“Gringo go home.” The writing across the sidewalk of Calle Loiza sort of smacks me in the face as I walk from the grocery store back to my rented apartment in San Juan. This isn’t my first encounter with that sentiment; a rally even took place in Old San Juan while I was staying here (although I didn’t attend for a myriad of reasons). Puerto Rican politics are complicated, to say the least, as is the island and its people’s relationship with the United States, and even still with Spain, as evidenced by protests during the Spanish king’s recent visit. And while for most visitors to this Caribbean paradise politics don’t matter at all in comparison to the idyllic setting around them, I feel it incumbent on tourists to at least have a basic understanding of the feelings of locals. This article will only barely scratch the surface of those issues.

This was rough to see, and hard not to take personally

It is important to note here that I am not Puerto Rican. My opinions in this article are taken from my own personal experiences visiting the island, and from some objective facts. However, I am not the dominant source on the issue. Furthermore, as with anyone who isn’t Puerto Rican, my personal opinions on the future of the island (more later) are irrelevant. That future can only be decided by the Puerto Rican people themselves.

First, a bit of background. In 1508, Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the island of Puerto Rico, and claimed it for Spain. The Taino native inhabitants were largely killed or enslaved over the subsequent decades, and African slaves were imported to work the plantations of the island. Today’s Puerto Rican people are largely a mixture of native, African, and Spanish descendants, intermixed over the centuries.

Even as the Spanish Empire declined, Spain held tight to Puerto Rico, seen as the key to its transatlantic trade routes. In 1898, after a brief war, Spain ceded the island (and other territories) to the United States. Since that time, Puerto Rico has been a territory of the US.

Flags of the US, Puerto Rico, and imperial Spain

Ok, so what is a territory? Puerto Rico, and other territories like Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, exist in a sort of purgatory. They are not states, are not officially represented in Congress (although there are unofficial delegates with no voting power), and their residents cannot vote in Presidential elections since territories do not have any electoral votes. Their residents are born US citizens, and do have freedom of movement within the US. Puerto Rico has an elected governor, its own constitution, and the power to enact taxes (more on this in a bit). It has its own national guard, and a modicum of ability to conduct trade agreements, although these are all subject to congressional approval, and as mentioned before, Puerto Rico has no congressional delegation.

Puerto Rico’s Capitol with an anti vaccine protest out front.

It is, by all real standards, a colony, and 1898 just swapped one colonial power for another. The island has never had the ability to choose its own path since Taino times, and that doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.

(Many Americans are familiar with the concept of “taxation without representation,” a phrase associated with our own revolution against our own colonial masters in 1776. Puerto Rico doesn’t quite fit that bill since residents here do not pay federal income tax on money earned in Puerto Rico, nor on capital gains. They do pay income tax on money earned in the US proper even while residents of the island.)

Puerto Rico has had some major financial issues in recent years, and as a territory, does not have a state’s (or even a city like Detroit’s) ability to declare bankruptcy. The island’s debt was so bad that in 2015, it was declared unpayable, and only this year has had a restructure of it. Even so, more than 10% of the island’s budget will go toward debt repayment for the coming generation or two, a huge amount for an island that is forced to import in order to survive and therefore needs significant cash on hand or borrowing ability. Some of this debt came from fiscal mismanagement; some came from the 2006 repeal of US tax incentives for companies doing business on the island, causing many of those to relocate back to the mainland. Recent natural disasters, headlined by Hurricane Maria, haven’t helped, and federal aid is both slower coming to Puerto Rico and sometimes nonexistent without a congressional delegation to push it or an executive beholden to voters there.

And still, each year dozens of wealthy Americans move to Puerto Rico, claiming to reside there more than 163 days per year to avoid federal taxes. Those wealthy individuals drive up real estate prices on the island, adding more financial stress to a place that has a GDP per capita only about 60% of that of the US as a whole. It is no wonder “gringo go home” is a popular sentiment here. It doesn’t refer to tourists; you’ll feel very welcome as a visitor. It refers to immigration to avoid taxes, and to colonialism as a whole.

Buildings like this one in Condado provide fancy condos to new arrivals seeking to avoid taxes

So what is the future? There are three options, as I see it. One is independence, one is statehood, and the third is an indefinite maintaining of the status quo. Independence seems highly unlikely. Politically, it isn’t even allowed to be asked as part of a referendum. Practically, more than a century of ensuring that Puerto Rico is financially dependent on the mainland means an independent nation would have significant hurdles to overcome to build a sustainable economy.

So what about statehood? There have been several referendums about that. Most recently, in 2020, 52% of voters said “yes” to the question of whether Puerto Rico should be immediately admitted as a state. Where has that gone? Nowhere. The “Puerto Rican Self-Determination Act of 2021” is stuck in committee, and looking at the same fate as the “Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018” and a myriad of other such half-hearted endeavors. As I see it, Republicans don’t want a state of Hispanic citizens who they fear will be highly Democratic. Democrats don’t want a state of largely conservative Catholics they fear will be mainly Republican. And again, with no voting power, there is nobody to represent the island. Never mind that these are American citizens who have declared they want to be a state.

So the status quo seems to be the likely future. In my opinion, it is shameful. This is a country that was, in theory, founded on the principle of self-determination denying that basic freedom to a segment of its own citizens. I don’t blame the people of Puerto Rico one bit for being angry. I’d be angry, too. Heck, I am angry, and I’m not even Puerto Rican.

As I said, Puerto Rican politics are complicated. They have all of the issues of any state, with the added factors of lack of federal representation, economic struggles, and island isolation. However, with the exception of the painted sidewalk and rally, those politics were not something I experienced while on the island. I found people who endeavor to live their best lives despite those issues surrounding their very existence. So if you come to Puerto Rico, and I hope you do, just know that it isn’t quite the same as visiting another part of the US.

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