As voters reluctantly face the bleak epilogue to, our most recent electoral tragedy, it is undeniable that a new and long overdue economic policy should be Puerto Rico's priority. However, the November 2008 election promises stagnation in the midst of recession and the continuing tradition of pathetic subservience by consent.
Notwithstanding the U.S. rhetoric that disguised cold-war policy in the 1952 "commonwealth" arrangement, our colonial reality as a territory has sabotaged Puerto Rico's economic opportunities and potential. In the United States, a similarly pernicious discourse emanates to this date, even from the psyche of well-meaning political figures. The poignant speech delivered by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic Party convention is a prime example.
The presidential nominee's wife described how her father, afflicted with multiple sclerosis and economic hardship, had to work two jobs to support and educate his children. Despite Mrs. Obama’s inspired intent, her discourse merely exemplified how the "American Dream" actually plays out for the least fortunate class in her society. In Puerto Rico, that "American Dream" has become a colonial nightmare, an economic parody resulting from the social deterioration and spiraling crime, alcoholism, poverty, and drug addiction rates inherent to political subordination and economic dependence.
Puerto Rico's status is therefore the threshold issue for our ailing economy. Territorial "commonwealth" is the problem and hence cannot be the solution. Statehood is not the answer, either. Puerto Rico's per capita is one-third that of the United States - as it was over half a century ago. It is still one-half that of Mississippi, which is now, as it was then, the poorest state of the Union - hardly a promising prospect for the statehood variation on the .colonial theme! Our economic growth back then was touted as the showcase of the Caribbean, if not all of Latin America. But that was then.
Now Antigua, Barbados, Bahamas, Saint Kitts-Nevis, and Trinidad - all smaller Caribbean nations than Puerto Rico - have surpassed Puerto Rico's per capita GDP and rate of economic growth. Also, since the turn of the 21st century, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Ireland, Malta, Singapore and other developing nations' rate of economic growth has surpassed Puerto Rico's. Now, international scholars have noted that, of the ten richest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita, seven are small, with populations of less than four million - with no American Dream, federal funds, or U.S. citizenship. Puerto Rico's economy, kept artificially afloat by the U.S. taxpayer, is no longer a showcase worth displaying.
Economic dependence limits productivity and prevents the majority of our population from participating in the labor force. Cost of living increases an official unemployment keep salaries unreasonably low. In fact, low salaries in the public sector also keep salary levels in the private sector low and further the impoverishment of the middle class. Coastwise shipping laws imposed by the U.S. Congress force Puerto Rico to use U.S. merchant ships - the most expensive. Contrary to politically independent nations, Puerto Rico has no power to negotiate the prices of imports or exports in the international market.
Puerto Rico's structural economic crisis is inextricably linked to colonialism. Traditional "commonwealth" and pro-statehood governments are afflicted with political and spiritual disability. Unable to bring about necessary reforms, they become right-wing coconspirators of regressive tax legislation and rising prices of consumer goods. They conspire to exonerate large business interests from even a modest tax burden, arguing that such an increase would prompt them to go elsewhere when, in fact, the corporate tax burden is usually higher anywhere else in the developed or developing world. Instead, in Puerto Rico, the heavier burden falls on those who earn less. Even now, a modest increase of 5 per cent in the tax rate (which would still keep it below 10 per cent) on last year's $34 billion in corporate profits could begin to reshape Puerto Rico's tax structure, cover budget deficits, and significantly lower the tax burden on the middle classes.
Proposals for political reform must go beyond hollow rhetoric. A sovereign constituent assembly would structure an independent Puerto Rico’s advantages -its choice geographical location, technical capabilities, professionals and skilled labor- to join the world in healthy interdependence. A unicameral legislation with democratic proportional representation would help cut wasteful spending, and ensure negotiation and compromise to end the tyranny of the financial elite that promotes the myth of the American Dream under colonial subordination.
Mrs. Obama’s dreamy discourse sadly reflects the social injustice prevalent in her country. A system that does not provide adequate medical care for a man in her father's condition is seriously flawed. A society that does not ensure that all its children enjoy a decent living and the same access to opportunities she had should drown in shame –not sentimentality. In Puerto Rico, we need to forget the American Dream and wake up to the reality of the 21st century