Puerto Ricans should reshape their democracy with American support
Governance in Puerto Rico is best summarized as untethered. It is not anchored in accountability except in the very limited sense that every four years there is the option to switch out the party in power. The resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló may only bring temporary solace if all the public sector indebtedness and mismanagement that have led to the prolonged recession are not better understood and addressed explicitly.
Absent such an understanding, reforms seeking greater transparency and proper management of public coffers but ignoring political participation and civic engagement risk failure. A misdiagnosis of the causes of the political ills in Puerto Rico may lead to erroneous solutions that could worsen its economic and political conditions. Adequate governance requires enacting reforms that strengthen its democratic institutions.
Despite its subordinate position to Congress as stipulated under the Jones Act, Puerto Rico is run by an elected governor and legislature under the terms of its constitution. Enacted in 1952, its constitution strengthened the discretionary power of the executive branch and the governor relative to the legislature and the municipalities. Greater control over agencies, spending, and the appointment of civil servants has allowed governors of the island to circumvent legislative oversight across numerous fronts.
In the key context of taxation, the governor of Puerto Rico can approve decrees that grant tax exemptions and tax credits without legislative input. While central government debt has always required legislative approval, the public development bank was able to issue short term financing without such supervision. The Puerto Rico Highway Authority accumulated over $2 billion in debt through this type of “short term” financing scheme. No issuance of debt requires direct electoral input.
The concentration of executive power in Puerto Rico restrains deliberative politics, and throws off kilter the balance needed between accountability and political power in the context of a democracy. Symptomatic of these practices is the outsized influence of organized political stakeholders. Many observers of Puerto Rican politics have noted that backroom deals and closed door negotiations are endemic. Since institutional capture is more likely in such a system, complaints from citizens can be ignored without much consequence, rendered ineffective by a thousand forms of indifference. Government agencies operate with their backs toward the people they claim to serve. This makes reforms insurmountably difficult.
It is quite likely that the institutional context of Puerto Rican politics imposes high sanctions on civic engagement. The patience required to bear the infinitude of the small indignities visited on Puerto Ricans by institutions is partly a reflection not of docility or of moral conformity, but of acquiescence to powerlessness. Future solutions to the challenges of government accountability need to strengthen the channels through which claims and feedback from Puerto Ricans can truly influence their government so as to limit the ease with which it remains unresponsive.
Political parties have contributed to the crisis of governance. The highly ingrained processes of adverse selection seem to determine the list of candidates for elected office. This suggests a crisis of representation at the heart of insular politics that has led to the lack of a grand strategy for the future. While many bemoan the limitations to democratic rule intrinsic to the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, this loses sight of the significant limitations within Puerto Rico itself. Political parties are defined by their stance on the former, but they govern by exploiting the latter. They present a major complex obstacle to reform. Absent any real change, the rise of populist candidates who overpromise is likely.
The education system is a trenchant example of the consequences of the crisis of governance in Puerto Rico. The deterioration of elementary and high school public education has now led to stratification along an axis between public education and private education. The higher education system is essentially dichotomized between four year institutions and those that provide one year certificates. The gap in opportunities for two year degrees has indeed had long term adverse effects on productivity.
But few if any efforts to expand such education opportunities have been attempted, thereby undercutting the advancement prospects for those people coming from less privileged backgrounds who might not be able to afford to go to four year colleges. Analogous neglect can be identified in housing, macroeconomic policy, and government orientation toward the private sector, which is at once undisciplined and overbearing, respectively allowing influential actors to behave oligopolistically and thwarting entrepreneurial initiative through government regulation.
It remains to be seen if this moment of collective effervescence in the current situation will lead to a transformation of the political institutions in Puerto Rico. It is time for citizens and leaders to work toward a deeper democracy rooted in broader participation and geared to the enactment of a new social compact. Federal initiatives to enhance transparency and accountability that risk leaving out the people of Puerto Rico may just unintendedly exacerbate corruption and political instability in the island.
Harold Toro is a professor who focuses on economic development at the Keough School of Global Affairs with the University of Notre Dame and a senior fellow with the Puerto Rico Growth Commission. He is a former director of research with the Center for a New Economy in Puerto Rico.