Mofongo, the national dish of Puerto Rico, is not for those on a diet. Fried plantains are mashed with a little bit of pork fat and then formed into a cup that serves as a vessel for shrimp, vegetables or (preferably for me) more pork. A few chicharrones on top, and I am in heaven.
What many don’t realize is that mofongo is regional American cuisine. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they vote in presidential primaries, and thousands of them have served honorably in the American army. The island’s legal status is complicated; it is neither a state nor a sovereign. But the ties that bind Puerto Rico and the United States are deep and longstanding.
This background is important as Congress considers granting aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. This isn’t just a matter of moral calculus, though. Given the potential financial and economic costs of inaction, providing generous support to the island would be a wise investment.
The current situation in Puerto Rico cannot be fully understood without a bit of a history lesson. The United States gained control of the island in 1898, and immediately saw its value as a bulwark against Latin incursion. (Later, the association was seen as a check against the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere.) Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship exactly 100 years ago, just in time for the World War I draft.
Historically, the island has received a lot of economic support from Washington. For many years, U.S. firms were provided an exemption from taxes on profits earned in Puerto Rico. This led to significant amounts of industrial investment, with drug companies in the forefront. Congress voted to phase out this favorable treatment over a ten-year period beginning in 1996. This had a predictable impact on investment and employment in Puerto Rico. Debt grew, taxes rose and citizens left, a vicious cycle that eventually led to insolvency.