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Opinion Puerto Rico’s membership in the U.S. should come with free shipping

A man walks through debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 19. (Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters)

Still reeling from Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Rico needs fast, generous and effective help from the federal government as well as from businesses and nonprofits, as “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father, Luis, argued in a recent Post op-ed. Yet necessary as it is, emergency relief is not sufficient for rendering the island less vulnerable to, and better able to cope with, such disasters over the long term. (Just five years ago, Hurricane Maria did even more damage than Fiona.) To get that bigger job done, the U.S. government is not just going to have to start providing more help to Puerto Rico; it’s also going to have to stop doing harm. And at the very least, that should mean an end to the policy under which the United States denies Puerto Rico the freedom to bring in vital imports on whatever ships it deems best.

There’s a long list of structural U.S. policies that disfavor Puerto Rico, starting with its lack of a representative vote in Congress. Even if the thorny issue of statehood could be permanently resolved, Puerto Rico — like the state of Hawaii — would still be subject to the Jones Act of 1920, an outdated protectionist law that artificially raises the cost of shipping food, energy and pretty much everything else to the island. Originally enacted to preserve national merchant sealift capacity in case of war, the law requires ships carrying goods between U.S. ports to be U.S.-flagged and at least 75 percent U.S.-owned and -crewed. And they must be assembled entirely in the United States with hulls and superstructures whose major components are domestically made. As of 2022, only 93 oceangoing vessels met these criteria.

The Jones Act has not stopped the long-term decline of U.S. shipbuilding or the rise of Asian and European competitors that now dominate global sealift capacity. But by limiting Puerto Rico’s choices, it has driven up the island’s import costs to “at least twice as high as in neighboring islands,” according to a 2015 report by a team of former International Monetary Fund economists. Yet the measure applies even during natural disasters — unless the president waives it. Despite his generally poor response to Maria in 2017, President Donald Trump did at least waive the Jones Act for 10 days, under pressure from Puerto Rican officials.

This was a tepid move at best — no substitute for repealing the law, at least as it applies to Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii. Yet President Biden has not called for even 10 days of Jones Act relief — thus far — in the wake of Fiona. Unfortunately, Mr. Biden strongly endorsed the law early in his presidency, pledging on Jan. 25, 2021, that he “will continue to be a strong advocate for the Jones Act and its mandate that only U.S.-flag vessels carry cargo between U.S. ports.” This was a sop to maritime unions that endorsed him in 2020 and form part of the small cluster of shipping interests that continues to oppose Jones Act reform. Puerto Rico has been a part of the American community for more than a century, during which the U.S. citizens who populate it have enriched this nation’s culture and fought in its wars. They earned free shipping long ago.

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