Saturday, January 25, 2014

Frank Worley-Lopez: Puerto Rico’s Problems Are About More Than Money

Puerto Rico’s Problems Are About More Than Money

Frank Worley-Lopez
My mother always used to say “money doesn’t buy happiness.” My response was as sharp as my bad attitude: “I’d rather be rich and unhappy, than poor and unhappy.” Well, I didn’t get rich, and I’m still working on the happiness bit.
In many ways that conversation with my mother reminds me a lot of Puerto Rico. The island receives more than US$20 billion a year in federal funds, with the largest portion of that going toward payments and services for individuals like Nutritional Assistance, Social Security, and housing. The island has a Gross Domestic Product of about $100 billion a year. Not to mention the great scenery, warm Caribbean waters, and great weather — except when the occasional hurricane strikes.
The Puerto Rican flag flies at a rally in Old San Juan Source: akim-puertorico.
The Puerto Rican flag flies at a rally in Old San Juan Source: akim-puertorico.
So why then, with all of that money, is it in such a mess?
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has $70 billion in debt outstanding (with nearly $30 billion more in underfunded pensions); half the population is on public assistance; it has a 14 percent unemployment rate; and roughly 900 murders occur every year. They face the very real possibility of their credit rating being downgraded to junk status, and the debt load per citizen is estimated to be 10 times that of any other state and thousands of residents (mostly professionals) are leaving the island each year for greener pastures in the good old U.S. of A.
What happened?
The answer is complicated, but I’ll try to simplify it for this article.
Money for Nothing
It’s said that nothing in life is free, but in Puerto Rico’s case the residents pay no federal income tax on earnings in Puerto Rico. The “help” that came from the federal government made it easier for many to live off of government assistance than to work.
While a student in seventh grade in a small school in Naguabo, located on the island’s eastern tip, I spoke with classmates about my plans for the future: college, career, and service to the country.
One of my classmates angrily responded, “Why would you go through all of that? The government pays for everything.” Some of my other classmates looked at me with disdain while shaking their collective heads.
“So you plan to just live on welfare when you grow up?” I asked incredulously.
“Of course! It’s so much easier than all of those things you talked about.”
The conversation, which occurred around 1980, never left my memory. Checking back as a young man in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found that in fact many of the people I had gone to school with had followed their aspiration and were living on government assistance programs. Not all of them, however, chose to follow that path.
Some went on to college; some worked; others simply died.
One of my classmates, “Alfred,” became a heavy drug user. Eventually he quit drugs and found religion (maybe not in that order), and only a short time after becoming clean was hit by a car and killed while walking home from church. The word on the street was that he had been hit on purpose by some of his former drug buddies who didn’t like that he had tried to change his life for the better.
In the back of my head I keep a list — list that Alfred is on — along with another half a dozen people who I have known who have been killed because of drugs or related activities. One friend was gunned down by mistake. A mob hit man confused him with his target, kidnapped him, took him to the top of a building, shot him in the back of the head, and dropped his body over the side. Upon realizing his mistake, the hit man found his original target and did the same to him.
Another was gunned down in his driveway, in front of his children — another at a toll booth.
Drugs, the Drug War, and Dirty Cops
More than 1,100 murders on an island of 3.6 million people that is a 100 miles long and 30 miles wide: that is the drug war in a nutshell. From cocaine to crack to crystal meth, the island has it all. Anything you could want to destroy yourself with, while having a really, really, good time. An estimated $3 billion in illegal drugs are sold each year on the island. That amount of money drives an enormous organized crime movement and leads to corruption at all levels of government, especially at the local police level.
Local drug dealers, taking a page from Al Capone’s book, offer services to housing project residents in exchange for their loyalty — or at least non-interference. Crossing the local dealer, or his boss, is a death sentence, and it is enforced mercilessly. Puerto Rico does not have a death sentence, so criminals and residents fear other criminals and kingpins more than they do the police.
Source: Huffington Post
Source: Huffington Post.
Corrupt police and local officials are the norm.  The law only seems to matter when police need to raise revenue, and it usually only matters for motorists. In fairness, if you’ve ever driven in Puerto Rico, a lot of people deserve those tickets. Petty theft is beyond epidemic, so high in fact that many (including myself) stop reporting crimes after the first few go unresolved. A recent visitor to Vieques Island, off of Puerto Rico’s east coast, told me his car rental company had told him to leave the vehicle unlocked since “the thieves were going to get in anyway,” and they don’t like having to replace windows.
Really Bad Politics and Politicians
If you’ve ever been to Louisiana, and some other locations, you know that there are corrupt politicians. Politicians in Puerto Rico, however, make Louisiana politicians look like amateurs. From somehow mismanaging a $100 billion economy and $20 billion in federal funds into a $70 billion debt, to allegations of taking money from drug dealers, to allegations of prior knowledge of the daring escape of a drug lord from a maximum security prison, Puerto Rico politicians have earned their bad reputation. The senator allegedly involved in the escape case was removed over allegations of tax evasion, but he was never convicted of anything and denied any wrongdoing. A report from that year shows he wasn’t the only one who was in trouble.
Corruption allegations against politicians and officials have continued to the present day, and Puerto Rico leads the entire United States for public corruption cases. Not everyone is corrupt, and not everyone is on the public dole, but the corrupt politicians and police represent an important moral crisis in Puerto Rico. Further, all of this occurs with a backdrop of perpetual status politics and the question of whether the island should remain a commonwealth, become independent, or become the 51st state.
There are of course solutions to all of these problems, few of which will be found in government itself. Perhaps instead of offering a solution this time, I’ll ask you the reader to offer your own in the comment box below. What would you do? How would you fix this?

Frank Worley-LopezFrank Worley-Lopez
Worley-Lopez is one of the two founders of the original Libertarian Party of Puerto Rico and its first state chairman. He is the author of A Puerto Rican Manifesto (Un Manifiesto Puertorriqueño) and a former Radio and TV host and Puerto Rican Senate aide. Follow him @FrankWorleyPR

History Notes: "THERE was something a bit grudging about America’s conquest of Puerto Rico in 1898... America is a country founded on a unique set of ideas, and most of them do not come from imperial Spain. Hispanics will play an ever-larger role in shaping America. Centuries of proximity and shared history are bound to strengthen this. But modern America does not belong to any one race or culture: that is its genius."

The making of America: March of history

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Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States. By Felipe Fernández-Armesto. W.W. Norton; 416 pages; $27.95. Buy from
THERE was something a bit grudging about America’s conquest of Puerto Rico in 1898, after a short war with Spain. The “so-called white” inhabitants, the first American military governor sniffed, looked as if they had “Indian blood”. A commander of the defeated Spanish forces was just as contemptuous. Locals went from being “fervently Spanish” to “enthusiastically American” in 24 hours.
Both sides missed the import of the moment, argues a new Hispanic history of the United States, the very title of which, “Our America”, sounds like a challenge to a fight. The rising superpower had just seized a colony far older than any English settlement on the North American mainland. The island of Puerto Rico became Spanish in 1508, almost a century before English buccaneer-adventurers splashed ashore at Jamestown in Virginia. Not only that, but settlements like Jamestown—a fortified trading-post, built explicitly for profit—had been founded in conscious imitation of Spanish colonial practices in the Americas, says the author, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a British academic based at Notre Dame University in Indiana.
The book takes aim at the founding myths of America that run exclusively from east to west. Those myths begin with ocean-crossings by pious, liberty-loving Englishmen. They dwell on the miracle of the Revolutionary War, in which bewigged patriots defeated vastly larger British forces. The myths end with wagon-trains rumbling across the Prairies and railways cutting through the Rockies, opening a continent to such Anglo-American virtues as rugged individualism and the plain- spoken certainties of the common law.
The book sets out to show how such tales ignore a parallel history of America that runs from south to north, embraces different values and has—for unbroken centuries—spoken Spanish. With startling facts and jaw-dropping tales of courage and depravity, the author triumphantly rescues Hispanic America from obscurity.
Spanish conquistadors brought horses to the Great Plains as early as 1540, showing native Americans in present-day Kansas how horsemen with spears could kill 500 buffalo in a fortnight. By 1630 a Franciscan mission in New Mexico claimed to have baptised 86,000 Indians in one summer. To repel French, British and Russian rivals, Spain built forts from Florida to the north-western coasts of what is today British Columbia. Catholic missions ran vast cattle ranches and planted California’s first citrus groves and vines. It was not just the French who helped George Washington’s armies defeat the British crown. Spanish forces harried the redcoats from Florida to Michigan, the book records, while Spanish gold bankrolled the siege at Yorktown (the newly founded town of Los Angeles, a continent away, sent $15 for the war effort).
Spanish rule was often pretty sketchy. One 18th-century frontier governor was a friendly Apache chief, while Spain’s agent in the Upper Missouri was a mystic from Wales, hunting for the Welsh-speaking descendants of a prince who, myth had it, crossed the Atlantic to escape the English 600 years earlier. Colonial bosses, soldiers and missionaries were not kindly men: Indians, in particular, died in large numbers from disease, exploitation and armed conflict. But the book makes a case that a rough-hewn paternalist pragmatism mostly prevailed in Hispanic America. Slavery was shunned (and in 1821 outlawed by newly-independent Mexico). Spanish officials treated slavery as a crime, and worse as a mistake: far easier to buy off natives with axes, copper kettles, food and dependence-inducing rum.
The author paints a harsher picture of English-speaking America, from the first moments after the revolution. A sort of madness for land and expansion gripped the Yankees and English-speakers of the South, buttressed by “scientific” race theories that placed white Anglo-Americans over supposedly brutish Indians, Spaniards and those of mixed race. American settlers flooded California and Texas, grabbing land with the help of corrupt lawyers, broken treaty-promises, “popular tribunals” that were little more than judicial lynch-mobs, and, when all else failed, force. The war of Texan independence involved much daring, but was also explicitly motivated by the desire to escape Mexico’s laws against slavery: Anglo settlers were anxious to import black slaves to pick cotton. The spectacle appalled such observers as John Quincy Adams, with the former president sorrowing that Texas joined the union tainted by two crimes, slavery and “robbery of Mexico”.
More than a century of unblushing, institutionalised racism followed, involving everything from segregated schools to guestworker schemes that left Mexicans at the mercy of exploitative bosses. Hard economic times triggered race riots and mass deportations.
Still Hispanics kept coming, most recently breaking out of urban and suburban strongholds to establish communities in small towns and rural counties in almost every state. A quarter of all American children are now from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. That prompts the book to two conclusions. The first—that a “second Hispanic colonisation” is under way—is essentially a bit of wordplay. The second—that “the United States is and has to be a Latin American country”—leads the author into a muddle. He offers a digression about the Protestant work ethic, and why that is a fiction behind which lurks anti-Catholic prejudice. He asks why, if the government in Washington is supposedly more democratic than the military dictatorships that blighted South America for so long, American troops have at times been used to break strikes or escort black children into Arkansas schools.
These final digressions are a shame: a quest for equivalence that is really an attempt to refute anti-Hispanic condescension. But the effort is not needed. The history of Hispanic North America is already fascinating, as the book shows. Yet—to be clear—it was also a story of the peripheries, not least for the Spanish empire itself. America is a country founded on a unique set of ideas, and most of them do not come from imperial Spain.
Hispanics will play an ever-larger role in shaping America. Centuries of proximity and shared history are bound to strengthen this. But modern America does not belong to any one race or culture: that is its genius.
Read the whole story

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The making of America - The Economist

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The making of America
The Economist
THERE was something a bit grudging about America's conquest of Puerto Rico in 1898, after a short war with Spain. The “so-called white” inhabitants, the first American military governor sniffed, looked as if they had “Indian blood”. A commander of the...