Washington - The U.S. must recognize that it is time to end Puerto Rico's colonial situation and open a national dialogue on the island's political future, according to two former Treasury officials, including Antonio Weiss, who played a key role in PROMESA.
"The immediate task is to reduce the debt, rebuild the island's damaged infrastructure, including the Electric Power Authority, and boost the economy. I have expressed my opinion about the need for a deeper debt restructuring, also to reduce austerity. I have been critical of economists advising the Oversight Board for making too optimistic long-term assumptions. However, the time has come to bring the colonial relationship into the national dialogue and establish a way forward," Weiss told El Nuevo Día.
Weiss, who was a Counselor to former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and served as Under Secretary of Domestic Finance, talked to El Nuevo Día following last night's publication of “America’s Forgotten Colony
Ending Puerto Rico’s Perpetual Crisis” in the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine that he wrote with Brad Setser, who was deputy assistant secretary for International Economic Analysis. A piece where they make a call to address the island's perpetual crisis: its colonial status.
Weiss is an academic at the Center for Business and Government at Harvard University's School of Government. Setser is part of the Council on Foreign Relations study group.
Along with the lack of economic development initiatives, PROMESA plunged Puerto Rico further into its colonial situation, with an Oversight Board with power over the island's government.
Weiss and Setser said in the article that although it was necessary to gain bipartisan support for the bill, the creation of the Board - with seven members appointed by the U.S. President - was a clear reminder of the island's colonial status and stressed that Congress did nothing to address the "incomplete" access of Puerto Rico residents to the federal benefits.
Weiss and Setser acknowledged that facing an alternative status process raises “complex economic, cultural, and constitutional issues and would require a multiyear transition process, designed to- gether with the people of Puerto Rico.”
“At its core, status is a question of ideology and identity,” they said, pointing out that “the United States’ continued eco- nomic and political neglect of the island is a stain on the country’s moral authority.”
Regarding status alternatives, they warned that to prevent a future Congress from further limiting a relationship of "autonomy", an amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed at giving the island greater self-government or “a more meaningful voice in the development of national policy, or both,” would be required.
“An amendment should enshrine Puerto Rican residents’ equal status as American citizens with specific rights to self-government, voting representation in presidential elections, and equal treatment in social safety net programs,” they added.
They recalled that the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, guaranteed residents of Washington, D.C., representation in the Electoral College,” with 3 of the 538 votes in the U.S. electoral college.
As for independence, they said that although it has limited support within Puerto Rico, it “would offer full policy autonomy, including, if Puerto Rico so desired, an independent central bank, a floating currency, and the ability to craft its own labor, tax, and trade policies,” but that it will require “a plan to replace or maintain the func- tions currently carried out by the federal government, and clarity about how the federal benefits that currently flow to Puerto Rican residents would be funded during the transition and maintained by the Puerto Rican government after independence.”
“The two parties would also have to define their future trade relationship and determine whether Puerto Rican residents would retain their U.S. citizen- ship and the right to travel freely to the United States,” they explained.
On statehood, in light of doubts regarding whether Congress - especially Republicans - would accept the island's admission, they stressed the process will require “Washington must make clear that it is prepared to embrace Puerto Rico as a member of the union, including by granting it full congressional representation.”
Due to Puerto Rico's aging population, full access to federal programs would be especially significant. But they also noted that “perhaps the most difficult economic aspect of statehood would be the integration of Puerto Rico into the U.S. tax system,” given the impact on multinationals that operate on the island as foreign companies, individuals who don't pay income taxes state government revenues.
“Statehood could put at risk nearly $5 billion of Puerto Rico’s annual revenue, or about one-third of its total,” they warned.
Weiss stressed the importance of establishing a "clear" transition period for any new status. He said the next U.S. administration and the new Congress "must address this in dialogue with Puerto Rico," and a firm commitment to "respect and implement" the will of the Puerto Rican people.
"If after Hurricane María, which caused (about) 3,000 deaths, and the fiscal and debt crisis there are not enough reasons for a national dialogue on Puerto Rico's political status, then when will that debate take place?" Weiss said.