D.R. Martin (Puerto Rico’s ‘colonialism’ pretext, The Hill, Nov. 2) is exactly right about complicity of the local “commonwealth” regime of territorial government in public sector fiscal and economic policies leading to the current failed client state syndrome that Puerto Rico is experiencing. 

He is dead wrong to deny the federal government’s role enabling and even instigating decades of experimental command economics at the local level.  One does not need to prove the colonial nature of the island’s current status in order to recognize that Washington acted in collusion with local elites thriving under the status quo to create and exploit a crippling economic and political dependence on federal subsidization. 


The Cold War made it inconvenient to enable Puerto Rico to attain either statehood or nationhood.  So the artificial construct of the “commonwealth” regime as a form of indefinite “autonomy” was contrived.  The effect was to exclude the last large and populous U.S. territory from competitive participation in the political economy sustained by the American system of constitutional federalism.

The purpose of federal and local measures propping up the “commonwealth” regime since 1950 was to manipulate rather than unleash the private sector, in order to preserve the status quo.  This was achieved through corporate welfare, market distorting tax exemptions and wealth redistribution schemes far more extreme than FDR’s “New Deal” or LBJ’s “Great Society” programs.

In that manner, a robust, diversified, vibrant entrepreneurial culture grew stagnant, as Congress ignored the relevant historical evidence.  For example, history proves that since 1796 each economically underperforming territory that became a State broke through to sustained growth, eventual prosperity and the ability to pay its way in the Union.

As Ronald Reagan told the United Nations in 1987, prosperity is not a right, it is a product of rights.  In the U.S. that includes convergence of states into the economic life of the nation based on a right to compete on an equal footing.  It also includes integration into the political life of the nation through equal rights of citizenship. 

The economic potential of any community of people governed under federal sovereign powers can be realized only if the economic interests of the people concerned can be protected and promoted in the give and take of the constitutional process through which citizens of the states give consent to the form of government and laws under which we live.  Under the U.S. Constitution, the equal right of all persons with national citizenship to consent to laws that govern us can be secured only through the exercise of state citizenship.

That is because only citizens in states vote for members of Congress and the president.  In that context, for Martin to suggest the only valid reason to become a state is to get more federal welfare is not merely clever to a fault.  It is misleading and ignores that since 1796 the only proven model for a U.S. territory to remain under the U.S. flag and succeed economically as well as politically has been statehood (which also requires uniform taxation the lack of which Martin blames for Puerto Rico’s fiscal meltdown).   

Nor does Martin seem to understand the historical fact that Puerto Rico is the only large and populous territory populated by U.S. citizens to be denied incorporation into the Union under the Constitution.  If he regards that as merely the pretext of colonialism, he has no notion of what U.S. citizenship means.

The colonial nature of “commonwealth” may lead to nationhood for Puerto Rico with its own constitution, sovereignty and citizenship.  However, because it is more integrated into the nation than any of the 32 territories that became states, historically Puerto Rico is more likely to become a state.

Thus, the only political narrative that offers pretext without a path to success relates to the current territorial status and the “commonwealth” regime.  Of course, the “commonwealth” government is an instrumentality of the federal government, and the economic policies Martin describes as “local” are promulgated at the pleasure of and subject to nullification by Congress.

Since Martin is from Puerto Rico, he can blame the colonial exploitation of our fellow citizens in the territory on his own people.  I am not from Puerto Rico, so my view is simply that it is not good for my nation to govern other citizens under a century old imperialist doctrine of colonial rule.

Hills is author of the up-coming book on Puerto Rico entitled “Citizens Without A State,” with a foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.  From 1982 to 1989 he served in the Reagan administration as lead counsel on territorial status policy for the National Security Council.