Neha recently made a caring blog post about the irony of aid, thinking about Jo Cosme’s tarot cards, the etymology of aid, and the essential lack of care in the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria, especially epitomized in the “ayuda” that Trump attempted to provide by slinging a paper tower roll into a crowd of Puerto Ricans. Adding on to her blog post, I’d like to think about how this reaction is largely emblematic of The United States’ historical and contemporary relationship with Puerto Rico in general. This is a complicated and entrenched topic, so I’ll touch on just a bit of this relationship.
A few weeks ago in class, we took to to the indexes, legends, and maps of our road and world atlases to try and notice something peculiar about them. One thing we noticed is that in our Rand McNally 2018 Road Atlas, Puerto Rico is totally missing.
It brings into question: How do we even think about Puerto Rico? What does it mean to be an unincorporated territory of the United States? What benefits does it have as a territory but lack as a non-state? What are its sovereign rights? The answers to these questions are complicated and historical, and I won’t attempt to do the violent act of glossing over these questions by attempting to address them in this blog post. But these questions do inform the relationship I am about to outline in this post.
First, it is important to understand that Puerto Rico’s status is a result of the Spanish-American War, and the Treaty of Paris (1899) which ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. Many legalities regarding Puerto Rico have changed in history and in more recent times—such as as the Jones-Shanforth Act (1917) granting citizenship largely for military conscription purposes, and the 1952 Constitutional Convention creating the nominal change to “commonwealth”—all changes challenged by continuous questions and demands from both P.R. and the international community regarding independence/decolonization. The history is complicated, but it’s important to keep P.R. in context: Since 1889 it has been literally conscripted as a colony, something constructed as property of the United States, in more ways than one. This quote from Juan González aptly sums up the United States’ impetus for military and economic presence in Puerto Rico:
“For decades, Puerto Rico was important to the American economy as a center of sugar cane growing, then as a tax haven for manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies, and as a military stronghold and bulwark against the spread of communism in Latin America.”
This history also informs the complicated reasons that right before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was entrenched in hundred-billion-dollar debt. A 1976 tax break essentially created a loophole in which U.S. businesses and manufacturers paid little to no income taxes in P.R. This led to an influx of business and an economic boom. Feeling deficit, the ’76 cut was repealed in 1996, leading to a massive business drain from the island, a lack of indigenous business, and a huge recession in the mid-2000s. This led also to a brain-drain, making matters worse. Legislation on behalf of the U.S. government didn’t/doesn’t help much: In 1984, Strom Thurmond (who was also a segregationist) put wording into an amendment that makes P.R. ineligible for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy, without ever giving a reason why.
With this history in mind, and in light of recent economic and political developments, it is important to keep in mind that our country’s take on “aid” to Puerto Rico operates within a colonialist context. To add on to what Neha aptly said about Trump’s paper towel debacle as the pinnacle of a lack of care, it it also symbolizes perhaps how our federal government views Puerto Rico: A tiny, tropical, Spanish-dominant island of largely brown and black people, trapped in a liminal space that is neither state nor country, whose legislative and financial liberties are largely at the whim of their aging colonizer. A lack of care is essential to maintaining this relationship. To instill care—now, that’s a big question.