The U.S. Government is to Blame for Puerto Rico’s Mass Exodus

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BarrioIcon-Newsletter1x1Today, CNN published the news report - Why more Puerto Ricans are living in mainland U.S. than in Puerto Rico - which unsurprisingly tip-toes around a burning question: the role the U.S. government plays in its colony’s population decline (which was almost 600,000 in the last decade).

What the report does well is this: It problematizes the concept of a “brain drain” (i.e., a majority of emigres are not the college educated middle-class) and discusses how emigration benefits the U.S. more than the island, as we reported before. Also, it states that Puerto Ricans voted in 2012 against its current colonial status and that the power brokers in Washington D.C. barely noticed (while in the same breathe states that a “majority” favored statehood, omitting that nearly 500,000 voters left that question unanswered!).

The main problem with it: Like many island pundits and residents, the problem of Puerto Rico’s economic decline is presented as solely the result of bad local government. But what about the role of U.S. colonial policies, as we’ve reported? And its political inaction? I would never dare to say that island Puerto Ricans should be lifted of their responsibility in Borinquen’s socio-economic decline. What we should not loose site of is the fact that insular government decisions are made in the context of a colonial limbo – even the island’s political parties are organized along one’s status preference.

For example: The pro-statehood folks have an vested interest in keeping the island as economically dependent and culturally bound to the U.S. as possible. That’s why they have historically favored privatization (La Telefónica, LMM airport, etc), an English-Spanish two language official policy, and expansion of federal welfare programs on the island. The same is for the pro-colony folks who occasionally appropriate nationalist, independentista rhetoric to appeal to progressive (and cynically patriotic) electoral elements (e.g., the new municipal slogan of San Juan is “Ciudad, Patria” – City, Motherland – but the mayor is a member of the pro-colony party!).

So, yes, island Puerto Ricans got agency (even local institutions stimulate emigration), but it is informed and shaped by U.S. governmental inaction in promoting (through legally binding mechanisms) island self-determination.

The report also mentions that there were other waves of island emigration, but fails to say that it was a concise effort between the insular and U.S. governments to get rid of “excess population” and to benefit the latter’s industries (i.e. “Operation Bootstrap”). Again, missing facts that leaves us without a complete picture.

Lastly, the report profiles an island Boricua who moved to New York City, but does not engage with the question of how she found a job in a place where Nuyoricans are one of its poorest residents (and in the country)? This is what fascinates me and scares me: the rhetoric of the U.S. as a “promised land.”

“‘Seeing the way New York City operates makes you notice what Puerto Rico lacks and makes me want to go back and do things a different way,’” Miranda said. “‘But it does not depend on us, it depends whether Puerto Rico’s government will allow us to contribute in the reconstruction of our country.’” – CNN.

Yeah, the “gold-paved metropolis” might be a Utopia for some, but for thousands of Puerto Ricans, it has not and is not. That is the saddest reality of all – we are forced to leave our homelands to enter another cycle of poverty. And no matter how much some of my compatriots may say it, it doesn’t all depend on the insular government or some great initiatives and ideas – its the U.S. government that needs to act on Puerto Rico’s colonial status.

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Xavi Burgos Peña

Xavi Burgos Peña is co-founder of La Respuesta magazine. He is a Boricua/ Dominicano of the Diaspora who has lived his life between New York City and Chicago. His professional experience is mostly in the area of community-building, including youth development, social marketing, and organizing against gentrification. His journalism credits include being editor and chief designer for Que Ondee Sola magazine, columnist for La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper, contributor to Gozamos magazine, and guest writer for Claridad newspaper in Puerto Rico. Contact: