We helped create Puerto Rico’s problems, and should correct them

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Puerto Rico is in a severe economic crisis, and Connecticut shares some of the responsibility.  After all, we made the island what it is today: a colony.  Our state’s congressional leaders must act to correct this long-standing injustice.

I don’t mean a colony in the “Thirteen Original Colonies” sense, where we cursed King George, whistled Yankee Doodle, and kicked out the Brits.  In the early 20th century, the U.S. was experimenting with a new kind of imperial domination. Call it Colonialism 2.0.

In 1898, U.S. Armed Forces invaded Puerto Rico, allegedly to free its people from Spain.  But then we imposed a civilian government and passed laws in Washington that forced the native people to bend to our whims.  Since American soldiers still occupied their land, this new arrangement was not exactly voluntary.

U.S. Sen. Orville Platt

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U.S. Sen. Orville Platt

That’s where Connecticut came in. U.S. Sen. Orville H. Platt represented our state in Congress from 1879 until his death in 1905.  He was a power broker who hated labor unions and preferred secrecy in lawmaking to public scrutiny.  His policy objectives regarding American Indians and the conquest of Caribbean and Pacific countries relied on crude racist ideology and tortured logic (read any of his writings).

He wrote legislation that ensured Puerto Rico’s permanent political and economic dependence on big brother to the north.  Specifically, Platt made sure that Puerto Rico would not have a voting representative in Congress.

Since 1900 the rules have largely been set for Puerto Ricans by Washington.  Even Spain had granted Puerto Rico seats in its parliament, the Cortes, years before the U.S. invasion. One year before our occupation, Spain had granted self-governance to the island. Platt and Congress set the Puerto Rican people back decades.

The senator from Connecticut also made sure that Puerto Rican coffee, tobacco and sugar would be subject to import duties.  U.S. tax policy treated the island like a foreign nation, without any of the benefits of sovereignty. You can cross that “no taxation without representation” nonsense off the list.

As a result of Platt’s work, the liberation of Puerto Rico did not mean independence for its people.  When the Spanish American War ended, it was “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss” (apologies to The Who).

There is a common misunderstanding about Puerto Rico’s current economic status. Many assume that it is the land of generous welfare, thanks to Washington.  But consider:

~Puerto Ricans on the island can be drafted, but they can’t vote for President;

~They pay federal taxes but they don’t get as much bang for their buck in federal aid as  Alaska or Hawaii;

~Their Medicare benefits are capped at a lower rate than in the U.S., and they are excluded from the earned income tax credit, specifically designed for low-income people;

~Tax loopholes for American corporations have meant that the U.S. has lost $3 in tax revenue for every $1 paid in wages.

Today, the 3.5 million people of Puerto Rico are suffering from a staggering $72 billion debt.  The recent tentative deal struck between the island’s electric company and its creditors –including vulture capitalist hedge funds– only masks the real problems.

At the top of the list is the fact that Puerto Rico cannot declare bankruptcy, unlike U.S. cities and states. The recent Washington budget battle did not make any change to that colonial stranglehold.

“We hear a great deal about.. .the right of all persons in territory which we acquire, to be treated precisely as we treat all citizens of our own states.  I deny it constitutionally, legally and morally,” Platt declared.

If we are to erase Platt’s embarrassing legacy, Connecticut’s congresspeople need to win bankruptcy protection for Puerto Rico.  And next, Puerto Ricans should be able to freely determine their own political future, with independence as a legitimate option.

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for The Shoeleather History Project.

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