An Excerpt from “Boom and Bust in Puerto Rico” by A. W. Maldonado

In this engaging and approachable book, journalist A. W. Maldonado charts the rise and fall of the Puerto Rican economy and explains how a litany of bad political and fiscal policy decisions in Washington and Puerto Rico destroyed an economic miracle. Under Operation Bootstrap in the 1950s and ’60s, the rapid transformation and industrialization of the Puerto Rican economy was considered a “wonder of human history,” a far cry from the economic “death spiral” the island’s governor described in 2015. Boom and Bust in Puerto Rico is the story of how the demise of an obscure tax policy that encouraged investment and economic growth led to escalating budget deficits and the government’s shocking default of its $70 billion debt.

From the Introduction

How to explain such a remarkable run of misfortune? Was Puerto Rico “cursed?” In 1899, a prominent Catholic prelate believed it was. Hurricanes were then seen as “acts of God” and were named after saints. After the devastation of San Ciriaco on August 7, 1899, which killed 3,369 Puerto Ricans, the prelate explained in a long letter why God had “punished” Puerto Rico. Like most Catholic priests on the island, the native Spaniard was hurt and offended that the Puerto Ricans had welcomed the Americans with open arms, turning their backs on Mother Spain. San Ciriaco, the prelate wrote, was “God’s punishment.”

The threat of a hurricane every year between June and November, from the many storms and hurricanes that form off the African coast crossing the Atlantic towards the Caribbean has always been part of the island’s reality. Every year there are the official storm and hurricane alerts and warning, the frantic rush to prepare for the worse. They are, of course, terrifying, in the past causing deaths mostly by drowning in the floods and mudslides, wiping out the island’s rural, agricultural economy. The terrifying danger is real, but yet most, in fact, miss the island; there is a direct hit an average of every seven and half years.

Now in 2018 there was no evident explanation for Puerto Rico’s extraordinary bad luck. Not one, but two hurricanes struck one after the other after twelve years of economic recession. After the humiliation of being told that it no longer could borrow money, of admitting that it could no longer pay its debt, that it was bankrupt, and of being imposed a fiscal board capable of overriding its self-government.

It was not bad luck. As much damage as they inflicted, the hurricanes nor the earthquakes were the causes of the crisis.

So who is to blame for the economic and fiscal crisis?

The response of most of the political leadership in all the parties, especially after the creation of the PROMESA Fiscal Board, is the island’s political status. It is “colonialism.” As Governor Ricardo Rosselló invariably pointed out, if Puerto Rico were not a “colony,” if Puerto Ricans had the political power of citizens living in the states, voting representation in Congress and the presidential vote, none of this would have happened.

On May 9, 2019, pro-statehood Senate President Tomás Rivera Shatz wrote: “The colonial crime against Puerto Rico has been provoked principally by the U.S. Congress…(the U.S.) has always discriminated economically as it has politically, because we are a colony… that is why the problem of Puerto Rico is colonialism and those that promote it.”

Puerto Rican political leaders supporting statehood or independence are of one voice: to blame are “the Americans.”

Puerto Ricans are Latin Americans. The Venezuelan intellectual and journalist, Carlos Rangel, in his influential and controversial 1977 book, The Latin Americans: Their Love-hate Relationship with the United States, asks what has been a terrible question for Latin Americans: how to explain the economic and political success of North America and the relative political and economic failure of Latin America.

Rangel is far from being an apologist for the Americans, recognizing “Washington’s misuse of power, its clumsiness and exactions.” But he calls on Latin Americans to stop “blaming American imperialism” for Latin American failure. Stop wallowing in self-pity, in resentment and humiliation, Rangel pleaded, stop seeking comfort, emotional refuge in anti-Americanism, and face the reality that Latin Americans are themselves to blame, that its failure is due to defects in its culture and politics.

Rangel dedicated less than two pages to “the case of Puerto Rico.” Like most Latin American intellectuals, he is confused by Puerto Ricans. He writes “it is in Puerto Rico that we find the most extreme form of the bitterness and resentment that Latin Americans in general feel towards their northern neighbors.” Yet Puerto Rico has benefited from the Americans as no other Latin Americans: “its economic development has been quite extraordinary.” At the time, Puerto Rico’s per capita income of $2,000 was five times that of Central American countries.

But in fact the theme of Rangel’s book—“the love-hate relationship with the United States”— is precisely the foundation of Puerto Rico’s status politics. When he writes that Puerto Rico “suffers from an acute case of the Latin American complex” he is effectively describing Puerto Rico obsession with the political status issue.

This is the key to answering the question of how did the Puerto Rico of the Camelot event, of Operation Bootstrap, of the economic miracle that turned the “poorhouse of the Caribbean” into the “showcase of democracy,” descend into the seemingly endless nightmare?

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