A necessary and hopeful visit
By José M. Saldaña
As on previous occasions, I had expressed, after the passage of Hurricane Fiona -- the most recent catastrophe in a string of them starting just over a decade ago -- after the largest bankruptcy of any country, after Maria, one of the hurricanes of greatest force and devastation in history that destroyed the decrepit existing electric power system, after the earthquakes in the south of the island, after the deaths and ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic on our fragile health system, after the need for Congress to impose a necessary Financial Oversight and Management Board on us, and now the devastation caused by Fiona, I have to wonder if Puerto Rico is viable.
We are a small island, 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, in the Caribbean Sea. We have no substantive natural resources that we can exploit for effective economic development. Our only natural resource is the beauty of our land, which we have exploited to a limited extent for tourism.
Many point out that the greatest resource for our development is our people, but that in most of the times is a rationalization that is said to conform and to avoid despair. The reality is that most of our people have serious limitations that do not help our development.
We have an average eighth grade schooling that is truly a sixth grade. Despite an investment of more than $3 billion annually in our public education system -- half of which is federally funded -- our students fail miserably on international tests in the core subjects of Spanish, English, science and mathematics. Barely 50% of those entering public school graduate from high school. We have a labor force participation rate estimated at 42.7 percent. That rate reflects the percentage of people of working age who are employed or actively seeking work. In the United States, it is 63%.
Large sections of our population depend on federal livelihoods such as those provided by the Nutrition Assistance Program, WIC, Medicaid that covers more than 1.6 million beneficiaries, the Head Start program for preschoolers, the Section 8 public housing subsidy program, on construction funds for the operation and maintenance of more than 70,000 public housing units housing 400,000 people on the island.
In cases of natural disasters such as the current ones, we rely heavily on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help those affected and to rebuild the infrastructure.
So far this year, crime on the island has increased by 12%, making the rate one of the highest in the nation, particularly among young people. The high prevalence of drug trafficking and the war to control drug points is largely responsible for this. All these situations, together with the recent problems and catastrophes, make us have to ask ourselves if we are viable in the current territorial political status or will be viable as a republic.
Faced with this question or questioning, last Monday we had a reason for hope. United States President Joe Biden, on a visit to the island – to the Ponce area – brought an excellent hopeful message to our people. The president announced that he had made an allocation of $60 million for works aimed at preventing flooding on the island, including the construction of levees and the creation of an alert system.
He also pointed to the creation of a team throughout the federal government that will assist in the recovery of the island’s electricity grid, although that agency has been working on that effort since the beginning of this year.
“I asked Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to lead a federal-wide effort to modernize and recover Puerto Rico’s grid,” Biden said. “To bring all federal resources and additional assistance and support to Puerto Rico.”
“Jill and I have had Puerto Rico in our minds and in our prayers. We have come personally to show you that we are with you, that all Americans are with you,” the president added. “You deserve all the help our country can give you. That’s what I’m determined to do. For Hurricane Maria, Congress approved billions of dollars for Puerto Rico and much of that money has not reached the island initially. We’re going to make sure you get every penny that was promised. And I am committed to seeing that Puerto Rico can be rebuilt faster than in the past, stronger and better prepared for the future.”
In obvious reference to the controversial visit of previous President Donald Trump, who when he came to Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, 2017 after Hurricane Maria, tossed rolls of paper towels to citizens and was awarded a 10 when evaluating the response of his administration to the devastation caused weeks before by Hurricane Maria, Biden noted that five years later, there are still many reconstruction projects that have not begun. Faced with this situation, the president said he was in Puerto Rico because “you have not been treated very well.”
We hope and trust that these promises and commitments of President Biden will become realities and that our people will know how to take advantage of them, because otherwise I do not foresee our capacity to carry out the immense task of reconstruction that we must undertake in order to be in a position to be viable in a highly competitive world. These promised aids are gifts in good faith from the nation to an unincorporated territory of American citizens, but they need not be necessarily granted. If we were a state, we would have every right to them and more.
It is high time that our people stop the romantic, idealistic dreams and ask ourselves seriously and objectively: What would become of us if we were not part of the United States? What if we were given independence via free association or traditional independence?
My friends, it’s time to think on this well because between now and the elections we will see, on the part of the separatist, socialist and communist parties and movements, attempts to create protests, strikes and revolts to destabilize the current government and try to move us to the socialist republic through what some call free association, which is nothing more than independence.
José M. Saldaña DMD, MPH, is a former president of the University of Puerto Rico.