I had the good fortune to attend a conference in San Juan for half of last week; "fortunate" in the sense that it was 86 degrees when I got on the plane Sunday morning and 7 – 7 goddamn degrees – when I got off in Chicago. Beyond that I got to visit America's politically ambiguous colonial non-state possession for the first time. Although I didn't see the entire island or get to stay for very long, the short visit did motivate me to do something Americans tend never to do: pay a little bit of attention to Puerto Rico.
About the extent of my knowledge of Puerto Rican politics and internal affairs, as is the case with most Americans, is that they are all screwed up. The island's government is deeply in debt, its population is aging and unproductive because the young people leave to the mainland US for higher wages, and Congress has no intention of altering the relationship between PR and the rest of the country because of course every aspect of that relationship has been defined in a way that benefits us. That's how colonialism works.
Puerto Ricans have some interest in statehood, which is a non-starter with a Republican Congress. Their objection, as with D.C. statehood, is the inevitable addition of two more Democrats to the Senate should PR become a state. Ironically, in the 1990s it was the Republicans who were all for PR statehood. They pretended that it was some sort of principled stand but most people saw it as a transparent effort to curry favor with Hispanics. Believe it or not, it was even more cynical than that; they wanted to make PR a state so that the government would no longer be obligated to pay the island for the use of various military facilities on it like the test bombing range on Vieques. It was a classy move, although obviously it went nowhere.
That was about all I knew. Well, there was one more thing: over the past year I kept reading that there was a lot of controversy on the island over the issue of cabotage. This information created two problems for me. First, every time I see it I replace "Sabotage" with cabotage and get the song stuck in my head. Second, I have no goddamn idea what cabotage is. It seemed worth a half hour on the way to the airport to read a little.
Cabotage is, "the transport of goods or passengers between two places in the same country by a transport operator from another country." It is forbidden in the United States by the Jones Act, which is nearing its 100th birthday. For example, that a Panamanian ship cannot stop in New Orleans and then stop in San Juan. Only an American owned, registered, and crewed ship can transport things from cities like Houston or New Orleans to the island. This is important because PR has to import nearly everything (for reasons that are controversial, but for which the island itself deserves at least some blame). In short, the highly consolidated US shipping industry has Puerto Rico over a barrel. As you might expect they take every opportunity to ream them.
The real tragedy is that mismanagement – both self-mismanagement and ineffective governance by colonial powers like Spain and the U.S. – has created a dependence on imports that isn't strictly necessary. The island is well suited to agriculture but grows almost none of its own food. It has some of the best conditions for a renewable commercial timber industry but instead imports wood from the U.S. and Canada. Compared to much of the Caribbean, it is underdeveloped for tourism and undercut on price by similar destinations in the region. It's a sad state of affairs and one that is not rare around the world: a place with a lot of potential that it will never realize for political reasons.
It will be an ancillary issue at best but during this election it wouldn't be surprising to see the candidates pressed on bailing out the Puerto Rican government as it comes closer to defaulting on its $70 billion in debt. I'm no economist but at a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 68%, promising alternatives to a Congressional bailout are neither numerous nor apparent.