Compared to other countries in North and Central America, Puerto Rico is unique in terms of its fragility and rule of law. Puerto Rico is considered a U.S. territory and is subject to U.S. laws, but also has its own government and constitution, which passed through Congress in 1952. Joe Biden stands as the president of Puerto Rico, but a governor elected by Puerto Ricans also rules over the territory. Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizen status, but cannot vote in presidential elections and have no representatives in Congress. These contradictions mean that Puerto Rico is neither a state nor a sovereign country. Understanding fragility and the rule of law in Puerto Rico provides insight into the importance of aid to the nation in times of crisis.
The Statehood Debate
Because it is a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is included in the U.S. Census data. According to the most recent data from July 2021, the poverty rate in Puerto Rico stood at 40.5% and the median household income between 2016-2020 stood at a little over $21,000.
Mississippi, the poorest state in the U.S., had a median household income of $45,792 in 2021, an amount $20,000 less than the national average, and a poverty rate of 19.6%. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, yet its poverty rate is more than twice as high as the poorest state in the U.S.
The past few decades have seen debates about statehood and Puerto Rico’s admission into the Union as a state. Puerto Rico has held six referendums over the years regarding statehood, the most recent one occurring in 2020. The majority of citizens voted for statehood but Congress ultimately has the final say in determining statehood. Even if statehood is something that Puerto Rico wants, that decision is entirely out of its hands. This important fact and poverty statistics partly explain the fragility and rule of law in Puerto Rico.
The Economic Factors
The debate over statehood ties into some of Puerto Rico’s economic woes as well. Because of its status, Puerto Rico uses the U.S. dollar as its currency and U.S. laws and policies oversee its businesses and trade policy. Puerto Ricans enjoy tax exemptions, but they receive far fewer social welfare benefits than people living in the U.S. even though the U.S. government considers them U.S. citizens. Puerto Ricans challenged some of these lack of benefits in court, such as Supplemental Security Income, but, ultimately, the cases saw no success.
The country is also in the middle of an economic recession due to massive debt. According to an article from Vox on Puerto Rico’s situation, the debt crisis began in 2014 when Puerto Rico had accumulated $72 billion worth of bond debt. Data from the Council on Foreign Relations shows that the debt in 2020 stood at about $70 billion, which is about 68% of Puerto Rico’s GDP. Puerto Rico turned its budget over to an independent board in Washington in order to help control its debt.
Hurricanes and their lingering effects on people and the economy exacerbate the fragility of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Fiona is fresh on everyone’s minds but Hurricane Maria (2017) had a more significant impact on the country.
An Amnesty International article from 2018 reveals personal accounts and statistics on the state of Puerto Rico one year after Maria. According to the article, “tens of thousands in Puerto Rico are still living under blue tarps, designed as temporary roofs.” Additionally, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rejected about 62% of applications for home reconstruction aid at that time. Hurricane Maria also knocked out nearly 80% of the island’s energy grid and power had not been restored to the last house until a year later. Then, Hurricane Fiona hit in September 2022, dismantling much of the recovery process.
Many places on the island experienced flooding with some areas receiving as much as 30 inches of rain. In Puerto Rico, “overflowing waterways and the loss of power caused pumps to fail, leaving 70% of households and businesses that rely on the public water and sewer system without potable water,” The India Express says.
By September 2022, LUMA, the main power utility in Puerto Rico, restored power to more than 100,000 people out of the 1.5 million LUMA customers without power.
In addition, many facilities learned from the events of Hurricane Maria and employed generators — hospitals ran on backup generators during the storm. This is in stark contrast to the time of Hurricane Maria when many hospitals lost power during the storm and could not operate.
The United States Response
The White House is committed to helping Puerto Rico recover. During his speech in Puerto Rico on October 3, 2022, Biden promised that Puerto Rico will receive every dollar Congress approved in federal aid after Maria hit. In terms of aid, at the time of the speech, the U.S. sent $4 million to improve the resilience of Puerto Rico’s electricity grid.
During the first month of response since Biden declared the situation in Puerto Rico a disaster on September 21, 2022, FEMA provided more than $456 million in disaster relief to more than 600,000 families. In addition, Biden authorized FEMA to provide its services (Individual Assistance, Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation) to all municipalities in Puerto Rico. The agency had also hired Puerto Ricans as temporary employees to assist with recovery efforts in order to reduce unemployment.
By improving issues regarding fragility and the rule of law in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico can achieve stability in several critical areas.
– Matthew Wikfors