The Jones Act and the hidden question of sovereignty

Adriana DiSilvestro, Contributing Writer

Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, there has been much discussion surrounding the implementation of a piece of federal legislation known as the Jones Act. Formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, it was first implemented following World War I as a measure to bolster the U.S. economy and protect its maritime security. As legislators have noted recently however, through the temporary waiver of the act in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the Jones Act may now be placing an undue burden on Puerto Rico’s struggling economy. I would argue that this discussion, that is whether or not the Jones Act should be implemented, is no longer a question about aid or trade security but rather a question of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty in relation to the United States.

Debate surrounding the Jones Act is nothing new; in fact, waivers have been signed numerous times in recent history to temporarily lift the Act in the event of natural disasters or other crises. Understanding the Jones Act and its function is essential to understanding how it fits into trade schemes and the delivery of international aid. The Act, officially implemented in 1920, provides numerous regulations surrounding shipping and the rights of those who work on maritime vessels. One of the most well-known, and most impactful, elements of the act though, has to do with the term “cabotage.”

Cabotage, as defined in governance terms, is the act of transporting goods and people between two ports located in the same country. In regards to cabotage, the Jones Act states that the transport of goods between two U.S. domestic ports must be executed by U.S. owned and operated ships. Additionally, the Act stipulates that the vessel, or its parts, must be made in America, and its crew must be comprised of U.S. citizens. Originally, these stipulations were intended to close off domestic trade opportunities to foreign entities in order to bolster the U.S. shipping economy. In the wake of WWI, for security reasons the U.S. had a vested interest in making sure that ships operating in domestic waters were typically flagged American vessels.

This legislation comes into play mainly because Puerto Rican ports are technically domestic U.S. shipping areas. Therefore, under the Jones Act it is unlawful for any foreign vessel or non-Jones approved ship to leave a domestic U.S. port and deliver goods to the island. By waiving the Jones Act, the Trump administration has attempted to make it easier for foreign and domestic aid to reach Puerto Rico. This makes it lawful for foreign vessels to stop at the U.S. mainland and the travel to the island nation, or for non-U.S. owned and made vessels to deliver goods between the ports. Thus, aid can more easily reach the island. Additionally, the burden on U.S. vessels to handle the massive influx of goods going to help Puerto Rico’s population decreases.

Waiving the Jones Act for the next few weeks will fit in with U.S. standard practice when it comes to domestic disaster aid. The regular function of the act, however, brings other consequences into the picture for Puerto Rico, which are not nearly as visible. When normally in place, the Jones Act places a massive economic burden on the island and it’s ability to execute trade. For example, the number of eligible ships in the U.S fleet has declined significantly in recent years, due to changes in manufacturing. Any non-Jones approved ship that leaves a U.S. port destined for Puerto Rico has to stop at a port such as Jacksonville, and transfer its cargo to a Jones-approved vessel. This process limits the amount of foreign trade the island is able to execute, and also costs the territory hundreds of millions of dollars in domestic import fees due to the shipping changes that have to happen on the mainland, even if the imported goods originated in the U.S..

It’s productive that the Trump administration has lifted the Jones Act for the duration of this current disaster, but it’s worth taking another look at whether revoking the Jones Act permanently would be the most effective solution. Puerto Rico’s relation to the U.S. mainland as a territory has raised questions of its sovereignty in recent years. In many ways, the Jones Act is just another way in which the United States has taken control of the island’s political and economic sovereignty, robbing it of the opportunity to take advantage of trade opportunities, and hiking up the cost of living. Granted, revoking the Act is easier said than done, as industrial shipping interests are deeply attached to the profits made off of the money produced by the legislation. Nonetheless, this discussion goes far beyond Hurricane Maria, and in the long run, the Jones Act will continue to burden an already devastated territory.

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