The first airplane my father ever boarded was the one that took him from Puerto Rico to New York to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1967 and fought in the Vietnam War. During my embed as a journalist in Iraq in 2007, as one platoon convoy was mounting up, I brimmed with pride when I realized that the vehicle commanders of all four Humvees were Puerto Rican.
For a century, Puerto Ricans have pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States, fighting and dying for it. And yet that has not diminished the island’s distinct identity. Only 10 percent of Hawaiians identify as native, and only a tiny number of them speak Hawaiian. In Puerto Rico, by contrast, nearly everyone identifies as Puerto Rican and speaks Spanish as their first language. Puerto Rico is the only major society to be swallowed whole by the United States and still think of itself — and still be thought of internationally — as a distinct people.
Is Puerto Rico a country? One homage to it by a popular salsa band proclaims, “Esa es mi patria” (“That’s my country”), and it wouldn’t be strange to hear supporters of Puerto Rican statehood singing it. It is certainly a Latin American country as far as the rest of Latin America is concerned, and a leading one at that. A powerhouse in Latin music, for example, Puerto Rico has a status akin to that long held by Cuba before the Communists.
At different times in my youth, I lived with my grandparents (as often happens in Latin families), in the seaside town of Mayagüez. Nearly all the houses in their neighborhood belonged to someone in my family. My grandmother’s sister lived across the street, close enough that they could chat and argue from balcony to balcony. Her brother, my grand-uncle, lived a few houses away, next to my great-grandparents; my cousins, who were my best friends growing up, were within walking distance.
None of them could speak English, but there’s nobody to speak anything there now. Today that once-bustling neighborhood sits eerily abandoned, a common sight in Puerto Rico. The island has lost more than 15 percent of its population since the start of a major fiscal crisis in 2006. And while 2018’s Hurricane Maria made matters worse, the exodus was well under way by then. Its overwhelming causes are not natural disasters but federal policies — in particular a suffocating combination of welfare policy and the minimum-wage law that has made it virtually impossible for most Puerto Ricans to find gainful employment. With massive welfare rolls sitting atop a frightfully tiny tax base, the government of Puerto Rico has found managing its finances an impossible task.
The great Luis Muñoz Marín, who governed the island from 1949 to 1965, exhorted Puerto Ricans to take pride in their work. They did, and Puerto Rico became for a time the most successful society in Latin America. Right as Cuba plunged into the stygian darkness of Fidel’s dictatorship, Puerto Rico’s living standards took off. It soon became — under U.S. protection — a flourishing showcase of freedom.
Alas, just as that strategy, which guaranteed Puerto Rico’s security, currency, and rule of law with minimal federal interference, was really working, the U.S. replaced it with the straitjacket of progressive social policies, and Puerto Rico was plunged into utter dependency on U.S. taxpayers. As long as the federal government continues to run such programs with no flexibility for local conditions, neither Puerto Rico nor any other disproportionately low-skilled workforce (such as those in American inner cities) will ever reach its potential.
Puerto Rico desperately needs autonomy from progressive social policies so that it can re-create the conditions of a productive workforce and competitive economy. Unfortunately, the United States is headed in the opposite direction, toward an increasing centralization of power within a progressive scheme of government that has swallowed up Republicans and Democrats alike. With many Republicans now abandoning free-market principles and embracing heavy-handed government solutions, the United States is headed toward socialism on an increasingly bipartisan basis. Puerto Rico’s only hope may well be independence.
Read the full article at National Review.