Sermon by The Rev. Kathy McAdams
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Franklin MA
August 19, 2018 - Proper 15B RCL
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
This past Tuesday, power was restored to nearly the entire island of Puerto Rico…328 days after its infrastructure was knocked out by Hurricane Maria. And reports are that power is still unreliable. The customers who waited the longest are families living in rural, mountainous neighborhoods such as those that Carla will tell us about at coffee hour; those that some of us will have an opportunity to visit and offer our assistance.
Hurricane Maria damaged critical infrastructure resulting in cascading failures of energy, transportation, communications, water supply and wastewater treatment, which had deadly consequences: not the least of which were the inability to use essential medical equipment and refrigerate medications. The government of Puerto Rico recently admitted that the official death count of 64 is way off, and that it’s probably closer to 1,427. But even that estimate may be too low. In June, Harvard researchers estimated that up to 4,600 people likely died as a result of the storm. If that’s true, it would make Hurricane Maria the deadliest natural disaster to hit US soil in more than a century.
Now that power has been restored, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is scaling back its efforts, and no longer funding 100% of its work. The problem with that is that Hurricane Maria set Puerto Rico back nearly 20 to 30 years, and it was already struggling financially before that.
This US territory had been struggling to make payments on more than $72 billion in debt. Officials in Puerto Rico had called on Congress to allow the island to restructure its debt using chapter 9 of the U.S. bankruptcy code. Federal law allows municipalities and public corporations in all 50 states the ability to seek bankruptcy relief, but Puerto Rico is excluded. And, since it is a territory (read colony; remember the colonists in Boston who threw tea into the harbor because they were being taxed by England, but didn’t have proper representation in government?)…since it’s a territory and not a state, Puerto Rico’s one representative in Congress has voice, but no vote. It also has no representation in the Electoral College, so even though they are American Citizens, Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot exercise their right to vote in Presidential elections.
Just a few months before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans actually voted, for the second time, in favor of becoming a state. But unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how many Puerto Ricans vote for it. The only people who can incorporate the island into a state are the voting members of Congress.
As a territory, the U.S. federal government controls all of Puerto Rico's commerce, trade, immigration and naturalization, military affairs, mail, highways, natural resources, Social Security, federal taxation and maritime law.
While most residents do not have to pay the federal personal income tax (unless they work for the US government), they do pay import/export taxes, federal commodity taxes, Social Security and Medicare, but PR receives less than 15% of the Medicaid funding it would receive if it was a state. And Medicare providers receive less-than-full state-like reimbursements for services rendered to beneficiaries in Puerto Rico even though they pay fully into the system. So you can see how that would be a dis-incentive for medical providers to set up shop in PR.
You’re probably wondering: “how did this happen?” How did Puerto Ricans come to be US citizens, but not have the rights and representation that we do here on the mainland?
In 1898, after centuries of Spanish rule, PR became an independent part of Spain, with a Constitution and voting rights. Later that year began the Spanish-American War, during which the US invaded PR because it was interested in developing a sugar market there. General Miles convinced Puerto Ricans to side with the US, and they assisted the US army in the war. But the US didn’t keep it’s promises to the Puerto Ricans (does this sound like how our government treated another brown people who inhabited the mainland prior to white settlers?). The US government replaced PR’s democratically elected government with a colonial system. Instead of establishing a path to statehood, as it had done for Colorado and other western territories, judges declared that Puerto Rico was full of “alien races” who couldn’t understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.” Therefore, the US Constitution did not apply to them, and Puerto Rico became an “unincorporated territory” with no path forward to statehood.
In addition, the U.S. disrupted Puerto Rico’s coffee industry, implementing a sugar economy and creating massive poverty among the population. The lack of economic opportunity for residents of Puerto Rico has created a culture of dependency and lack of agency. And still, most U.S. companies pay virtually no taxes to the Puerto Rican government.
In 1917, Puerto Ricans were made US Citizens so that they could be deployed as troops in WWI (similar to how the Emancipation Proclamation legalized the Union’s use of black troops). The federal government believed that white people weren’t suited to fight in tropical climates because they didn’t have immunity to the diseases found there. Instead, the U.S. sent Puerto Ricans to defend the Panama Canal.
If only those in all three branches of our government would ask God for the same thing that Solomon asked: A wise and understanding mind, to discern between good and evil, then maybe they would put profit aside, and the needs of people first.
As Christians, we can urge Congress to have understanding hearts, to do what’s right and fair, to recognize Puerto Rico as a state, and to grant to its residents all the rights and responsibilities shared by residents of the other 50 United States. We can insist that Congress help to rebuild its infrastructure, and allow PR to restructure its debt. And in the meantime, we can go there and get to know the people, to understand their needs, to further advocate for them, and to help them re-build their homes and their lives, to help them become self-sustainable through the creation of micro-businesses. Please come to coffee hour to hear more from Carla about our opportunity to meet God on the mountain top in PR.
The History Channel (History.com) September 22, 2017 - Puerto Rico’s Complicated History with the United States by Becky Little
Wikipedia - Taxation in Puerto Rico
Washington Post - Puerto Rico is being treated like a colony after Hurricane Maria - By Julio Ricardo Varela - September 26, 2017
NBC News - Puerto Rico Is Part Of the U.S.: Here's A Few Things to Know - by Sandra Lilley / Oct.03.2017
Huffington Post - LATINO VOICES - Updated Nov 22, 2016 - Most Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans Are American - The territory’s residents have held citizenship for nearly a century.
NPR Morning Edition - FEMA Begins Scaling Back Financial Assistance In Puerto Rico - August 17, 2018 by Adrian Florido