During a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing last month, held to debate two competing visions for determining Puerto Rico’s future, Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., denounced the “single most egregious example of colonialism” in Puerto Rico: the Financial Oversight and Management Board. Created by the federal government in 2016 to police Puerto Rico’s budget, the board has imposed sweeping austerity and privatization to secure payments for the vulture funds that have bought up the territory’s debt. According to Torres, the board “represents a cardinal sin against the sovereignty and self-determination of Puerto Rico.”
An original co-sponsor of the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, one of the two bills up for discussion at the April 14 hearing, Torres went on to assert that making Puerto Rico a U.S. state as expeditiously as possible is the only just path to decolonization and the best way to make up for abuses by the federal government. Decrying “powerful interests” that exploit “Puerto Rico as a tax haven,” he said that “if Puerto Rico were a state, there would be no financial control board.”
What Torres failed to mention, however, was that the forces advocating hardest for the statehood bill are some of the same that pushed Congress not only to pass the law that created the financial oversight board in the first place, but also to expand the use of tax-deferment schemes in Puerto Rico.
According to an Intercept review of federal lobbying records and corporate financial statements, over the past decade, advocacy groups tied to Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, the Republican Party, and one of the territory’s wealthiest families (whose company held tens of millions of dollars in Puerto Rican government debt) have hired high-profile corporate and anti-tax lobbyists — to the tune of nearly $12 million since 2013 — to advocate for Puerto Rican statehood. But they also hired many of those same lobbyists to develop the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, in 2016, which created the financial board, and to promote the expansion of Puerto Rico’s “opportunity zones,” or areas where investors can avoid taxes by stashing their capital gains in real estate and business projects.
Such ideological inconsistencies are coming to a head as decolonization has become an increasingly mainstream demand in U.S. politics. The term often pops up without context or consensus as to its meaning, and gaps are especially visible when it comes to Puerto Rico, where competing visions for decolonization have emerged. The other legislation under discussion on April 14 leaves room for Puerto Ricans to decide from a number of potential political statuses, with statehood as just one option.
The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act — reintroduced this year by Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. — would set up a special decolonization assembly, or “status convention.” Puerto Ricans on the territory would elect delegates to the convention to debate all possible status options, at least including statehood, full independence, and a “free association” agreement with the U.S., and the delegates would present the options to the territory for a binding vote. The idea has been met with ire from many statehood proponents.
“The way that [pro-statehood officials] govern in Puerto Rico is pro-privatization, pro-bondholder,” said Federico de Jesús, a senior adviser to the Power 4 Puerto Rico coalition, which supports the Self-Determination Act. “But with liberal groups, grassroots people, people in the diaspora, new parties on the island … the diversity of those who don’t support ‘statehood my way or the highway’ is growing.”