Puerto Rico, The Jones Act, and American colonialism

In the wake of the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico, a little-known piece of U.S. legislation—The Jones Act— was suddenly much in the news. The Act (passed in 1920) limits trade to Puerto Rico, a U.S. island, to ships owned by citizens or corporations of the U.S. and manned by predominantly U.S. crews. With Puerto Ricans dying as a result of shortages of food, clean water, medicines and other essentials, many critics castigated the Act for the way that it isolates Puerto Rico (with deadly consequences, in the current instance), and for how it affirms the island’s second class status within the U.S. polity. What no one noticed is that the terms of the act are hundreds of years old and were in fact a source of contention before the United States was founded.

The history of such legislation dates back to 1651, when the English parliament passed the Navigation Act, which limited trade to England’s colonies. According to the terms of that act, only English ships could trade with the colonies, defined as those that were English owned and had crews made up predominantly of English seamen. These terms, exactly replicated in the Jones Act, were intended to block colonial trade with other countries, so that the profits and any duties collected would accrue to the English merchants and the English government. The Act, it was also assumed, would help build up English maritime might by increasing the merchant fleet and training additional seamen. The Jones Act also promotes the idea of enhancing the merchant marine. Both pieces of legislation offer protectionism, manipulating the market to support local products and local shipping.

At the time the Navigation Act was passed in 1651, the colonies (including those that would go on to form the United States in the next century) objected on the grounds that it took away their freedom and would suppress their economies. Similar complaints are today made about the Jones Act. Now the government imposing restrictions on its people is the United States; despite the American colonies opposing such legislation when they were on the receiving end, the U.S. limits trade in precisely the same way.

At the time of the Navigation Act in 1651, Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony rather than an English one, so the Navigation Act did not apply. Today Puerto Rico is restricted by the terms of the Jones Act because it became part of the United States after it was taken from Spain in the Spanish American War at the end of the 19th century. Puerto Rico eventually became a territory of the United States, but unlike previously conquered territories (such as California), the U.S. never made Puerto Rico a state. So Puerto Ricans are citizens of the U.S. but as long as they remain in Puerto Rico they do not enjoy full rights. They cannot send representatives to Congress or vote for President. Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. remains quasi-colonial, and this fact helps to make such restrictions as the Jones Act appear a form of oppression.

The Jones Act looks like colonialism because its historic roots as a piece of imperial legislation resonates with Puerto Rico’s second class status within the U.S. today. As recent news stories have reiterated, these people are U.S. citizens, as deserving of aid in such horrific times as the recently hit communities in Florida or Texas. While ignorance about their status may simply be another sign of infamous geographical illiteracy, it also hints at our inherent racism toward people of color and our hostility to those who speak other languages. The President responded to the outcry about the Jones Act by waiving its provisions for ten days as they apply to Puerto Rico. An acceptable first step, a great deal more remains to be done. Merely opening the ports cannot resolve the island’s crisis, given the extent of the devastation, the need for massive aid quickly supplied, and the so far lackluster response of this administration.

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