government.

Civil society is now organized into a myriad of autonomous self-help and issue-specific organizations. They are non-partisan and actively protest unfair government policies. Thousands are now protesting the government’s decision to privatize the electrical utility. Thousands more are ardently and boisterously demanding that the local government stop the rampant femicide. The political class has lost credibility, and no one seems to be in control in Puerto Rico. The House Committee on Natural Resources wants the financial control board to stop its gut-wrenching austerity policies. Even more dramatic changes are likely.

CAP should be applauded for demanding that the federal government take responsibility for the crisis that has engulfed Puerto Rico. The plan responds to Puerto Rico’s desperate needs and reflects the growing opinion in Washington and Puerto Rico that the current colonial arrangement is simply not working. Many Puerto Ricans would welcome this rescue plan, but there are some problems. The executive branch will control how the plan is carried out, and Puerto Ricans will have a limited role, at best, in administering this multibillion-dollar federal transfer program.

Despite its seemingly good intentions, the CAP rescue plan perpetuates the long-standing imperial practice of excluding Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, from participating in the formation of policies that dramatically affect their lives. Since the plan relies on executive orders and regulatory changes, future presidents could gut it. Some see the rescue plan as an exercise in benevolent colonialism after decades of discriminatory federal policies that led to the current crisis. Others may see it as an attempt to discourage the growing popular movement against American colonial rule.

Puerto Ricans are politically engaged and determined to rebuild their country. They decry the syndrome of dependency that is at the heart of colonialism. This rescue plan increases dependency on the federal government and can undermine the autonomy of new, vibrant social movements. A newly politicized and resilient population that has persevered through the trauma of the last decade will demand a role in putting the rescue plan into effect.

Here’s hoping that people are listening.


Pedro Cabán is Professor of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies at the University at Albany, and the author of “Constructing a Colonial People:  Puerto Rico and the United States 1898-1932.” His more recent work has appeared in NACLA, Latin American Perspectives, Dissent, Jacobin, New Politics, and Current History.