Puerto Ricans and U.S. forces will be working for months to get storm-wrecked utilities, hospitals, and communications running.
The even tougher steps needed to make the island more self-sustaining are well-known, but have been found difficult and left untried, said Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, a native of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican diaspora whose long career as priest, professor and family man included testimony on Puerto Rico’s future before the United Nations Decolonization Committee (starting in 1978) and the U.S. House of Representatives (1990s):
- “Puerto Rico needs to eliminate its dependency on imported sources of energy” and stop relying on U.S. fuel imports, Stevens-Arroyo told me. Solar-power companies are already rushing panels and batteries to the island in hopes of restoring the wrecked electrical grid.
- The island faces the same problems as other Caribbean islands and needs to trade and cooperate with them, not just depend on U.S. aid, debt, and fickle corporate investment.
- If the U.S. under Trump can’t or won’t pay for reconstruction and public services, “Puerto Rico should be recognized,” not as an independent country — a “19th-century concept” that few Puerto Ricans support — but “as an autonomous political entity that has a right to representation within the U.N.,” like the Palestinians. This “would make economic development and trade arrangements with the global community” negotiable by Puerto Rico’s elected government.
By contrast, at present “the U.S. Congress governs the colony,” he said. Though there is still an elected governor and legislator, fiscal power lies with the seven-member PROMESA oversight board, which “favors bankers.” With United Nations status, Puerto Rico would more likely qualify for participation with the World Bank, UNESCO, and other development grant and loan funders, subject to the fiscal restraints they place on borrower governments.
With a population double Philadelphia’s in an area smaller than South Jersey, “Puerto Rico cannot feed itself. It has to buy. To buy, you need things to sell,” Stevens-Arroyo told me. “Puerto Rico’s natural place is within the Caribbean community. In that community, Cuba has the largest population [about the size of Pennsylvania], the Dominican Republic has the greatest agricultural potential, Puerto Rico has the largest technically trained workforce,” including workers who served in factories that closed when federal corporate income-tax breaks ended in the 2000s. (Drug companies like Johnson & Johnson, which made some of the largest investments, remain.) Jamaica and the smaller islands could fit. Haiti, with its wasted soil and epically ineffective government, will need extra help.
“Together, they form a large enough market to be a viable community,” he said.
Won’t the U.S. resist any arrangement with Communist Cuba? “That’s selfishness,” Stevens-Arroyo said. “The U.S. has until now preferred bilateral relations — the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, the U.S. and Haiti, the U.S. and Puerto Rico,” and that has left the Caribbean islands in North America’s debt. “But Cuba is finally moving away from communism.” Time to advance together.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s party supports statehood for Puerto Rico — which the U.S. has been reluctant to grant because of the cost of bringing the island to U.S. material standards, as well as fears that residents would elect Democrats to Congress. The parties have left a leadership gap. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz’s appeal “not to kill us with indifference” provoked Trump to complain about “poor leadership” — which Stevens-Arroyo said has increased her popularity: “She is politically incorrect, but people say she is telling the truth.”
Unlike Cuba, where the United States intervened in a deadly independence war in 1898, Puerto Rico became a self-governing Spanish territory before the U.S. invaded. France copied the Spanish model for its Caribbean islands. “We were a model for the European Union, which despite its problems has created a homogeneous economy, with each region free to develop its cultural independence and interdependence,” said Stevens-Arroyo.
He added that Puerto Rico’s patriots hope to break the cycle of dependence that reaches back to the days of slave-worked plantations.
“Perhaps,” he concluded, “the natural disaster and the inability of the U.S. any longer to ‘afford’ Puerto Rico may finally lead to real planning in a way that leads to interdependence, and self-reliance.”