Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Puerto Rico is in a severe economic crisis, and Connecticut shares some of the responsibility. After all, we made the island what it is today: a colony. Not a colony in the “Thirteen Original Colonies” sense, where we cursed King George, whistled Yankee Doodle, and kicked out the Brits. In the early 20th century, the U.S. was experimenting with a new kind of imperial domination. Call it Colonialism 2.0.
In 1898, U.S. Armed Forces invaded Puerto Rico, allegedly to free its people from Spain. But then we imposed a civilian government and passed laws in Washington that forced the native people to bend to our whims. Since American soldiers still occupied their land, this new arrangement was not exactly voluntary.
That’s where Connecticut came in. U.S. Senator Orville H. Platt represented our state in Congress from 1879 until his death in 1905. He was a power broker who hated labor unions and preferred secrecy in lawmaking to public scrutiny. His policy objectives regarding American Indians and the conquest of Caribbean and Pacific countries relied on crude racist ideology and tortured logic (read any of his writings).
He wrote legislation that ensured Puerto Rico’s permanent political and economic dependence on big brother to the north. Specifically, Platt made sure that Puerto Rico would not have a voting representative in Congress.
Since 1900 the rules have largely been set for Puerto Ricans by Washington. Even Spain had granted Puerto Rico seats in its parliament, the Cortes, years before the U.S. invasion. One year before our occupation, Spain had granted self-governance to the island. Platt and Congress set the Puerto Rican people back decades.
The senator from Connecticut also made sure that Puerto Rican coffee, tobacco and sugar would be subject to import duties. U.S. tax policy treated the island like a foreign nation, without any of the benefits of sovereignty. You can cross that “no taxation without representation” nonsense off the list.
As a result of Platt’s work, the liberation of Puerto Rico did not mean independence for its people. When the Spanish American War ended, it was like The Who song: “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”
There is a common misunderstanding about Puerto Rico’s current economic status. Many assume that it is the land of generous welfare, thanks to Washington. But consider:
~Puerto Ricans on the island can be drafted, but they can’t vote for President (the U.S. “granted”citizenship to Puerto Rico in 1917 just in time to draft 18,000 islanders for World War I).
~They pay federal taxes but they don’t get as much bang for their buck in federal aid as Alaska or Hawaii;
~Their Medicare benefits are capped at a lower rate than in the U.S., and they are excluded from the earned income tax credit, specifically designed for low-income people;
~Tax loopholes for American corporations have meant that the U.S. has lost $3.00 in tax revenue for every $1.00 paid in wages.
In 2015 the 3.5 million people of Puerto Rico suffered under a staggering $72 billion debt. Deals and defaults only mask the real problems. At the top of the list is the fact that Puerto Rico cannot declare bankruptcy, unlike U.S. cities and states. The recent Washington budget battle did not make any change to that colonial stranglehold.
Orville Platt was bold about his underlying intent: “We hear a great deal about…the right of all persons in territory which we acquire, to be treated precisely as we treat all citizens of our own states. I deny it constitutionally, legally and morally,” he declared.
Erasing Platt’s embarrassing legacy means more than just granting “super” bankruptcy protection; Puerto Ricans should be able to freely determine their own political future, with independence as a legitimate option.