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The Silent Minority


November 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico is an unusual example of a democracy that is highly participatory in voter interest and turnout, but nonetheless remains politically and economically dominated by a relatively small sector of the populace. The reason is that P.R. is a bifurcated society, where the cards are stacked early and decisively in favor of a minority, at the expense of the large majority. The lines are drawn by the simple logistics of linguistics and the quality of basic schooling.

For example, it is an inescapable fact that for any hope of business or professional success on the island, one must have a command of English, along with proficiency in the preferred conversational medium of Spanish. It is an equally established fact that the public school education in P.R., along with overall poor quality, is ineffective in the instruction of English—the language of U.S. citizenship. By a combination of political design and educational incompetence, effective instruction in English was dismantled in public schools and the results are now self-evident.

A generation ago, business and professional leaders of that time—many of whom were educated in local public schools where English <I>was<I> once effectively taught, recognized that avenue was being closed and no longer represented a suitable option for their children. So they turned to private schools, where English was effectively taught. This insured that the leadership and earning power on the island would remain concentrated in the hands of the privileged minority who could afford to send their children to private schools, often with the further advantage of eventual college education in the States. Conversely, these advantages were systemically denied to the majority of the island’s young people, condemning them to be permanently non competitive for the best jobs. Not only was this process manifestly unfair and undemocratic—it was also foolish in that it limited access to the wider pool of talent that any economy needs to progress in the long term.

So, while the rest of the world calmly adopts English as the international language of business, medicine, and science, Puerto Rico--for the narrowest of political motives--denies the majority of its people this basic tool of international communication. In this age of globalization, it is hard to conceive of a more self-limiting tactic. And if you want the height of hypocrisy, consider that the very same politicians who engineered the dismantling of English instruction in public education, simultaneously recognized the penalty of that policy by making sure that their own children went to private schools where English was taught. It cannot be too strongly stated that democracy is frustrated at the outset when the public school system is inherently incapable of giving kids from all walks of life a decent shot at success. Yet that is the accepted policy and reality today in Puerto Rico.

But the injustice goes deeper, and extends beyond the legislated educational inequality described above. The elite minority of private school educated doctors, lawyers, engineers, and business leaders, who are already insulated against open competition from the majority of their countrymen—are further benefited by a laughably lax collection system that allows the richest sector virtual tax immunity. It is not that P.R. does not have tax laws. The average working stiff employed by the government or large corporation has his or her income tax automatically deducted from their paychecks, so there is little opportunity for chicanery there because that kind of income is easy to track and to collect. But the income of the elite minority becomes a matter of what they choose to declare, and by and large they declare only a fraction of what they earn. As a lawyer friend of mine put it, "In Puerto Rico tax collection is highly tempered by incompetence."

Let me assure you that this is not the case in the rest of America. There is certainly no shortage of rascals or desire to evade taxes in the U.S., but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is a serious force to be reckoned with, and they regularly catch tax evaders, publicly humiliate them and send them to jail for long stretches. So for the vast majority of U.S. citizens, paying their taxes is an accepted, if onerous duty, and tax evasion is simply not worth the risk. What’s the point? Well, in the U.S., by virtue of the progressive income tax, approximately 80% of the total tax income comes from the top 20% of taxpayers. So the most successful bear the largest tax burden, and they end up financing most of the federal programs that help the less fortunate.

It goes further. In Rhode Island where I live, there is an additional state income tax, which is an automatic 25% of your Federal income tax, and it has to be prepaid. That goes to pay for the highways and waterways and the support of state government. There is more. The property tax on the average home in this area is approximately $10,000 each year. That goes to the town budget—85% of which is used to support the local public school system. That is a painfully high tax, but it works and the public schools work.

By contrast, P.R. property taxes are as low as the public school standards they fail to support. Now don’t get me wrong—I hate to pay taxes. But both my wife and I are products of a good, public school education, so we recognize its worth and necessity. As a further example, my wife’s sister—also a product of a local public school, was recently named to Fortune magazine’s list of the "Fifty Most Powerful Women in American Business." That kind of prowess out of a public school education would not be possible in P.R. today. On the island, the richest sector is permissively allowed to duck their legal tax burdens and this deficit allows and assures the continued underfinancing and subsequent underperformance of the public school system—which in turn keeps the majority locked out of the best job opportunities.

Thus, in P.R. the selfish silence of the minority maintains the status quo of unfair privilege over the majority. The comfort of their position makes them unwilling to rock the status boat in any way that might adversely affect that comfort. This is understandable, but far from admirable. Somewhere in this group that is best prepared to lead Puerto Rico, there must be some to whom social justice and clear cut national identity matters enough for them to challenge the status indecision and the basic societal imbalance that exists on the island.

In the end it becomes an issue of comfort versus conscience. The silent minority would do well to heed the advice of George Washington. "Labor to keep alive in your breast a spark of that celestial fire called conscience." Institutionalized educational inequality is unconscionable. Where are the new leaders that can step up to this challenge?

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island and maintains strong ties with Puerto Rico.

Out take:

It cannot be too strongly stated that democracy is frustrated from the outset when the public school system is inherently incapable of giving kids from all walks of life a decent shot at success

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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