Yesterday was Puerto Rico Day at the U.S. Congress. The 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Borinqueneers,” received the Congressional Gold Medal for their long service to the armed forces of the United States. And, in a different part of the Capitol building, negotiations began in earnest over legislation designed to help the island climb out of its fiscal and humanitarian crisis.
I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not know about the Borinqueneers. They had fought in the First and Second World Wars and in the Korean War. Ironically, the first shot fired by the U.S. armed forces in World War I was fired from El Morro castle at the entrance to San Juan harbor, across the bow of a German supply ship trying to leave the harbor. The ship turned around, returned to port and its supplies were taken by the U.S. government.
During the Korean War, after participating in several pitched battles and displaying great heroism, an incident occurred that left a stain on the regiment’s reputation. Many of the men in Company L refused to continue fighting. Ninety-five soldiers from the 65th were court martialed, the largest “mass court martial” of the war. The reasons they refused to fight were that a new, non-Latino commander had taken over, replaced the entire officer corps with Anglos, reduced the rations of rice and beans, and ordered the soldiers to shave their mustaches. And it was this last item that led me to learn about the Borinqueneers when I was three years old and visiting the island for the first time.
My Dad had been drafted into the Korean War after he finished college, graduating from the Willimantic State Teachers College, known today as Eastern Connecticut State University. When he completed his basic training, he was waiting to be shipped off to Korea. My mom wanted to get married and he refused because he said he did not want to leave her a widow. Then, one day a few weeks before Christmas, someone told my dad that the Army was looking for teachers. My dad signed up and within a few days he got orders that he would be heading to Puerto Rico in the new year to teach English commands to the Puerto Rican recruits. My parents were married on December 27 and soon headed for the island where they spent the first year and one-half of their married lives.
When my parents brought us to the island my dad explained that the Puerto Rican soldiers he taught had less of a language problem than a morale problem, and that as far as he could tell, most of it had to do with the demand that they shave their mustaches. And, true enough, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I started noticing some Puerto Rican men had become clean shaven. The mustache was part of their identity. I do not recall if my dad explained this on my first trip when I was three. After that we went every year. But, I have known since I can remember knowing that a grave injustice was done to the Puerto Rican soldiers, soldiers who had already demonstrated their bravery, but who had refused to fight when their identity was taken from them by ignorant Army brass. I am pleased as punch that Congress has recognized the heroism of the Borinqueneers.
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I hope Congress is equally willing to recognize that Puerto Rico is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis at this very moment. Children can’t get to school because there is no money to buy gas for the school buses. Counselors for children with special needs have been laid off. Businesses are closing as the middle classes flee to the mainland. And, the island’s government is mired in debt.
The legislation proposed yesterday addresses some of the problems. There are incentives for the creditors to reach a voluntary deal with the government, taking a “haircut” on their expected returns. If this plays out as it has in other jurisdictions, the hedge funds will hold out for full repayment on debt they bought for pennies on the dollar. If there is no agreement, the debt restructuring can go to the courts, however, and then a judge will decide what everyone gets, a situation the hedge funds wish to avoid.
And, hovering over the debt crisis is the issue of the island’s status. If Puerto Rico were an independent country, it would have long since been dealing with the IMF on its debt restructuring. If it were a municipality like Detroit, it would file for bankruptcy. But, Puerto Rico falls between the stools of the current mechanism for dealing with excessive debt burdens. That is a problem and an opportunity. The Congress need not, and should not, handle this crisis the way it has handled previous crises. It should, instead, place the interests of the poor first, guaranteeing that essential social services are maintained.
Whatever deal is reached should help Puerto Rico chart a future of economic opportunity, starting with conversion to sustainable energy: Puerto Rico has abundant wind and solar resources, yet gets less than one percent of its electricity from these sources. They pay the highest electricity rates in the country, because all the oil that fires the generators has to be brought in by ship. Electricity is so expensive that the ships that bring the oil now have their own generators so they do not have to plug into the grid in San Juan harbor and pay the exorbitant electricity rates.
I also worry that the fiscal control board will have four of its seven members appointed by the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. The President will appoint one member and the minority leaders in the House and Senate will also each appoint one member. Unless there is a burst of bipartisan cooperation, it is hard to imagine the four Republican appointees and the three Democratic appointees will agree on very much.
So, even while Congress may be messing up Puerto Rico’s future, it was undoing a great disservice from the past and honoring a regiment that was badly treated for reasons that seem to us today to be mere prejudice. The colonial status of Puerto Rico should be changed at some point, but the immediate need is to help the people of the island get on their feet.