Puerto Rico:

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

On Oc­to­ber 2, two of the world’s lead­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief agen­cies, Ox­fam and Save the Chil­dren, felt it nec­es­sary to speak out about the in­ad­e­quate US fed­eral re­sponse to the emerg­ing dis­as­ter in Puerto Rico.

They ob­served that much more ac­tion was needed and that chil­dren’s lives were at stake. Carolyn Miles, the Pres­i­dent and CEO of Save the Chil­dren, said: “Too many of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 mil­lion peo­ple, which in­cludes nearly 0.7 mil­lion chil­dren, re­main stranded with­out ac­cess to power, shel­ter, clean wa­ter, or fuel nearly two weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria struck the is­land on Septem­ber 2”.

Sub­se­quently, both or­gan­i­sa­tions have be­gun to work in part­ner­ship with lo­cal lead­ers to pro­vide sup­port and what they de­scribe as an ef­fec­tive and sus­tain­able re­sponse; some­thing Ox­fam said was rare for it to do in wealthy coun­tries.

In a sim­i­lar vein, in the thirty-five plus years in which this weekly com­men­tary has been pub­lished, this is the first oc­ca­sion when Puerto Rico has been its sole fo­cus. This is be­cause, although ge­o­graph­i­cally a part of the re­gion, Puerto Rico has largely re­mained an is­land apart, pur­su­ing a sep­a­rate ap­proach to devel­op­ment within its sta­tus as a Com­mon­wealth of the United States, rather than as a na­tion in­ter­ested in shar­ing with its neigh­bours. Only dur­ing the late 1980s and early 1990s un­der the Gov­er­nor­ship of Rafael Hernán­dez Colón, and his re­gion­ally well-liked Sec­re­tary of State, Tito Colorado, did the is­land truly seek to en­gage.

Un­der an agree­ment with the US Trea­sury, it cre­ated a Caribbean Devel­op­ment Pro­gramme. This ac­tively en­cour­aged ma­jor com­pa­nies in­vested in Puerto Rico through a tax break, to also man­u­fac­ture in other Caribbean na­tions to take ad­van­tage of the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Caribbean Basin Ini­tia­tive. The re­sult was 185 Caribbean projects, about US$3 bil­lion in in­vest­ment, and the cre­ation of 37,000 jobs in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic and Cari­com mainly in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, tex­tiles, ap­parel and elec­tron­ics.

More re­cently, eco­nomic re­la­tions be­tween Puerto Rico and the Do­mini­can Repub­lic and other forms of co-op­er­a­tion have be­gun to ad­vance, in part be­cause of the com­ple­men­tary as­pects of the two economies for pro­duc­tion shar­ing and in­vest­ment.

For the most part, how­ever, Puerto Rico stands alone in the re­gion in which it is lo­cated, and apart from the many over­lap­ping Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean in­sti­tu­tions that now ex­ist. Heav­ily in­debted, it con­tin­ues to ac­tively seek state­hood, hav­ing to rely in the mean­time on a com­plex re­la­tion­ship with the fed­eral au­thor­i­ties in Wash­ing­ton for ex­am­ple in the event of an eco­nomic cri­sis of the kind it is cur­rently un­der­go­ing, or the hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter wrought by Hur­ri­cane Maria.

De­spite this, and the US’s su­pe­rior mil­i­tary and emer­gency re­lief ca­pa­bil­i­ties, un­til a few days ago, the US ad­min­is­tra­tion seemed in­ca­pable of mo­bil­is­ing a re­lief ef­fort at least equiv­a­lent to that seen else­where in the US.

Even then, when Pres­i­dent Trump vis­ited San Juan on Oc­to­ber 3, his sup­port was be­grudg­ing. He told Fox News un­gra­ciously that the hur­ri­cane meant that Puerto Rico’s US$70 bil­lion debt would have to be wiped out and that it had thrown the fed­eral bud­get “out of whack”. It was a re­sponse that con­trasted un­favourably with the gen­eros­ity of the French, Dutch and Bri­tish in their neigh­bour­ing ter­ri­to­ries.

Rightly or wrongly this has given rise to sen­ti­ment that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ac­tion in Puerto Rico con­tains an an­tiHis­panic bias and a sense that or­di­nary Puerto Ri­cans are some­how not Amer­i­cans. Ir­re­spec­tive, it is ap­par­ent that Mi­ami, New York and other lo­ca­tions where Puerto Rico’s main­land di­as­pora have over decades cho­sen to live, are now set to see many more is­land res­i­dents es­cap­ing from present hard­ships.

For the rest of the re­gion Puerto Rico poses a co­nun­drum. If the US is in­dif­fer­ent, it begs the ques­tion as to whether, as it re­builds, more might be done by neigh­bours to iden­tify whether a closer re­la­tion­ship is pos­si­ble.

Un­for­tu­nately, some of the more ob­vi­ous op­tions to do so are limited. Its sta­tus means that it does not pos­sess tar­iff au­ton­omy or the abil­ity to de­ter­mine an in­de­pen­dent trade pol­icy. For al­most

Yari­mar Bonilla

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