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"Slip Sliding Away: The Case For Ending Puerto Rico's Territorial Status"

By Herbert W. Brown III*

For Puerto Rico, the current partial integration in the U.S. economy, without full political and legal integration, is a formula for chronic economic under-performance and constrained social development. That is why the Citizens Educational Foundation, an organization supported by business and professional men and women in Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, is committed to the full political and economic empowerment of the 4 million American citizens residing in Puerto Rico.

Perhaps the most clear lesson of more than a century without equal rights or a constitutionally defined permanent status is that real political and economic empowerment go hand-in-hand. Puerto Rico's full potential for economic, social and political development will never be realized through measures adopted to make tolerable a colonial condition based on permanent disenfranchisement and less than full and equal empowerment.

And just where is Puerto Rico’s economy today, as compared to 25 years ago? Let me quote for you something which appeared about 5 months ago (September 24, 2000) in the El Nuevo Dia newspaper. "The stagnation of Puerto Rico’s economy is not a new situation. For the last 25 years, Puerto Rico’s economy has registered a rate of growth that is much lower than many countries whose production capacity was inferior to ours during the middle of the decade of the 70’s. The best evidence of the failure of the commonwealth economic model is that since then, several of those countries- smaller and with a larger population density and less natural resources- have achieved higher levels of industrial and economic development than Puerto Rico. This is not an isolated process, but rather a more frequent occurrence, according to reports from the world bank and the United Nations. Countries like the Bahamas, Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, who are Puerto Rico’s neighbors; and Cyprus, Malta and Singapore, among others, all smaller than Puerto Rico, have managed to surpass Puerto Rico; and their per capita GNP in U.S. dollars is higher than that of Puerto Rico. In synthesis, the economic strategy of commonwealth has reached its limits and has given all it can."(Ruben Berrios Martinez)

Seen from a different prospective, one might ask, how has Puerto Rico’s economic growth fared in comparison to the 50 States of the Union?

Fernando Lefort, a young professor at the business school of Catholic University of Chile, was the first economist to do the obvious and compare Puerto Rico’s economic growth with that of the 50 states with whom Puerto Rico was ostensibly integrated with into the U.S. economy. What did Professor Lefort find? In 1980 Puerto Rico’s per capita income was 49% of Mississippi’s, the poorest state of the union. By 1997 it had fallen to 45%. He then examined Puerto Rico’s performance compared to the poorest, the middle, and the richest States. He found that Puerto Rico lagged 7.6% behind the poorest, 3.0% behind the middle, and 3.9% behind the richest States.

In 1980 Puerto Rico’s per capita GNP was 2.25 times higher than Chile. By 1998 their per capita GNP’s were virtually equal. The Central American economies have reduced their GNP gap with Puerto Rico by 10% and Latin America by 24%. Professor Lefort concludes, and I quote, "Consequently, today Puerto Rico’s economy is much more similar to a rich Latin American economy than to that of the poorest State of the Union.

The jump-start given to the local economy by federal incentives several decades ago is no substitute for economic empowerment today. Neither are the most recent efforts espoused by the current government in Puerto Rico to recreate 936 type tax gimmicks, the road to full economic development. Granted, we are no longer a basket case economy, but if what we want is full economic development, we no longer need economic gimmicks. We need to point our economic engines in the direction of full economic development. To do that we need a seat at the table, whether that table is among the States of the Union or as a separate sovereign among the Family of Nations. Yes, we are doing better than the Dominican Republic, but we are no longer catching up with Mississippi. In order to compete and win, we need a level playing field, either as an integral part of the U.S. or as a separate player among the nations of the world.

Instead of trying to return to the good old days of federal largesse and tax credit based development strategies, we need to recognize the telltale signs of under performance in the new economy. Compared to the mainland, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico have five times less internet access capacity, three times less computer access, twelve times less web site capacity, ten times less R&D investment, and thirty times less patent registrations. These tools of opportunity are not in the hands of our people because, instead of working with business to upgrade and modernize, Puerto Rico's politicians are still bickering over the most esoteric ideological abstractions about whether we can be a nation and remain part of the U.S. at the same time. It is a tedious and anachronistic debate. While we are being told commonwealth is the best of both worlds, we are sinking into what increasingly looks like an Indian reservation niche that is the worst of both worlds in the political culture of a free society.

We know what the answer is to this dilemma. We know that political rights and economic opportunities equal to those enjoyed by the rest of the nation can be accomplished under the U.S. constitutional system through the historical process for admission to statehood. We also know equal citizenship and a non-discriminatory status can be achieved through the constitutional system of a sovereign republic, under a political status consistent with the right of independence. While both statehood and separate republic status require certain political and economic trade-offs, the choices are clear and the path to full and equal empowerment through one of those options is open to Puerto Rico. Let us not kid ourselves, whether we like it or not political and economic trade offs will come even if Puerto Rico opts to remain in the limbo of the status quo. The old Cold War era tax incentive programs are not being restored for reasons that have nothing to do with Puerto Rico, but because they don't work in the new economy of NAFTA and globalization. Likewise, while independence should spur economic growth because of the certainty that investors would find and the reinvestment lure in Puerto Rico, there is one big condition- and that is that Puerto Rico must pursue the free market philosophy of Singapore and others to make it work. The central government control philosophy that exists in Puerto Rico today, just would not make for a strong and vibrant economy in today’s era of globalization.

CEF members individually may have their own personal preferences regarding which path Puerto Rico should take to achieve full citizenship and the economic opportunities that come with a permanent political status. However, the purpose of the foundation is to support an informed self-determination process that leads to full citizenship and decolonization based on a non-territorial status through either statehood or separate sovereign nationhood.

This is because any measures Congress may adopt by statute at the request of Puerto Rico to improve political or economic conditions under commonwealth will not end territorial status. Consequently, all statutory programs and policies to promote business and economic development are discretionary and subject to change at the pleasure of a Congress in which Puerto Rico has no voting representation.

In addition, there is no certainty that the terms for continued commonwealth will remain as favorable to Puerto Rico or businesses invested there as we now assume, or even that U.S. sovereignty, nationality and citizenship for Puerto Rico will continue indefinitely. This makes the ground rules for investment and sustainable growth uncertain, and constitutes a political risk problem for businesses in Puerto Rico that does not affect investments in the mainland.

Inclusion of Puerto Rico in the U.S. customs territory, use of U.S. currency, tax incentives and a century of close political relations under the U.S. flag have not resolved the political risk problems associated with Puerto Rico's uncertain political status. Trade zones and other incentives demonstrate in a limited and provisional way the potential for sustainable productivity, but without a permanent status and true integration in the national economy the power of the U.S. and international private sector cannot be harnessed for the benefit of Puerto Rico. Prosperity is not a right, it is a product of rights. The most basic political rights that make prosperity possible in the U.S. have not been secured for Puerto Rico.

Thus, unemployment rates in Puerto Rico are dramatically higher than in the mainland. Only those people born in Puerto Rico who go to live in the mainland for more than one generation enjoy a level of prosperity equal to the states. This again demonstrates that economic opportunity and political rights are linked. Remember, 20% of the U.S. GNP is federal expenditures. Instead of being a state and having a larger delegation in Congress than twenty five of the present 50 states, Puerto Rico must go in like a homeless person, rattle our tin cup and beg, instead of competing in a fair fight for our share of that federal pie. Instead of being a sovereign nation, one of the few in Latin America with the infrastructure and a highly skilled workforce that could serve as a catalyst to industry, Puerto Rico must go on living in a limbo where industry isn’t always sure whether their operations in Puerto Rico are considered foreign or domestic. As a commonwealth we are not just fighting with our hands behind our backs, we are blindfolded, gagged and wearing handcuffs.

Both economically and politically, the citizens of Puerto Rico remain squatters at the doorstep of the United States. By our own failure to demand full and equal empowerment, we live in a house that is not yet fully our home. By our own failure to demand justice, we have also not been able to build our own house. In addition to crippling our society in an economic and political sense, this is not a positive moral or cultural legacy for our children.

Still, some continue to insist there is a third path to empowerment that combines elements of statehood and separate sovereign nationhood. We still hear the old argument that a separate form of citizenship with a special set of rights and responsibilities can make us whole and provide a separate but equal status that is tolerable. According to the devotees of commonwealth, this is the best Puerto Rico can do.

The notion that a people can better preserve their culture or realize their economic, political and social potential only by securing a less and complete form of citizenship and limited self-government runs counter to the legacy of the U.S. constitutional system. It also runs counter to our own willingness to preserve and protect our own cultural legacy. For the heritage of the U.S. as a nation, as well as the experience of PROFESA and the people this organization has empowered, is that equality and liberty under the law is the only lasting form of empowerment.

The history of the U.S. constitutional system is one of disenfranchised and disempowered peoples using the tools of democracy to challenge those already empowered for inclusion in the political process based on equal rights and responsibilities.

At CEF we believe the citizenry in Puerto Rico wants what people strive to achieve all over America. Whether through statehood or separate nationhood, we want equal empowerment and opportunity. We want to preserve our heritage and promote the vitality of our culture, including our Spanish language. We want dignity.

Yet, many of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico have been persuaded that this is unattainable by the people of Puerto Rico. This defeatist colonial mentality erodes rather than strengthens the dignity, self-esteem and cultural integrity of our citizenry.

CEF believes that if full and equal economic and political empowerment is what the people of Puerto Rico want, they should have it. Citizens in Puerto Rico need to stand up and demand it.

*Herbert W. Brown III is president of the Citizens’ Educational Foundation. A former assistant U.S. attorney, he practices law in San Juan.

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