Has Puerto Rico, too, gone bananas?
On Wednesday, January 10, 2018, in the U.S. Congress, an event took place that statehood proponents consider a historic “step towards statehood.”
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González gave a speech on the House floor: “We demand statehood for Puerto Rico now!”
She formally presented the seven members of the Equality Commission: the two “Senators” and five “Representatives” named by Governor Ricardo Rosselló, not really to lobby for statehood, but as the Resident Commissioner said, “demand” it.
The commission members–former Govs. Pedro Rosselló, Carlos Romero Barceló and Luis Fortuño; former Puerto Rico Senate President Charlie Rodríguez, now president of the local Democratic Committee; the head of the local GOP Committee, Zoraida Fonalledas; and conservative activist Alfonso Aguilar–observed from the House gallery. Baseball star Iván Rodríguez was absent.
Also in the gallery was the Governor himself, with Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez.
Few members of Congress were present. In fact, the American people have something else on their minds: The mental health of President Trump. Days earlier, Washington and the national media were rocked by the latest book on Trump, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff, an account of the president’s first year in office.
Trump called it a “book of lies.” But it created a media frenzy precisely because many in Washington, including many columnists and journalists, have been suggesting that Trump is really deranged.
Back in February 13, 2017, 33 prominent psychiatrists and psychologists wrote a letter to the New York Times stating flatly that he is suffering from “grave emotional instability.” Members of Congress of both parties have met with a psychiatrist who wrote a book on Trump’s mental health.
And the day after the Puerto Rico statehood presentation, the nation and the world were further disturbed by the reports that Trump had used profanity in describing black and Hispanic countries.
What really stunned Americans, I think, is not that Trump, as TV news anchors solemnly declared that night, “is a racist.” But that again it seemed to confirm America’s worst fears – that the President is unhinged.
So in a Washington that seems to be shell-shocked, I don’t think that the statehood presentation will have much of an impact. But for those who paid attention, it must be confusing. For over a year the U.S. media has been reporting that Puerto Rico is in a horrific economic and fiscal crisis, made far worse by the devastation wrought by Hurricane María on the September 20.
It doesn’t seem to add up: How could an economically destroyed Puerto Rico become a state?
A half century ago, there was what statehood leaders also celebrated as a “historic step towards statehood.” Luis A. Ferré and Miguel Ángel García Méndez were members of the U.S.-Puerto Rico Status Commission that did a two-year study on the island’s status. Conducted by a large staff of U.S. and Puerto Rican professionals, and many expert consultants, this was, and still is, the biggest and deepest study ever.
The Commission had been created in 1964 by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín and President Lyndon Johnson. Ferré and García Mendez were delighted that the Commission’s August 1966 report concluded that sometime in the future–it didn’t predict when–statehood could be economically viable.
This was, Ferré and García Méndez wrote in the report, “a historic step forward in the inevitable advance towards statehood for Puerto Rico.”
But the report emphasized several times that statehood would be economically viable only if the island economy continued to grow rapidly.
The exact wording of the report is worth quoting: of all the factors that emerged from the study “first, is the factor of the Commonwealth continued success. As noted earlier, the growth under Commonwealth not only serves to validate its own position, but is essential also to make possible the realization of any other status without prohibitive hardships.”
This seems self evident. As the report points out, historically there are two conditions to be admitted as a state: The people must want it, and the economy must be robust enough to carry the economic burden of statehood – beginning with federal taxes.
But we know now that it has not been self-evident.
The two former governors in the gallery for the statehood presentation, Pedro Rosselló and Romero Barceló believed that the road to statehood required, not “the continued success of Commonwealth,” but the destruction of Commonwealth.
When they succeeded in 1996 in getting Congress to eliminate the federal tax incentive, Section 936, they believed, as they said often, they were removing the main “obstacle to statehood.” That they were making the island economy compatible with statehood since the 936 tax incentive was not possible under statehood.
Instead they triggered Puerto Rico’s economic decline and the economic and fiscal crisis. If the real obstacle to statehood is that Puerto Rico is twice as poor as the poorest state, Mississippi, three times as poor as the nation, how does making Puerto Rico poorer lead to statehood?
If this sounds strange, it is.
Americans, I believe, have reason to ask them themselves a terrible question: Do we have in the White House a President that is unhinged?
And I also think that members of Congress, the American people, have reason to ask themselves a question about Puerto Rico.
They are seeing the Government of Puerto Rico getting it absolutely wrong. Yes there are political reasons to petition for statehood. But the economic argument that Puerto Rico needs statehood to climb out of the economic and fiscal crisis has it backwards.
It was precisely the attempt to make the island economy compatible with statehood that ruined the economy in the first place. And it is precisely the ruined economy that makes the demand for statehood senseless.
The Americans have reason to ask themselves another question: Has Puerto Rico, too, gone bananas?
–A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist for the San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and publisher and editor of El Reportero.