Puerto Rico: Obama Visits a Commonwealth’s Uncommon Problems

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It has been 50 years since a U.S. President traveled to Puerto Rico, and that’s indicative of how little Washington ponders America’s Caribbean island commonwealth. Only rarely, like the controversy over the U.S. naval base at Vieques a decade ago, do Americans even remember their ties to Puerto Rico. Even President Obama’s visit to the island on Tuesday, June 14, is being explained by most pundits as a way for him to curry favor with Puerto Rican voters in the U.S. The Miami Herald’s Frances Robles has an insightful piece today on how Obama is eyeing in particular the burgeoning Puerto Rican community in central Florida, which is less reliably Democratic than more traditional communities like New York’s.

But beneath the superficial political considerations, Puerto Rico – which unlike Haiti is actually our responsibility – has big problems that the U.S. needs to engage. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate tops 16%; its poverty rate is 44% and its median annual income is $14,400, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., which is well below the U.S. poverty line. Its violent crime has gotten so bad that last year Governor Luis Fortuño had to call out the National Guard in a bid to contain it. Little wonder that so many Puerto Ricans are leaving the island that according to Pew, there are more Puerto Rican-origin Latinos living in the U.S. today (4.6 million) than there are living in Puerto Rico (3.7 million).

In the 1990s, then President Bill Clinton formed a White House Task Force on Puerto Rico, whose current members will accompany Obama to San Juan, the capital. Its core directive, aside from addressing the social problems, is to help Puerto Ricans best solve the status issue that has divided the island for decades – and which may well be key to addressing the pressing social problems. The commonwealth designation Puerto has had since the 1950s was meant to give it political and cultural autonomy while keeping it part of the territory of the U.S., which wrested the island from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. (Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but those residing on the island may not vote for President because Puerto Rico is not a state.) But today that quasi-colonial arrangement seems to have set Puerto Rico “in a political and economic twilight zone,” says Angelo Falcón, head of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York.

Puerto Ricans like the conservative Fortuño instead favor statehood, which they argue would give the island access to the benefits and tools to pull it out of its Third World condition. Just as important, it would give Puerto Rico bona fide representation in the U.S. Congress. Statehood opponents, including those who favor making Puerto Rico an independent nation, fear the island’s identity as well as autonomy would be swallowed up if it becomes the 51st state.

Either way, polarization over that and other issues – including Fortuño-led spending cuts that earlier this year caused student unrest and a heavy-handed police response – are a large part of Puerto Rico’s current dysfunction. This week the U.S. delegation will try to work through plans for a new island-wide referendum on the status question, which could take place next year. But U.S. Puerto Rican observers like Falcón point out that Puerto Rico still needs some assurance that Congress will accept whichever direction the island votes to go. “Puerto Ricans want to hear from Congress, ‘Whatever you decide, we’ll go with it,’” says Falcón. “They’re not hearing that yet, and it complicates the situation.”

Part of the reason is that many in Congress are wary about adding a problem-plagued place to the roster of American states, especially in this lousy economic and fiscal environment. Others are just as cautious about Puerto Rican nationhood, largely because they don’t want to lose U.S. territory, especially in our own backyard, where China is making such a big trade and investment push today. But all that assumes that Congress actually thinks about Puerto Rico, which it doesn’t. And Obama’s visit, unfortunately, is unlikely to change that.