After the hurricane: San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 2017
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, Americans on the mainland were horrified by the scale of the damage—thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands displaced, millions left without electricity, and, by some estimates, economic losses as high as $90 billion. What few registered, as the hurricane’s toll and the shocking inadequacy of the U.S. government’s response became clear, was an underlying cause of Puerto Rico’s condition: that the island is still effectively a U.S. colony.

Since 1898, when Washington took possession of it at the end of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico has been neither granted sovereignty nor fully integrated into the United States. Instead, it has remained an “unincorporated territory,” a place that is simultaneously a part of, yet apart from, the rest of the country. Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, subject to federal laws and eligible for the draft, but

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  • ANTONIO WEISS is a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. He previously served as Counselor to the Secretary at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
  • BRAD SETSER is Steven A. Tananbaum Senior Fellow for International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. He previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Economic Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
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