Americas / Puerto Rico

The Jones Act, Hurricane Maria, and the Politics of Disaster Relief

In the mid-seventeenth century, the English government began restricting colonial trade to England and mandating that English trade be carried out only in English vessels through the introduction of a law known as the Navigation Act of 1651. Less than one hundred years later, the Sons of Liberty destroyed an entire shipment of tea in rebellion against the Tea Act; another law in the long line of English legislation that violated the rights of colonists“no taxation without representation.” Uproar against such perceived oppression led to the American Revolution and ultimately the formation of the United States. Fast forward to 1920 and the establishment of the Merchant Marine Act, also known as the Jones Act, a United States federal statute that granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans and mandated that goods travelling by sea between U.S. ports (i.e. the U.S. and Puerto Rico) must be carried on American built, American crewed, and American owned ships. In the same fashion as the Navigation Act of 1651, the continued existence of the Jones Act is evidence of contemporary American imperialism. Ironic, given the fact that the United States was founded when colonists rebelled against English impositions similar to what America is enforcing in its own territories today.

Fast forward again to 2017. The Jones Act is still in effect and this protectionist policy, which gives the U.S. maritime industry an almost complete monopoly on domestic port trade, is hurting U.S. citizens, namely, Puerto Ricans. Due to the Jones Act, Puerto Rico pays obscenely high prices to import goods from the United States, thus dramatically increasing the cost of living on the small island. In fact, a 2010 study conducted by the University of Puerto Rico found that Puerto Rico loses approximately 537 million dollars a year to meet the stipulations of the Jones Act. This century-old legislation is currently impacting Puerto Rico’s recovery from the recent devastation of Hurricane Maria and is shedding light on the perceived statusor lack thereofof Puerto Ricans as United States citizens. Puerto Ricans have the right to be mad at the unequal treatment they are receiving, just as the early colonists of the United States rebelled against their lack of representation in British Parliament.

The Jones Act does not apply strictly to Puerto Rico, but to all U.S. ports, and has proved to be an impediment to relief aid in the wake of other natural disasters in the past. It also proves to be a nuisance without the added pressure of natural disasters. A 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service said that “[s]ome Texas oil is moving to refineries in eastern Canada, bypassing refineries in the northeastern United States, because shipping to Canada on foreign-flag vessels is much cheaper than shipping domestically on Jones Act-eligible ships.” The Jones Act was temporarily waived in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, and, more recently, was waived after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico regions in late August. The reasoning behind the waiver in these cases was that fuel tankers needed to reach the Gulf in order to prevent gas prices from skyrocketing.

Yet in mid-September, when Hurricane Maria’s path of destruction hit the Caribbean the hardest, President Trump initially showed hesitation to waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico, saying that the shipbuilding industry was not in support of waiving the act. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are as deserving of aid as people in Florida and Texas, who were affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Trump ultimately did suspend the Jones Act for ten days (waiver ending October 7). It is questionable, however, whether a mere ten-day suspension did much to benefit the island. The fact that legislation must be waived in order to allow Puerto Rico to get what it needs causes one to question the continued relevance of the Jones Act. A law that prevents U.S. citizens from consistently getting what they need is clearly outdated. The fact that it takes a natural disaster of major proportions to ease the economic burden imposed upon Puerto Rico by the Jones Act is more than a little concerning. Almost four hundred years ago, after the implementation of the Navigation Act of 1651, early European colonists were in a similar position to what Puerto Ricans are in nowso why is the United States currently putting its own citizens under the same economic constraint?

Consider the shipbuilding industry, which plays a central role in making sense of this issue. The domestic shipping industry provides 52,140 maritime jobs and almost ten billion dollars to Florida’s economy, so there is a substantial economy generated from this industry. There is, however, also a sense of inequality between Floridians and Puerto Ricans which has been created by the Jones Act. The federal government should play an important role in mitigating inequality and upholding the idea laid out in the Constitution that “all men are created equal.” However, the biggest shipping industry unionthe American Maritime Officers Associationcontributed more than $550,000 to members of Congress during the 2016 election, so it is clear that political lobbying is a major factor in Puerto Rico’s destiny. With no representation in federal government, Puerto Rico cannot play the lobbying “game” and therefore is at an unfair disadvantage, indicating that not all United States citizens are equal. If all citizens of U.S. territories were treated equally, then Puerto Rico would have representation in federal government and would have equal opportunity to participate in political lobbying. This sense of inequality is best represented by what Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, mayor of San Juan, recently said in an interview with Huffington Post: “it may be easy [to disregard us] because we’re a U.S. territory and a colony of the United States. But we are people dammit and I don’t care what the political status is.”

Some irony can be found in the inequality explicit in this issue. Just over two centuries after the founding of the United States, partially in response to England’s monopoly on colonial trade and growing anger at the lack of colonial representation in parliament, the United States is essentially doing the same thing to Puerto Rico. As the events surrounding the recovery of Puerto Rico demonstrate, the Jones Act is doing more harm than good. It impedes the economic success of United States territories and is clear evidence of current American imperialism. In 1920, under the Jones Act, the United States gained control of Puerto Rico and, ever since, the Jones Act has legalized the economic exploitation of this U.S. territory. The combination of political control without representation and economic profiteering provide a textbook definition of imperialism, a definition that provoked outrage in European colonists and ultimately was a contributing factor to the creation of the United States. Unfortunately, the United States seems to have forgotten its roots, otherwise it would be more empathetic to the position Puerto Rico is in. As the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, reminds America in a recent NPR interview, “don’t forget that we’re U.S. citizens.”