There is wide consensus that what has happened in Puerto Rico is a disaster in every sense. The Trump administration has rightly been faulted for its slow and insufficient response to the hurricane damage. In particular, where were the helicopters? Trump’s people kept saying that they could not get trucks up the roads to deliver aid or get aid containers unloaded at the ports. But if this had happened in a red state, there would have been three aircraft carriers and a hundred helicopters ferrying aid to every remote region of Puerto Rico within two days. And I should add: Why did mainstream media, including even smart CNN anchors, not think to ask about the lack of helicopters?
At this point, obviously a whole “new deal” is needed for Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico commonwealth leaders and Democrats in Congress should already have proposed package of at least $50 billion to write off half of Puerto Rico’s debt (which is now even more clearly unsustainable than before), restructure the rest of its debt, and rebuild the island’s infrastructure. The administration has expressed interest in infrastructure investment, and it can start here. The bargain could include some “tough love” measures of the kind recommended by top economists like Anne Kruger, as Fareed Zakaria has recently noted. For example, they could include reducing minimum wage levels and welfare payments starting in June 2018 for a 10-year period to force a reduction in the island’s absurdly high unemployment rate. People in Puerto Rico could get to work on the infrastructure rebuilding. Repealing the Jones Act limitations on shippers and restoring some of the tax breaks that manufacturing corporations used to enjoy in Puerto Rico would also help reverse the loss of people from the island to the mainland.
But at the same time, Puerto Rico should be pushing with everything it has for statehood. The island’s people have voted for statehood twice in the last five years, and the new Puerto Rican governor, Ricardo Rosselló, had by August put together a team of commissioners to go to Washington, D.C. Yet the commission was not sent before hurricane Maria. Rosselló should jump start that process now, and I hope that San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz will join him in such an all-out push.
More to the point, why didn’t every Democrat on television after the hurricane not repeat “statehood for Puerto Rico” so often that it became a new national slogan? How dumb is the leadership of the Democratic Party? Few major news outlets have taken up this issue (see the important Los Angeles Times article from Oct. 3).
Doubtless in the past, Democratic policy wonks have simply assumed that a statehood petition from Puerto Rico would go nowhere in Congress. Even still, they could have made a lot of political hay out of pushing it, because it would have highlighted again how anti-Latino the Republican Party has become on the whole. Yet now it would be disastrous for Congressional Republicans to oppose a statehood bid for Puerto Rico. After treating the island like a foreign basket case rather than as an integral part of the United States, such an additional affront would shave another 5 percent off their national poll numbers. If ever a Puerto Rico petition for statehood were to be approved, now is the most likely time. And yet Democratic leaders are nowhere to be seen on this issue. Nor are leading TV anchors even asking the question.
Doubtless some Puerto Rican politicians will protest that they do not want statehood, that many Puerto Rican residents prefer to keep their special tax status. We should have absolutely zero patience with this attitude, which is partly responsible for the island’s awful state today. If Puerto Rico had two senators and five members of the House of Representatives before Hurricane Maria, again there would have been a hundred helicopters delivering aid all over the island within two days. The blindness of some provincial leaders in Puerto Rico and Democratic leaders in D.C. who have ignored the statehood issue is stunning. The island’s commonwealth status is a vestige of the bygone colonial era, and it should be definitively ended with the creation of our 51st state.