As shipping exemption expires, hurricane-torn Puerto Rico may face changes in relief from mainland United States

Thursday, October 12, 2017

According to the United States Department of Homeland Security on Monday, Puerto Rico's exemption from the Jones Act, which temporarily lifted the rule requiring that only U.S.-owned ships might carry goods between U.S. ports, was allowed to expire on Sunday rather than being renewed. The island commonwealth had been given a temporary exemption from this law to allow foreign ships to aid the delivery of relief supplies after Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico last month. Puerto Ricans and lawmakers had asked for an extension of the waiver in light of the island's current difficulties.

"We believe that extending the waiver is unnecessary to support the humanitarian relief efforts on the island[...] There is an ample supply of Jones Act-qualified vessels to ensure that cargo is able to reach Puerto Rico," reads a statement from Homeland Security Press Secretary David Lapan.

The Jones Act of 1920 requires that all ships carrying cargo directly from one U.S. port to another must be built, operated and owned by U.S. personnel. Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, falls under its jurisdiction. President Donald Trump issued a temporary waiver of this requirement for Puerto Rico on September 28 to help the relief effort. However, there were also concerns about supplies sitting idle in ports for lack of organized distribution and truck drivers to take them where they were needed. Some foreign ships may take until October 18 to complete deliveries.

Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain were among those in the U.S. Congress who had urged President Trump to issue the waiver, though McCain supported making the exemption permanent: "Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law," he told the Huffington Post. "Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria."

In September, Puerto Rico was nicked by the same Hurricane Irma that left Florida in disarray but then pummeled head-on by Hurricane Maria. The crisis displaced thousands of people and led to extraordinary rainfall and flash flood scares after a large crack appeared in the Guajataca Dam. According to Governor Ricardo Rosselló, 85% of residents remain without electricity, and many also still lack access to running water.

Puerto Rico was colonized by Spain and came under U.S. control in the Spanish-American War in 1898, along with Guam and the Philippines. Every person born in Puerto Rico is a United States citizen by birth. Puerto Rican residents do not participate in national elections, hold no seats in the electoral college, and have a non-voting representative in the U.S. congress. Mostly, they are exempt from federal income tax but not other federal taxes.

Every few years, the Puerto Ricans hold a referendum to determine whether they wish to remain a commonwealth, seek U.S. statehood, or seek independence in some form. In June, 97% of voters selected the second option, though turnout was low, and Congress is not legally required to obey their wishes.