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America’s Forgotten Colony

Ending Puerto Rico’s Perpetual Crisis

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 they do not enjoy the same political rights as their fellow Americans. They have only one, nonvoting member in the House of Representatives, and although they can vote in U.S. presidential primaries, they have no Electoral College votes in the general election.

Without any say in the federal policies that govern it, Puerto Rico has for decades been neglected by Washington. Such neglect has been costly: even before Maria, Puerto Rico’s economy had been in sustained decline for years. Between 2004 and 2017, economic output dropped by 14 percent. If Puerto Rico were measured as a country, that decline would rank among the worst in recent history for a nation not at war. This economic crisis has sparked a wave of out-migration: Puerto Rico’s population has fallen from over 3.8 million in 2006 to less than 3.2 million today. The island has a poverty rate double that of Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state: around 45 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents and 56 percent of its children live below the federal poverty line.

The status quo cannot continue. The United States’ continued economic and political

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