The people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens but have no vote in Congress. The island is a U.S. territory, but many Americans know nothing about it.

Puerto Rico
Tattered Puerto Rico and U.S. flags, eight months after Hurricane Maria, 16 May 2018, Yabucoa, Puerto Rico (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

By Bernd Debusmann

The people of Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island east of the Dominican Republic, won U.S. citizenship more than 102 years ago. But almost half of their fellow citizens on the American mainland are not aware of that fact.

This is evident from polls over the past few years that highlight widespread confusion and ignorance about the island.

In the eyes of a large portion of the American population, Puerto Rico is a foreign country. Its 3.4 million inhabitants are Latinos. Its principal language is Spanish, a legacy of 400 years of Spanish colonial rule that lasted until the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898. Puerto Rico then became an “unincorporated territory of the United States,” a euphemism for a quasi-colony.

U.S. President Donald Trump appears to share the perception of millions of Americans of Puerto Rico as a remote and foreign place.

Slow recovery

A series of tweets that Trump issued during and after Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017, suggested that he saw Puerto Rico as something “other” than hurricane-damaged parts of the U.S. mainland.

Under criticism for what many Puerto Ricans saw as a slow and half-hearted response to recovery efforts, Trump said: “This is an island. Surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Therefore, he explained, U.S. trucks could not get there.

Helicopters could. But it took more than three weeks for America’s Northern Command to send helicopters to Puerto Rico.

In comparison: When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston a month before Maria, the U.S. government sent 73 helicopters to the stricken city within days.

Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, knocking out power to the entire island. The final death toll was estimated at almost 3,000.

Complex status

Two years later, almost 30,000 people still don’t have permanent roofs and live under makeshift blue tarpaulins. Many roads are still washed out. More than 130,000 people have left for the mainland. That they can do so freely is part of the island’s complex status.

A person born in Puerto Rico is a U.S. citizen but they cannot vote for a president while they live in Puerto Rico. They can if they move to the mainland. Puerto Rico has no voting representative in Congress, only a non-voting “resident commissioner” in the House of Representatives.

Oddly, Puerto Rico has had its own Olympics team since 1948, when the International Olympics Committee, ignoring the U.S. government’s definition of the island’s status, deemed it an independent state recognized by the international community. Playing under the Puerto Rican flag, tennis star Monica Puig won the island’s first gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Puerto Rico’s internal affairs are run by a local government headed by a governor. Under a 1952 constitution, there is a legislature with a House and a Senate, and a judiciary with a Supreme Court. Successive governments have had mixed records.

Trump made clear his views as another hurricane, Dorian, roared towards Puerto Rico this August. “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth,” he tweeted. “Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt.”

Bleak assessment

A month before, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans showed they shared that bleak assessment. Day after day, protesters took to the streets to demand the resignation of governor Ricardo Rosselló. He stepped down in early August.

Popular anger against his government was fuelled by a mixture of complaints about mismanagement, austerity measures imposed by a financial oversight board set up by Congress in Washington to deal with a vast mountain of debt, and, last but not least, the leak of chat room exchanges between Rosselló and senior aides.

In crude and profane terms, they mocked the “cadavers” left by Maria, called prominent women whores, made fun of obesity and insulted gay Puerto Ricans, including Ricky Martin, a superstar pop singer with an enormous global following. He became one of the protest leaders.

Phaseout of tax breaks

Puerto Rico has been in recession for the past 12 years, but Trump and other critics of the island routinely fail to mention that the main cause of the island’s economic decline was a decision by Congress in Washington rather than local actions.

Here is how the 2018 edition of the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook put it:

“Puerto Rico had one of the most dynamic economies in the Caribbean region until 2006; however, growth has been negative for each of the last 11 years. The downturn coincided with the phaseout of tax preferences that had led U.S. firms to invest heavily … since the 1950s.”

One of the tax breaks had waived corporate income taxes for profits made by U.S. manufacturing companies operating in Puerto Rico. That encouraged American corporations, led by the pharmaceutical industry, to move to the island. After congressional critics complained that the tax breaks amounted to corporate welfare, the incentives were phased out.

Plants closed. Workers were fired. Tax revenue shrank. To make up for the lost revenue, successive governments began borrowing.

The debt now stands at $124 billion and has been termed the biggest government financial collapse in U.S. history. How that problem will be solved has yet to be decided.


  1. What does Puerto Rico have in common with Washington, DC?
  2. Why has Puerto Rico been in recession for the past 12 years?
  3. How would you feel if you were prevented from voting for the leader or government representatives in your country?

Bernd Debusmann is a News-Decoder correspondent and former columnist for Reuters who worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries and lived in nine. He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.


Decoder: Confused about Puerto Rico? You’re not alone

  1. To place Mr. Hills’s angry 664-word comment on my 850-word story into context, it is worth knowing that he is a passionate, single-minded advocate of Puerto Rican statehood. Mr. Hills is involved with a website devoted to the issue,, and wrote a book entitled Citizens Without a State ( Both are worth reading if you are interested in the fine details of the relationship between Puerto Rico’s Washington overlords and efforts to turn the island into the 51st U.S. state. While I applaud Mr. Hills’s energetic pursuit of the statehood goal (controversial both in Washington and San Juan) , I think his diatribe fails to address the theme of my story – widespread American ignorance about Puerto Rico and the perception that it is a foreign country. With all due respect, Mr. Hills’s comment brings to mind the reflexive reactions of other single-issue advocates. American gun owners, say, who cry “confiscation” when the words “background checks” are uttered. The many questions Mr. Hills lists are all pertinent but they pertain to a different, yet to be written, story. The critique reminds me of advice I had from a wise editor early in my career: “If you are really angry about something, take a few deep breaths or walk around the block before filing your story. If it’s a feature that can wait, sleep over it.” That would have served you well, Mr. Hills.

  2. This is historical revisionism of the worst kind. Does this writer believe everything he is told about politics and economics in Puerto Rico by the CIA? Did he stop researching the trajectory of the economy after reading one lopsided government report? Did he bother to think about the impact on the economy when the U.S. military pulled out as the period for the phase out of tax shelters reached culmination? Did the author know Puerto Rico’s political leaders demanded that a strategically vital training based be closed, and that Congress determined that justified closure of a huge Navy base and almost all other military commands in the territory? Did anyone bother to find out that blew a $300 million a year hole in the economy, including loss of 6,000 high wage jobs with benefits and retirement? Does he wonder why Clinton and Gingrich agreed to set down those tax shelters? Did it occur to him that tax havens are a form of dependency on federal subsidization that creates pockets of prosperity but engenders stagnation and stifles diversification in the private sector that is not subsidized? How can you justify giving wildly generous and easily abused tax breaks to Americans from the states who own corporations that invest in Puerto Rico, but deny equal tax relief to local U.S. citizens who invest in the economy and create far more jobs? Do you think that 50 year scam could ever get reinstated by Congress now that it is known what it really did? Did this writer look at the history of the unemployment rate in PR for two decades before the tax shelters were ended? Do the U.S. corporations that want their tax shelters back have more influence in Congress, on the press, and the federal government than the majority of 3.2 disenfranchised Americans in Puerto Rico who voted for statehood in 2012? Is it possible those corporations and their big D.C. law firms with partners who were senior officials in Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations might actually take a run at restoration of those huge tax shelters in the name of “recovery” for PR? Did this writer know corporate welfare tax shelters that were phased out over ten years benefited the mainland corporations, mostly big Pharma, disproportionately to any benefit on the workers and business owners in the territory. Average wages paid by corporations to workers on the island were according to some reports around $12,000 annually, but tax write off by corporations were around $400,000 or more annually. The huge tax evasion windfall this allowed created a cash cow for campaign contributions and out right bribes in Washington and San Juan to protect the tax havens and buy political support for the status quo. That impeded informed self-determination on legally valid future status options of statehood or nationhood, because the corporate money in politics to save the tax havens promoted a spoiler option hybrid of statehood and independence that did not exist under U.S. law. That contributed to the culture of pay to play politics that afflicts Puerto Rico. Like most territories that became states, it is statehood rule of law, due process, and most of all participation in national political system and economic system on an equal footing and with equal rights and duties of citizenship that lifts Americans from a less perfect union to a more perfect union. We’ll be watching to see if this author continues to write revisionist history that seems to favor restoration of corporate welfare that some of America’s biggest corporations might like to sponsor if they thought it had a snowball’s chance in Hell of happening. That would be the worst thing that could happen for recovery and attainment of economic and political potential through market economics, democracy and equal rights of U.S. citizenship that will be possible only through statehood for Puerto Rico. Independence will mean loss of citizenship, which is not a choice the U.S. should make unilaterally.

    1. Clarification:

      The figure “$400,000 annually” is the reported average amount corporations exploiting the IRS Code Section 936 tax credits saved in federal income tax each year on average for each job (with average wages of $12,000 by some estimates) created by mainland companies in Puerto Rico. Annually the total write offs under Section 936 averaged more than five $5 billion.

      Also, President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich agreed to “shut down” that tax shelter scam in 1996, not “set down” the program as stated due to spell-check substitution of the wrong word. Clinton had campaigned in 1992 on tax reform that included shut down of Section 936 tax shelters. As recounted by Bob Woodward in his book “The Agenda” at a White House dinner New York Senator Daniel Moynihan told Clinton ending the tax shelters would expose that “commonwealth” was not a sovereign to sovereign “pact” under which Section 936 could not be changed without consent of Puerto Rico. In 1996 Gingrich cited Clinton’s 1992 campaign pledge and challenged him to keep his campaign promise and shut down Section 936, and Clinton agreed.

      Since the anti-statehood “commonwealth” party in PR was propped up by 936 companies and had promised its followers “commonwealth” was a sovereign status and Section 936 was proof “commonwealth” was better than statehood, when it was repealed and phased out the people realized “commonwealth” was a hoax. That was confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2016 case of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle.

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