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THE JONES ACT, a U.S. regulation dating from 1920, is strangling humanitarian shipments to Maria-stricken Puerto Rico. What’s worse, the Trump administration has refused to waive this federal restriction to Puerto Rican destinations, unlike a concession made for Texas and Florida. Accompanying platitudes such as “We are with you,” Trump added insult to injury by tweeting, “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble.”
Writes theguardian.com, “Trump acknowledged that ‘much of the island was destroyed’ but caustically went on to say that its electrical grid was already ‘in terrible shape’ and that Puerto Rico owed billions of dollars to Wall Street and the banks ‘which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
Why not just stiff the banks? Trump himself has stiffed plenty of people.
Indeed, the problem is much deeper than this. For years, Puerto Rico has been subject to a scam that would put proud to colonial powers of earlier eras. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, aka the 1920 Jones Act, decrees that all goods and passengers transported between U.S. ports must be carried on U.S.-registered ships constructed or rebuilt in the U.S., of U.S. ownership, and with crews of U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
There’s another Jones Act, though not unrelated, with full name the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917. This one, aka the Jones Act of Puerto Rico, is the one that granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans born after April 25, 1898; created a Senate of Puerto Rico; established a bill of rights; and authorized election of a Resident Commissioner (previously presidentially appointed). U.S. Congress Representative William Atkinson Jones, D-Virginia, and Senator John Shafroth, D-Colorado, sponsored this legislation that was signed by President Woodrow Wilson.
By contrast, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, aka the Jones Act, was sponsored by another Jones entirely, Wesley Livsey Jones.
Representing his home state of Washington, this particular Jones wangled a lot of federal investment for the Pacific Northwest, irrigation projects, for example, and funding for the Puget Sound Navy Yard. In addition, by restricting cabotage (the legalistic term for trade in coastal waters), the Jones Act of 1920 made Alaska dependent on Seattle-based shipping.
Cabotage comes from the French: caboter, to sail along a coast. This term, and its restriction of trade, originated in the 16th century.
I suspect Senator Jones didn’t have Puerto Rico in mind when he sponsored the Merchant Marine Act of 1920; he was too busy pleasing Pacific Northwest constituents. However, if you believe the jazz about promoting a U.S. Merchant Marine for the betterment of the whole country, there’s this orange-coiffed guy I’d like you to meet.
The New York Times, September 25, 2017, sums up matters in “The Law Strangling Puerto Rico,” by Nelson A. Denis: “Under the law, any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees, and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer. The foreign vessel has one other option: It can reroute to Jacksonville, Florida, where all the goods will be transferred to an American vessel, then shipped to Puerto Rico where—again—all the rerouting costs are passed through to the consumer.”
“Thanks to the law,” Nelson continues, “the price of goods from the United States mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, which are not covered by the Jones Act.”
The U.S. bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917, at least in part to preclude Germany buying them first for U-boat bases in World War I. Mutually beneficial customs regulations were part of the U.S./Denmark deal. The regulations continue to this day and make the U.S.V.I. something of, but not quite, a “free port.”
Alas, Puerto Rico has anything but a customs deal. From time to time, there have been proposals to give this U.S. Commonwealth the same Jones Act exemption held by the U.S.V.I. For example, Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, has argued against the Jones Act since 2010. As recently as July 13, 2017, he introduced
legislation for its repeal.
Needless to say, this proposed legislation got caught up in D.C. politics involving other repeals of all sorts, with one congressman noting, “There must also be acknowledgement of the dire consequences of exposing ports and waterways to foreign seafarers.”
Puerto Rico’s “… broken infrastructure & massive debt… deep trouble”?
NOTE: On September 28, 2017, this item is amended to reflect the welcome news that Trump has waived Jones Act provisions for Puerto Rico, at least temporarily. See The New York Times, for details.
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017