Liquidating Puerto Rico

Shortly after Maria had finished her warpath through the United States territory of Puerto Rico, CNN ran an article with the headline “More Americans Live in Puerto Rico than in 21 States (and other things to know).” It was aimed at informing the U.S. population about this small island that a significant portion of the population don’t know is a U.S. colony. The piece simply gave statistics of how Puerto Rico would stack up if they were granted statehood. At the end of the piece, readers are briefly reminded that this colony of citizens had just been devastated by a hurricane. By framing this piece as a list of reasons why the U.S. mainland should care about Puerto Rico, it dehumanizes the people of the island. Instead of asking people to care about Puerto Rico simply because they suffered a great tragedy, the article implies that one should care because the island has a high gross domestic product and millions of citizens.

At its core, this is a two-fold problem: On the one hand it is the emphasis on productivity or output as a determinant of human worth, and on the other, it is that this perspective has been applied disproportionately to people of color. The fact that this rhetoric works makes CNN’s article not a piece written with profound lack of empathy but rather with the societal climate in mind. The fastest way in which we are able to convince the rich to help the less fortunate — in times of crisis, often the less fortunate are people of color in the so-called “Third World” — is to tell them how much money they are saving and what these people are worth. In the case of Puerto Rico, CNN had the task of convincing a country that recently elected a racist xenophobe that these brown people from the Caribbean are American citizens who are worth something. It is a racist line of thought to justify helping people of color by seeing them as dollar signs, and although it is a subset of a larger social pathology, it is people of color that it hurts the most.

Racist may sound jarring at first glance but the matter of race relations is one of the principal reasons that Puerto Rico has not become a state, despite its numerous attempts to join the union throughout the years. One of the reasons getting aid to Puerto Rico has been delayed in the first place is the many convoluted stipulations that dictate its relationship to the national government, stipulations that have not only made this time of tragedy harder to cope with but have also left its economy in shambles. The current occupant of the oval office recently brought up Puerto Rico’s debt, saying he might have to forgive the island’s dues in order for them to recover, the implication here being that in a time when a third of the population doesn’t have clean water, people would be thinking about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. It seems insensitive and therefore in character with the man’s usual commentary, but it also furthers the point that as far as the U.S. government is concerned, Puerto Rico is just numbers, no matter what these people may be facing.

Puerto Rico’s statehood aside, these arguments present a deeper flaw with our society overall because this isn’t the first time articles attempting to garner support resort to why people are deserving of help. The business of making sure people don’t die from a lack of clean water and shelter should not be ruled by cost-benefit graphs. That is not to say that the U.S. should be donating half of its budget to aiding every crisis faced in world, but that the measure of whether or not aid should be given isn’t an analysis of people’s economic worth. The American public doesn’t feel the same, a fact that CNBC demonstrated when they published a similar article, titled “DACA Deportations Could Cost US Economy more than $400 billion,” this time listing the main economic reasons we should continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and protect its recipients not because it is the morally correct thing but because of how much money the country would lose if they left.

Toxic as this ideology is, it is one that we have allowed to happen by letting numbers and dollar signs rule our life. One of the biggest measures of people’s success is their net worth, with publications like Forbes and the Wall Street Journal releasing list after list that ranks people by how much money they are worth. When measuring the progress that so-called “developing countries” are making, we usually utilize GDP increases. Neither of these measures are inherently bad; we live in a capitalist society where economic development and success are imperative to this system. The problem here is in creating a culture where we see the economic success as the sole measure of a person, as the sole worth of a society.

To be fair, some numbers do matter. For example, Puerto Rico has been without power for three weeks, and only 10,000 respondents have been sent to help the 3.5 million U.S. citizens suffering in Puerto Rico. The numbers that matter most are those that have yet to be disclosed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency refuses to release an updated death toll, freezing the number in the 40s, a number most experts argue is not realistic. They also deleted from their website the most updated statistics on the percentage of the island without running water and electricity. The story of Puerto Rico is represented by numbers unseen because that is how the government and its people have always treated the island: America’s biggest “out of sight, out of mind.” That, however, needs to change because, although they may be out of sight, these are real American citizens dying on American soil and no amount of Benjamins will be able to bring them back.