What Harvard Doesn’t Know About Puerto Rico
NiLPnote: From time to time, I come across articles on the Latino experience on the Internet that seem odd to me. I most recently came across an historical review of the United States-Puerto Rico relationship by a group called the U.S. History Scene, founded by Harvard University historians, which describes itself as:
“a multimedia education website composed of historians and educators at over forty universities dedicated to providing students and teachers with easy access to premier digital resources, live digital curriculum, and cutting-edge history scholarship. Our goal is to use innovative open source technology to democratize learning, narrow the achievement gap by helping history students realize their intellectual potential, and master United States history in a way that is entertaining, relevant, and intuitive. We bring you the best of the archives (without the dust!).”
The piece on Puerto Rico was written by Alvita Akiboh, a PhD Candidate in U.S. History at Northwestern University.
Thinking this historical review was kinda hinky, I turned to our intellectually fearless attorney-scholar, Nelson Denis, the author of the provocative “War Against All Puerto Ricans,” to check it out for us. This was his reaction. The result? Be careful what you read on the Internet, especially about Latinos.
NiLP Guest Commentary
misunderstands Puerto Rico
by Nelson Denis
The NiLP Report (February 25, 2018′ updated March 5, 2018))
Puerto Rico is being studied by Harvard. This is very bad news.
Exploited by bankers, deceived by politicians, ignored by journalists, Puerto Ricans are leaving the island in record numbers. Many have lost faith in their own leadership, and refuse to believe any information that is thrown at them.
It is more than fake news that is assaulting them.
It is fake history, fake schools, fake books and fake professors. Iencountered several of these fakes when War Against All Puerto Ricans was published.
Other fakes are nearly untouchable: embedded in the higher reaches of the New York Times , Washington Post , Wall Street Journal and the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Some dangerous fakes are nestled in academia.
Behaving like Delphic Oracles, they cut-and-paste reams of contradictory information and call it a doctoral thesis, or distort an entire nation’s history, thinking that no one will challenge them.
Most dangerous of all are the prestige professors, the ones atop an Ivy League mountain, who unleash a fire hose of “facts” on the multitudes down below – like an academic Sheriff Bull Connor. This is the case with Alvita Akiboh’s article “Puerto Rico’s Relationship with the United States? It’s Complicated.”
Even its pedigree is pernicious.
The article appears in US History Scene, a “multimedia education history project founded by Harvard historians.” This might impress a few people but – since I graduated from Harvard, and defended Puerto Rico on campus – I am crystal clear on one point: that I would rather be governed by the first fifty names in the Boston phone book, than the entire faculty of Harvard University.
Given its “Harvard” pedigree, the article’s sources are underwhelming.
For the issue of Puerto Rican statehood, its only sources are six YouTube videos, one of which is titled “Glenn Beck. Puerto Rico: the 51st State.”
It is unclear whether Stephanie Beck Cohen, a staff member at US History Scene for the past four years, is related to Glenn Beck. But any Harvard historian who uses Glenn Beck as an “expert authority” on Puerto Rico, and asks teachers to promote Glenn Beck in their classrooms is already – to put it mildly – suspect on several levels.
Another “YouTube Source,” Art Fennell Reports, claims that Puerto Rico has been a US Commonwealth since 1898.
The article’s “heritage and culture” section is equally troubling.
It encourages teachers to discuss Jennifer Lopez, Geraldo Rivera, Ricky Martin and Joaquin Phoenix as major cultural figures. This is the equivalent of declaring Psy and Obba Gangnam Style as representatives of Korean culture, and Charo the Cuchi-Cuchi girl as an ambassador from Spain.
There is no mention of Antonio Paoli (opera singer), Matos Paoli (Nobel Prize-nominated poet), Pablo Casals (cellist), Yomo Toro (cuatro artist), Rafael Hernandez (composer/lyricist), José Ferrer (Oscar-winning actor), Julia de Burgos (poet), Pura Belpré(children’s book author), Jesús Colón (writer, father of the Nuyorican movement),José Feliciano (guitarist), Luis Rafael Sanchez (novelist)or Eugenio Maria de Hostos (educator). Just J.Lo, Ricky Martin and Geraldo Rivera.
This Harvard history project is clearly a mile-wide in arrogance, an inch-deep in analysis, and possibly mired in nepotism. Suitably forewarned, I read the article.
Wikipedia from the Harvard historians
It became immediately apparent that major portions of this article were lifted straight from Wikipedia. The “Spanish-American War” section from Wikipedia’s Military History of Puerto Rico was lifted nearly word-for-word.
Even the sources, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, were lifted from Wiki and used repeatedly – in the same manner, and at the same textual points, that Wikipedia had originally used them.
With Glenn Beck an expert on Puerto Rico, Geraldo Rivera a major cultural figure, sourcing from YouTube, plagiarism from Wikipedia, and the island a “US commonwealth since 1898,” it became a bit difficult to take this article seriously.
Unfortunately other readers might take it seriously, especially with its “Harvard pedigree.” And so I slogged on, through a thicket of nonsense and misunderstanding.
1. “The Jones Act created a bill of rights, which extended many US constitutional rights to Puerto Rico…the bill also created a more autonomous government.”
No. Ms. Akiboh is confusing two different laws.
The Jones Act, aka Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, created a US shipping monopoly in Puerto Rico. It was the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 which imposed US citizenship on Puerto Ricans on April 2, 1917. Just one month later, the US entered World War I and 18,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted and shipped off to war.
The “US constitutional rights” for Puerto Ricans were meager, and often non-existent. Puerto Ricans could be killed in US wars, but they couldn’t vote for any federal representatives – including the man who would send them to war, the president of the US.
During the Depression, when Puerto Ricans (including war veterans) asked for a minimum wage, they were told this was “unconstitutional.”
Albizu Campos had to wage an island-wide agricultural strike for this minimum wage to reach Puerto Rico – and then he was imprisoned for it.
Then in 1948 – in order to silence Albizu Campos and his Nationalist Party – the government passed Public Law 53 (aka the Gag Law) which made it a felony, punishable by ten years in jail, to say one word about independence, one word against the US government, or to own a Puerto Rican flag.
So much for “constitutional rights” in Puerto Rico.
An “autonomous Puerto Rican government” is, of course, a sad joke. US federal agencies control the island’s banking system, currency, immigration, foreign relations, international trade, import-export regulations, shipping and maritime laws, coastal operations, air space, TV and radio transmission, customs, transportation, postal system, military, environmental controls, civil and criminal appeals, and judicial code.
As of 2017, the PROMESA Board has complete jurisdiction over the island’s public economy and financial control of 25 state agencies: including PREPA and the educational system, both of which are slated to be “privatized.”
2. “President Clinton issued Executive Order 13183, creating a Task Force on Puerto Rico’s status. The purpose of this task force was to make recommendations for the Commonwealth’s future status.”
No. Executive Order 13183 was issued to distract from what was really going to hit Puerto Rico. During his 1996 re-election campaign, as a sop to several Wall Street donors, Pres. Clinton agreed to two things: a welfare “reform” which kicked millions of children off the public assistance rolls, and an elimination of the IRS 936 tax exemption for Puerto Rico and other “foreign” jurisdictions.
And so, in 1996, Pres. Clinton signed legislation which phased out Section 936 over a ten-year period, with a full repeal in 2006. Clinton knew full well, the dagger he’d stabbed into the Puerto Rican economy. He also knew that a “Task Force on Puerto Rico’s status” would come to nothing.
But it was a nice exit strategy, a bit of legacy polish, in the last month of his administration.
3. “The 2011 Task Force Report recommended that Puerto Ricans express ‘their will about status options’ by the end of 2012. President Obama supported the new plebiscite.”
This was another exercise in futility and presidential obfuscation.
Over the past 50 years, Puerto Rico has held five status plebiscites, and none of them have gone anywhere. In fact, the island’s two major political parties – the PPD and PNP – are really one political party: the PLP. The Party of Lining their Pockets.
Barring an armed revolution in Puerto Rico, only the US Congress has the power to alter the island’s political status. A powerful array of opponents – including Wall Street; the national Republican Party; the US automobile, shipping, and pharmaceutical industries; the Teamsters Union; and pension funds in all fifty states – will vehemently oppose the de-colonization of Puerto Rico.
Obama and every other president knows this. Yet they cynically support an alleged “right of self-determination” for the people of Puerto Rico.
This cynicism was most apparent when the Obama administration argued, and the US Supreme Court agreed, that Puerto Rico is a “territorial possession” of the US, with no political sovereignty whatsoever.
4. “The Great Depression severely affected Puerto Rico, due to its dependence on the United States economy.”
Puerto Rico’s economy is not dependent on the US. Its economy was stolen by the US. That is a key distinction.
Consider this scenario: a neighbor breaks into your garage and steals your car. He then sells it, and uses the money to buy a new one. When you ask this neighbor for a lift in his “new car,” he demands gasoline money from you – then calls you a deadbeat for not having it.
That is what happened in Puerto Rico.
Hurricane San Ciriaco flattened the island in 1899. The very next year, in 1900, the US de-valued their currency by 40%. Property taxes and predatory loans, with no usury law restriction, completed the island-wide invasion described in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrineand John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man .
With crippled farms, higher taxes, and 40 percent less cash, Puerto Rican farmers soon lost their land. By 1928, 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s sugar cane farms were US-owned, and four US-owned cane syndicates covered more than half the island’s arable acreage. The insular railroad systems, trolleys, utilities, and the San Juan seaport were also US-owned, along with most of the island’s infrastructure.
By the time of the Great Depression, Puerto Ricans had been reduced to working on the same farmland that had been theirs for centuries – and for slave wages. Even Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL-CIO, declared that Puerto Rican wages “are now half of what they were, while under the Spanish.”
When they asked for a minimum wage, islanders were told it was “unconstitutional.” If they asked too hard, they were imprisoned or killed.
Thus, within one generation of American occupation, the promises to Puerto Rico regarding the protection of property, promotion of prosperity, and “blessings of enlightened civilization” were exposed as a complete sham.
5. “Puerto Rico’s economy is too fragile, and its politicians are too corrupt, to function without the help of the United States.”
Without question, Puerto Rico has a bloated government. The island has two useless political parties, 78 mayors, and many of those mayors are corrupt.
But the reason why the public sector is the island’s largest employer is that Puerto Rico does not have a private sector. The US absconded with it, and never gave it back.
In addition to stealing their land, the US controls the insular banking system, currency, international trade agreements, shipping and maritime laws, import-export regulations, TV and radio licenses, and coastal operations.
Even further, as of 2017, the PROMESA Board has complete jurisdiction over the island’s public economy, and financial control of the Government Development Bank (GDB) and 25 state agencies: including PREPA (the Puerto Rico Electrical and Power Authority) and the educational system, both of which are slated for “privatization.”
Actually, the most flagrant “corruption” emanates from Wall Street. A recent study found that several investment banks and hedge funds concocted an $11 billion Ponzi scheme at PREPA, during the administration of Gov. Luis Fortuno – while the FBI and Dept. of Justice looked the other way. Apparently, $11 billion buys a lot of cooperation.
The most systemic corruption is the Jones Act – Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. For the past 98 years – thanks to this one law – Puerto Ricans have been “legally” forced to pay roughly 20% more for almost every product that they consume, every day of their lives. This includes food, clothing, medicine, electricity, appliances, air conditioners, and automobiles.
This “law” is a corporate shakedown, an international price-rigging scheme, with Puerto Rico as its target. Vito Corleone would have loved this law. He would have ordered a dozen “offers you can’t refuse” in order to get it. But nowadays, that isn’t even necessary. Citizens United will make the offers for him.
As if this corruption weren’t enough, a gang of high-ranking US shipping executives were recently convicted of additional price-rigging, under the shadows of this Jones Act.
Thanks to the Jones Act, and all its inherent corruption, the same car costs $6,000 more in Puerto Rico than it does in Miami. Thanks to the Jones Act, Puerto Rico’s trade deficit with the US has swelled by more than $2 billion per year. By some estimates, this Jones Act effect is close to $6 billion per year, or even higher.
If it weren’t for the Jones Act, Puerto Rico could have paid its so-called “public debt” of $73 billion – not once, but three to seven times.
The annual transfer of wealth from Puerto to the US, as dictated by the Jones Act, EXCEEDSall the Medicaid, Medicare, food stamp, and other federal transfer payments from the US to Puerto Rico.
And now, after Hurricane Maria decimated the island, the 2018 Republican tax package called for an additional 12.5% tax, on a long list of Puerto Rican goods exported to the US.
So whose economy is helping whom?
The History of Empire
Nearly 100 years ago, a man named Paul G. Miller published a “history” book calledHistoria de Puerto Rico. It was slapped together quickly, but it had clout: Miller had been the Puerto Rico Secretary of Education for five years.
The book ignored Puerto Rico’s Taino and Arawak roots, distorted 400 years of Spanish history, and exalted the US as the savior of a heathen and helpless island.
Page after page, the book piled one lie upon another, like a stack of pedagogical pancakes – but this didn’t stop Rand McNally from publishing it through more than twenty editions, for nearly fifty years.
Through his bureaucratic connections Miller maintained a monopoly for Historia de Puerto Rico, in classrooms all over the island. For half a century, McNally and Miller made a fortune with this fraudulent book.
Now in 2018, history is repeating itself.
Akiboh’s articleis not as nakedly commercial as Miller’s book but – on many levels – it is even more disappointing. It proves that after 120 years of empire and 100 years of citizenship, Puerto Ricans are still profoundly misunderstood in their own alleged “country.”
Their history and culture, their economic and political relationship with the US, swing endlessly between two poles: they are either invisible or targets of opportunity for two-bit politicians, absentee landlords, vulture funds, and drive-by academics.
With Glenn Beck as an expert source, Geraldo Rivera as a cultural avatar and plagiarism from Wikipedia, Akiboh’s article follows in this tired tradition.
Its Harvard pedigree is meaningless. For one brief moment, Harvard got it right: when Pedro Albizu Campos graduated from its college and law school. But I met more racists as a Harvard undergraduate than during any other four-year period in my life.
And recently, Harvard’s endowment fund – at $37.6 billion, the largest university endowment in the world – was exposed as a profiteer in the Puerto Rico debt crisis.
So much for Veritas.
Nelson Denis, attorney-author-filmmaker, served in the New York State Assembly, and is the author of War Against All Puerto Ricans. He can be reached at NelsonDenis248@aol.com.
Correction: The Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 which imposed US citizenship on Puerto Ricans on April 2, 1917 was incorrectly dated at 2017 and is corrected above.