An Interview with A. W. Maldonado, author of “Boom and Bust in Puerto Rico”

A.W. Maldonado is a retired journalist who spent more than fifty years covering Puerto Rico’s politics and economy as reporter and columnist for the San Juan Star and editor of El Mundo and El Reportero. He is the author of several books, including Luis Muñoz Marín: Puerto Rico’s Democratic Revolution. He met with Notre Dame Press to discuss Boom and Bust in Puerto Rico (August 2021).

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

My 1997 book on Puerto Rico’s economic miracle, Teodoro Moscoso and Puerto Rico’s Operation Bootstrap, ended at a White House South Lawn ceremony, August 20, 1996, where President Clinton signed a bill that increased the federal minimum wage and killed Section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code that gave Puerto Rico a critical tax incentive. 

When Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro García Padilla announced on June 29, 2015 that Puerto Rico was in an economic death spiral, unable to pay its $73 billion debt, front page news in the U.S. and around the world, I started thinking about writing a sequel to the Moscoso book, the “new chapter in the never-ending battle for the Puerto Rican economy”: How the killing of Section 936 had indeed killed Bootstrap and ruined the Puerto Rico economy.     

A. W. Maldonado

How did you research this book?

Nothing is more contentious in Puerto Rico than the conflict over political status. I should explain my approach to the issue and how I arrived at the conclusion regarding the island’s political future. I was born of Puerto Rican parents and grew up and was educated in the U.S. In Puerto Rico, the status issue is essentially ideological and partisan. My interest and focus was economic: what is economically realistic? 

The research depended basically on my newspaper experience covering the Puerto Rico economy and its politics starting back in 1959 and focused a good deal on Operation Bootstrap. In the 1990’s, I covered and wrote extensively on the battle to save Section 936 and the effect of its demise. I also covered and wrote extensively on the island and the U.S. and on the political status ideological and partisan conflicts. 

For the book, I depended on numerous U.S. government and congressional studies and reports, as well as on important works by Puerto Rico economists and former government officials that played keys roles in the island’s economic and fiscal policies, such as Eliezer Curet Cuevas and Juan Agosto Alicea. 

How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal crisis has had an impact in the U.S. in Congress and in the Obama and Trump White Houses. Congress continues to wrestle with Puerto Rico’s political future; Puerto Rican statehood and “self-determination” bills have been introduced. To understand Puerto Rico’s economic crisis and political status conflict, it is essential to understand how inexorably partisan and ideological politics are tied to economic policy and action. This is the essential point of the book. 

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

Originally the book was intended to focus on how and why Puerto Rico’s remarkable economic take-off of the mid-century became the death spiral—a sequel to the Moscoso-Operation Bootstrap book. Then it expanded more into the political status roots—particularly the growth of the pro-statehood movement—and then into the history of the island’s troubled relationship to the U.S.  

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

The early twentieth-century Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, who was essentially a journalist, and Walter Lippmann, the journalist who was essentially a philosopher.

What is your writing schedule like?

I am a deadline writer. I need a deadline to get started and once I start, I don’t stop.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

The same as to a young reporter. Know exactly the point of what you intend to write: research and study and don’t write until you understand it. Structure in a newspaper column or magazine article is essential: from beginning to end it must move towards the point. The same with a book.  

What book are you working on next?

A memoir, with the tentative title: “It Is What It Is. Journalism and Philosophy: The Search for Reality.”