Puerto Rico should not be a partisan political issue in the United States. The Democrats contemplate the idea of Puerto Rican statehood with glee, imagining that the Spanish speaking public will automatically vote for their party. Donald Trump is using Puerto Rico as yet another stage for his performative racist bullshit. Both sides are missing out on how important the island is to US national security.
This is part of a troubling trend in US politics that continues to grow. We’re really in the last couple decades of being able to ignore everything about world politics. Instead of using this time to position ourselves more intelligently, we’re turning more and more of our national security issues into partisan footballs. Iran, Israel, Puerto Rico, and now Ukraine have become partisan issues, making everybody dumber, and making the world a more dangerous place. Today’s video is a small attempt to push back against this wave of stupid.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. There is a lot of silliness in the way that US politicians talk about Puerto Rico, the US’s most populous non-voting territory. Since Hurricane Maria back in 2017, the island’s struggles have now become a partisan political issue in the United States, which is very very dumb. Both the Democrats and the Republicans need to focus back in on a central truth: Puerto Rican development is a national security issue.
This was very clear to the politicians who snatched the island away from Spain in 1898. Puerto Rico is the geographical key to the security of the entire Caribbean. It guards the approaches to the underbelly of the United States, and it’s probably the most strategic point in all of the Americas. There is a reason the US government took it, and we should do everything we can to keep it.
This central strategic value can be easy to forget. The US is in the waning decades of over a century of world dominance. In 2020 the idea of physically needing to defend US territory seems silly and far fetched. We are the guys who invade countries, nobody else even has the capability to do that anymore. That won’t always be the case.
For the first half century after 1898, the US felt pretty invulnerable in the western hemisphere. Our only rivals in Latin America were the British, who were both friendly to us and fading as a world power. During this period we were pretty abusive to Puerto Ricans, waiting almost 20 years to grant them citizenship, and appointing a series of governors from the mainland with ridiculous white guy names like Beekman Winthrop and Rexford Tugwell. Up until Tugwell, we were happy to leave the island mired in agricultural poverty.
This changed with the US victory in World War II and the beginning of the era of competition with the Soviet Union known as the cold war. A key part of post-war US ideology was opposition to empires, which made Puerto Rico’s dependence and poverty an embarrassment. Communist China and Russia never posed a serious physical threat to US control of Puerto Rico, but people could see the appeal of an ideology of redistribution and agrarian revolution. The Us response was Operation Bootstrap.
In partnership with local elites, who were now allowed to become governors, the US government sent Puerto Rico through a crash program of industrialization. In 20 years the economy was changed entirely through government intervention. This was not free market development, but a Japan style public private push. The key component was a series of tax breaks, that exempted the subsidiaries of US multinationals from corporate tax if they manufactured on the island. These breaks existed from the beginning of the program in the 1940s, but assumed their final form in 1976 as IRS section 936.
Operation Bootstrap no doubt has downsides you can point to, but the program more than fulfilled its goals, making Puerto Rico Latin America’s leader in GDP per capita, and in most human development indicators as well. According to CNBC, GNP per capita went up by a factor of ten between 1950 and 1980. Then the cold war ended and the US government stopped caring about Puerto Rico. In 1996 Clinton signed a bill phasing out section 936. Factories started closing. Unemployment started skyrocketing, and people started leaving.
Under section 936 US businesses didn’t have to pay corporate tax to the US government, but they did pay smaller taxes to the Puerto Rican government that formed a significant chunk of its revenue. Since 1996, as factories closed, and young earners moved to the mainland, the Puerto Rican government began to rely more and more on debt to keep the lights on. Infrastructure spending got pushed off into the future. A vicious cycle of declining services and declining investment set in. Then Hurricane Maria hit.
When people talk about Puerto Rico today I see a lot of blame thrown around, but not a lot of real plans for rebuilding. All the charitable and corporate social responsibility plans are nice, but there need to be serious governmental efforts comparable to Operation Bootstrap to get things back on track. The current tax incentives for wealthy investors and entreprenerurs are a nice start, but they are insufficient. At this point in the waning decades of US dominance, we still feel secure enough to ignore Puerto Rico’s needs. We shouldn’t.
Cast your mind 50 years into the future, or maybe a 100. What if Puerto Rico has opted for independence, or it still exists in a more impoverished and resentful dependency? By 2100 it’s almost certain that countries like India and China will have reached or surpassed the US economically and militarily. Their businesses and navies will be looking for inroads into the Americas. Also, what if some country or group of countries in South America has emerged as a world power by then? The idea of Puerto Rico falling into the hands of any of these powers, or just aligning with them should be troubling to any patriotic US citizen. The best guard against these scenarios is a Puerto Rican populace that is happy and happy to be with the United States. The Pentagon is already asking for trillions of dollars to spend on playing at Great Power Competition. A big win in Puerto Rico will only cost a few tens of billions.
If it were up to me, Puerto Rico would become a state, but more along the Alaska model, where people get extra benefits for being there. Who knows, It might be a good place to try out Andrew Yang’s Universal Basic Income stuff. In the coming centuries, I believe Puerto Rico will be much more strategically valuable than all of Alaska’s oil and gas. But it’s not up to me. It’s up to the Puerto Ricans. I don’t know what’s best for the island. But I do know that the United States has got to offer more for their loyalty than we are currently. US national security depends upon it.