One hundred years ago today, on March 2, 1917, more than one million Puerto Ricans were granted United States citizenship. It wasn’t exactly a gift. Exactly one month later, on April 2, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. The point of extending citizenship to Puerto Ricans was to get about 20,000 more bodies into the World War.
The centennial of that dubious bestowal makes now a good time to kick the tires and see whether citizenship ended up being a vehicle for human development or a beat-up car that only benefited its dealer.
After one hundred years of citizenship, US federal agencies control the island’s currency, banking system, international trade, foreign relations, shipping and maritime laws, TV, radio, postal system, immigration, Social Security, customs, transportation, military, import-export regulations, environmental controls, coastal operations, air space, civil and criminal appeals, and judicial code.
After one hundred years of citizenship, the per capita income of Puerto Ricans is roughly $15,200—half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union. Yet in the last five years alone, the government raised the retirement age, increased worker contributions, and lowered public pensions and benefits. It also hiked the water rates by 60 percent, raised the gasoline and sales taxes (the latter to 11.5 percent), and allowed electricity rates to skyrocket. In 2013–14 alone, 105 different taxes were raised in Puerto Rico. But this was not enough.
After one hundred years of citizenship, Puerto Ricans are prohibited from managing their own economy, negotiating their own trade relations, or setting their own consumer prices. Puerto Rico has been little more than a profit center for the United States: first as a naval coaling station, then as a sugar empire, a cheap labor supply, a tax haven, a captive market, and now as a a municipal bond debtor and target for privatization. It is an island of beggars and billionaires: fought over by lawyers, bossed by absentee landlords, and clerked by politicians.