San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Ricardo Mangual.
I never believed Puerto Rico would be better off declaring its independence until I visited the island last weekend. Then I was persuaded, not so much by what I saw or heard, but by what I did not hear.
In four days at the Caribe Hilton, one of the nicer hotels on the San Juan oceanfront, I never heard a word of German or Russian. No Chinese or Japanese. No Portuguese. No French, with or without Canadian accents. Not even the Queen’s English. Just the American flavors, and of course the Spanish that is Puerto Rico’s primary tongue.
Vacationers from all over the world seek their pleasure in the Caribbean. Just across the Mona Passage at Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, all-inclusive resorts draw budget-minded travelers from throughout Europe, as do the dowager hotels of Havana much farther to the west. In the opposite direction, the pristine beaches and exclusive villas of the Windward Islands draw an upscale crowd seeking a break from the boring routines of Majorca and Monaco.
But Puerto Rico is trapped, not just by its unserviceable $72 billion in debt, but by its second-class status as a commonwealth freely associated with the United States. And, especially, by its rigid ties to the American currency, as well as our banking and legal systems.
As I recently noted, Puerto Rico will never repay its current debt, because it can’t. So it waits for Washington to provide a restructuring mechanism. If it were treated like an American city or county, the island would already have filed for bankruptcy. Opting for statehood at this point would solve nothing; Puerto Rico would simply become the first state in modern times to default on its general obligation bonds.
Imagine if, instead, Puerto Rico were an independent, sovereign country. Yes, it would default, just as many other countries across Latin America have before it and probably will again. But it could restructure its debt under its own laws with assistance from bodies like the International Monetary Fund. This would require the island to scale back its bloated public sector – which must happen anyway if it is ever to be sustainable – and would allow the island to eventually re-enter the credit markets.
Independence would potentially give Puerto Rico its own currency and its own central bank. The currency would immediately decline against the U.S. dollar. This would be a painful hit for island residents as it forced prices higher, but it would also make locally produced goods and services much cheaper compared to what is produced on the U.S. mainland. This, in turn, would mean more jobs for Puerto Ricans, not least because it would help attract those budget-minded vacationers from outside the United States.
The economic blow from a falling dollar would also be cushioned by remittances from the millions of Puerto Rico natives and their descendants who now live and work in the mainland United States. A weaker island currency would encourage these expatriates to buy and improve property on the island and help sustain family members who remain there.
Productivity across the island is much lower than in the mainland United States. One example: On Saturday my wife and I drove about 90 miles from San Juan to the resort village of Rincon, on the island’s west end, to attend a colleague’s wedding. A journey that would have taken no more than two hours in most of the mainland required more than three hours for us, because the modern, toll-funded highway only covered about half the distance. The remainder was divided between winding two-lane country highways and a traffic-clogged four-lane commercial strip. Every truck traversing that route must travel the same slow roads we took. Goods require more time to reach their markets; workers need more time to reach their jobs and return home.
We passed another example en route to the airport for our departure. A crew of one mower and at least 20 men cleared brush from the side of a highway in the middle of metropolitan San Juan. The same task would never require or occupy more than three or four workers stateside.
On a tropical island where trade winds blow almost constantly, we saw no solar installations and no big wind farms. Virtually all the electricity comes from fossil fuels that have to be carried to the island by ship.
The island’s economy is already largely divorced from that of the mainland. Some 46 percent of islanders have incomes below the poverty line, compared with about 15 percent in the U.S., according to Census Bureau data. Unemployment, at nearly 12 percent, is more than twice the national average.
Just as debt-laden Greece would be better able to compete if it were not locked into the euro, a weaker local currency would allow Puerto Rico to compensate for its lower productivity. Local agriculture and manufacturing would stand a chance. While hardware for solar and wind power would be more expensive in local terms, the labor and land costs to deploy these power sources would be much lower.
The U.S. government has important military and civilian installations across Puerto Rico and neighboring islands. With independence, Puerto Rico could negotiate long-term leases for those facilities, probably including a big upfront payment that would help to get the island’s finances into some semblance of order.
There would be many transition details to be worked out. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, free to move between island and mainland at will. I imagine that, with independence, any living Puerto Ricans would be entitled to a U.S. passport or to retain dual citizenship. It might take a century before the relationship between the two nationalities is fully arm’s length. But we have been down this road before, at least in some respects, with places like the Philippines. It can be done.
I don’t have any desire to distance myself or my country from Puerto Rico. I like the culture and empathize with the people. I did not arrive in San Juan with the idea that either side would be better off if Puerto Rico declared independence; I was persuaded by what I saw and heard there. Or rather, by what I didn’t.