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By Vianca Rodríguez*
I remember it like it was yesterday. Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, just two weeks after the impact of Hurricane Irma, from which thousands of Puerto Ricans were still trying to recover. We never imagined that it would end up causing the damage and, thus, the trauma that still haunts us all five years later. Those of us who lived a month or more without electricity and water know what we are talking about. It never fails every hurricane season, where we all have mixed feelings because we feel paralyzed. That’s why when Fiona hit, we only expected the worst —we increasingly feel that we are condemned to the worst.
When I am told that in the diaspora the hurricane season “is not as bad as we had it”, it is hard for me to believe and think that there are other states with better management of emergencies and natural disasters. However, the reality is that the difference is between heaven and earth —in every county in Florida— as we waited for Hurricane Ian. Everyone moved quickly to implement contingency plans: the state’s division of emergency management, the governor, and every elected official and officials in every city did everything possible to prevent further damage.
They required clearing sewers, installing temporary dams around water pumping stations, further reinforced aqueduct systems, installed additional appropriate shelters, and the utility and electrical commissions have been ready since before landfall to reactivate these essential services as quickly as possible and permissible without risking more lives.
This type of action —in collaboration with federal agencies— is what allows states like Florida to rebuild properly and, in most cases, faster than Puerto Rico. The unfortunate thing about the situation in Puerto Rico is that, in addition to being preventable time and time again, we find ourselves talking about what is wrong and failing to correct it every year after a hurricane washes over the island. Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
To not talk about the status quo and how the colonial legal status of the Commonwealth contributes to the problem is to ignore a legitimate path to recovery. The Commonwealth of Luis Muñoz Marin is what has brought us to this situation. Selling the idea to millions of Puerto Ricans and other American citizens in the Diaspora that we can have our cake and eat it too is the toxic idea that has contributed to the efforts so far have been in vain.
Not talking about how elected officials in the U.S. Congress have passed or eliminated legislation to benefit (or not) the Puerto Rican people shows the consequences when we do not have officials with a say in legislating and voting for (or against) issues that could change the course of the island.
The disparity in post-Maria economic recovery/reconstruction aid compared to Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida shows that something is wrong. The protectionist and archaic Jones Act that prevents any foreign competition and aid from coming to the island without prior approval from the federal government, which contributes to higher prices on the products that Puerto Ricans consume, does not apply to them. It is this act that is currently preventing a ship from the Marshall Islands from arriving on the island with 300,000 barrels of diesel and fuel needed for post-Fiona recovery.
The insular cases from which we govern Puerto Rico’s status to this day are in desperate need of review. The same Supreme Court that decided Plessy v Ferguson also decided the insular cases that justify unequal treatment of “unincorporated” territories like Guam and Puerto Rico. While Plessy has had its time of correction through Brown v Board of Education, Puerto Rico has yet to have its time of rectification – despite strongly expressing support for statehood in the last 3 referendums.
We need to opt for a multi-sectoral transformation. We need another “Hands on” operation, but a different one, which should begin with the immediate admission of Puerto Rico as a state. This is why Congress needs to consider HR 8393, known as the Puerto Rico Status Act, which could finally provide a binding referendum that Congress would have to act on, if voters re-elect statehood.
We should reinstate laws and tax incentives such as Section 936, which for more than 80 years offered job opportunities, economic incentives and, above all, helped raise the standard of housing, GDP, and literacy throughout the island. A transformation in the economy needs literally all labor – from the private sector, and pharmaceuticals, to the agricultural sector, and incorporating small and medium-sized traders.
It is blatant hypocrisy to criticize the few remaining tax incentives in Puerto Rico while those on the left scream that “they are killing us”. The only ones who are killing us are those who condemn us to limit the possibilities of transforming the island’s economy based on political games, while those same so-called “independentistas” move to states like Florida and Texas to enjoy the same incentives – such as not having to pay state income taxes.
This is why states like Florida are able to obtain the necessary funds to better respond to natural disasters and reinforce existing infrastructure, because they have the necessary tax incentives, especially for those companies that have come to the state for the purpose of accelerating development in rural areas and to establish jobs.
On the other hand, we have a local government that, despite its special level of autonomy, has failed time and again to demonstrate that they can offer choices and encourage competition in public sectors such as electricity and water services so that naturally, through dynamic supply and demand, consumers can see lower prices on their monthly bills. On the contrary, each passing day shows how inefficient it is under the Commonwealth.
The local government also has to offer incentives to those who stay, starting by not making life difficult for small and medium-sized businesses that are really the backbone of the island: the entrepreneurs.
Most relevant of all is that while one can move to another state, if one wishes to do so, while in Florida, those in Puerto Rico do not have the same opportunity. They have no choice but to simply face it. And it is for this obvious reason that reforming the infrastructure throughout the island is necessary, which would only come with a change of status. Only then can the era of trauma end once and for all.
*Conservative political analyst and panelist on ViX’s nightly program, Línea de Fuego. She resides in Doral, FL. She received her B.A. in Political Science from Arizona State University and is currently completing her MPA in Public Administration at Arizona State University.