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After Five Decades, The Commonwealth Is Running Out Of Gas
By Rober Becker
July 26, 2002
Commonwealth has survived 50 years as Puerto Rico's form of political organization. As I discussed in this space last week, it has had a great run. But today, five decades after its founding, the commonwealth is a spent force, its economy stagnating, its ideology stale and hackneyed, its clout in Washington diminishing and its political future uncertain.
One balmy evening last year I attended a talk by a leading government economist in Puerto Rico to a business group at a restaurant in Isla Verde, a touristy section of the San Juan metroplex. He works for the current administration of Gov. Sila Calderon, so his words were a bit heretical given whom his employer is. In a nutshell, the economist showed, using a slew of charts and graphs, that Puerto Rico's economic growth vis-à-vis the United States has stalled since the mid-1970s. From the inception of commonwealth in 1952 until the 1970s, Puerto Rico had enjoyed rapid economic growth that outstripped that of the United States.
They were go-go years.
But since then, the economist told us, Puerto Rico has managed to grow at rates roughly parallel to the United States, which means the economic gap between the island and the mainland has not closed since then. It is why Puerto Rico's per capita income is only half that of Mississippi, the poorest state, and why it is destined to remain so.
Gov. Calderon and her Popular Democratic Party are spending millions of dollars on celebrations of the commonwealth's 50th anniversary, a heaping helping of bread and circuses to detract public attention from her administration's lack of accomplishment. She has remained true to her party's traditions of big government, while passing new taxes to further bedevil the already overtaxed population. Apart from conducting a ferocious corruption dragnet against the scattered and demoralized New Progressive Party, she has nothing of consequence to show for her year and a half in office.
At its inception, the commonwealth ideology found strength in its close association with the United States. The reality then and now is that Puerto Rico's true "status" is that of unincorporated U.S. territory. The pragmatic men and women of the PDP recognized the interdependence of the two economies and the necessity of continuing close political ties. When Vice President Richard Nixon needed a boost after being mobbed by hostile crowds in Caracas in the late 1950s, on his way back he stopped in San Juan, where enthusiastic crowds organized by Gov. Luis Munoz Marin greeted his motorcade to La Fortaleza.
Fifty years later, the PDP is ideologically spent. It has drifted into a leftist nationalism, its leadership ranks are permeated with shallow demagogues, and Calderon and her cohorts have rallied support with intellectually dishonest rhetoric about "improving" commonwealth in ways that are clearly unconstitutional and practically unattainable. The PDP's worst mistake has to lead the charge against the U.S. military presence in Puerto Rico. In this its political bedmates are the independence movement, the Castro-quoting university students and professors groups and the anti-American fanatics of the residue of Puerto Rico's nationalists. Apart from that, its principal leaders are doing their best to revitalize the "Spanish Only" movement, with its clear-cut objective of distancing Puerto Rico from the United States - and making ordinary Puerto Ricans feel inferior to their English-speaking fellow citizens.
The consequences of all this has been to create a feeling in Washington of alienation for Puerto Rico. Both the Bush administration and key congressional leaders have simply lost interest in Puerto Rico. Key House and Senate Republicans in particular were very offended by the PDP government's stance on Vieques and our military, coming as it has while the nation is in a state of war against international terrorism. It has left a bad taste in the mouth of many people.
What's more, official Washington is tired of Puerto Rico's status merry-go-round. The feeling there is that the island's parties are playing games with that important question, that the island is hopeless stalemated, and that any efforts from the mainland to untie the Gordian knot are now a waste of effort and political capital. Washington has learned from its abortive attempts at status resolution over the past five years that there are no groups in Puerto Rico willing and able to serve as honest brokers for status change.
Where does that leave commonwealth? It leaves it between the rock of an economy that is stagnating because an exasperated Congress has withdrawn the special tax incentives that fed the island's industrial sector, and the hard place of a new world order that requires its competing economies to be lean, agile and free of cumbersome bureaucracy - all of which Puerto Rico, still laboring under its welfare statism, is not. What lies ahead is gradual deterioration, and political consequences that may take decades to crystallize.
Robert Becker, Charlotte County bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald Tribune, lived in Puerto Rico from 1991 through 2001.