Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has got it right on Puerto Rico

by May 22, 2020Opinion, Puerto Rico1 comment

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) distinguishes Puerto Rico from the states by categorizing it as a “possession.” This prevents the territory from accessing a variety of federal funds. Namely, the funds that were created for the express use of the states (e.g. the funds for education, business relief, and election security). But Puerto Rico needs those funds more than anyone else. They have dealt with years of economic neglect, bankruptcy, and sporadic natural devastation. According to a recent NBC report, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York and 10 other Democrats argued this same point in a letter sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D). I disagree with Representative Ocasio-Cortez on just about every issue one can think of, but she is dead-right about the congressional neglect of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s Governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced (NPP, R), recently said that the territory has gotten $2.2 billion in direct relief. Under normal circumstances, that would be enough. But Puerto Rico was struggling well-before the coronavirus outbreak. The territory was still recovering from over 1,000 earthquakes that hit within 2 weeks and from Hurricane Maria when the coronavirus first broke. The outbreak just added another item to their extensive list of expensive problems. So, the territory needs extra support.

Still, there are states that recover comparatively well from intermittent natural devastations. One must wonder: Why can’t Puerto Rico? Because it’s not a state; it’s a territory. States have resources that territories don’t have. And those resources are the fruits of a strong local private sector, which Puerto Rico lacks. Because they don’t have a strong private sector, they’re not able to mass-produce needed goods. This is a large part of why Puerto Rico is reliant on federal resources. Though, it’s not their fault. Their economy is too regulation-laden to house a robust private sector. And unlike New York state, the regulations don’t come from the local government; they come from the federal government.

And Puerto Rico can’t do anything about it because its congressional representatives can’t vote. No vote means no influence. And no influence means that no one has a reason to listen to you. So, their representatives can complain about restrictive regulations on their private sector all day. But it does not matter because they cannot vote. Without voting power, they’re like members of high school student governments: Advisory and honorific.

Congressional representatives from Puerto Rico have no influence on the legislative process. As a result, the territory’s private sector will continue to be weakened by federal regulation. And because they lack a strong private sector to mass-produce goods, their recovery responses will continue to be deficient. The absence of fortified homegrown recovery efforts—vis-à-vis the private sector—in Puerto Rico requires unique and immense support from the federal government. I applaud Representative Ocasio-Cortez for being among those who recognize this and are looking out for their fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.