Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans Flocking To Florida Are Escaping Big Government

More Puerto Ricans live in the 50 states than on the island, and it’s not hard to see why.


"If you want to party, you don't have to leave Puerto Rico." So go the lyrics of a popular 2019 track by singer Pedro Capó in the genre of reggaetón, of which Puerto Rico is the undisputed global epicenter. The statement came just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic; during its early stages, few people (revelers or not) were allowed to leave the island at all since the authorities imposed some of the world's most heavy-handed health restrictions.

Although the Puerto Rican government eventually eased some of its authoritarian measures and allowed inbound tourism last July, it still maintains what is arguably the world's longest-running lockdown constraints. Since March 15, 2020, a nighttime curfew has been in place; it forbids anyone not "providing essential services or attending to a medical emergency" from leaving their home from midnight until 5 a.m. Before May 10, the curfew applied at different points in time from 7 p.m. or 10 p.m. Also, most businesses still must operate "on a 30 percent capacity cap," while all schools (both public and private) have remained closed for over a year under an executive order. 

According to the health authorities and some media outlets, Puerto Rico's harsh lockdown measures have been an undisputed, lifesaving success. As one expert told NBC News, they were implemented without resistance because "the pandemic was never politicized" on the island. But not all Puerto Ricans have been subjected to the same type of restrictions on their basic liberties; the 670,000 natives who left the island for the U.S. mainland between 2009 and 2019 have had a vastly different experience, especially the hundreds of thousands who moved to Florida as they escaped a recession that began in 2006, the government's debt default in 2016, and the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

In 2018 alone, 133,500 Puerto Ricans—nearly 4 percent of the island's population—left for the mainland according to The Miami Herald. About 33.5 percent of these migrants, the Herald reported, chose to settle in Florida, which has surpassed New York, the magnet of the mid-20th century Puerto Rican diaspora, as the state with the largest Puerto Rican population in the country (1.17 million versus 1.08 million according to a recent UCLA study). 

Increasingly, these new arrivals have chosen to live in central Florida; in 2016, 29 percent of Florida's Puerto Rican population lived in the two counties where Orlando and Tampa Bay are located. According to a study by the Hispanic Federation, the influx of Puerto Ricans into these areas has caused what is "perhaps the most important shift in Florida's population to occur since the mid-twentieth century," when Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro's dictatorship began to arrive in South Florida en masse.

The experience of central Florida's Puerto Rican population, a group one sociologist referred to as a new diaspora of "Disneyricans," is beginning to have an impact on the island itself. Jorge Rodríguez, who heads Puerto Rico's Instituto de Libertad Económica (Institute for Economic Liberty), says that "there are many families on the island whose nephews or cousins in Florida have been in school since last August," when Gov. Ron DeSantis decided that K-12 public education should resume at full capacity. Since social media keeps them in constant contact with their relatives, Rodríguez says, "many people on the island are wondering why Puerto Rican kids can go to school in Florida or Texas, but not in their homeland."

But the comparison doesn't end with schooling. For months, Florida residents have faced no continuous curfews, business capacity caps, or any of the other restrictions still in place in Puerto Rico. In a sense, normal life on the island has also moved to Florida. Challenging Pedro Capó's thesis about Puerto Rico's insuperable party credentials, the organizers of both the Guaya Guaya concert and the Zalsa Fest (a pair of large-scale, annual popular music events in Puerto Rico) decided to hold the shows in Orlando for the first time in April. The Puerto Rican authorities promptly announced that all returning festivalgoers would have to quarantine for 14 days.

The tendency of travel, however, has been in the opposite direction, to the extent that Puerto Rico has become depopulated. In 2018, 64 percent of Puerto Ricans lived in the 50 states or Washington, D.C., according to UCLA's César J. Ayala. This exodus has caused a devastating brain drain, since those who leave tend to be entrepreneurial individuals and those better prepared for the contemporary labor market. In fact, one key factor driving educated Puerto Ricans out of the commonwealth is their lack of opportunities in a system where nepotism is rampant and meritocracy barely exists. 

Much has been made of the "talented" children (hijos talentosos), the relatives, significant others, and "dear friends" (amigos del alma) of established politicians who are paid six-figure salaries to work for the government despite meager credentials and the supposed ban on such practices. The epithet arose after María Milagros Charbonier, a former member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives for the New Progressive Party (NPP), told a radio station that politicians like her "have talented children, and if you have a talented child, he has the right to work and not be excluded, even from the government." In August of 2020, Charbonier, who was once in charge of the House Ethics Committee, was arrested in an FBI sting due to a corruption scheme involving several of her family members.

Notorious corruption cases are no surprise given the tremendous amount of government intervention in the economy. In 2015, tourism and exports produced a mere $9 billion in total money inflows to Puerto Rico according to the commonwealth's Planning Board, whereas net transfers from the U.S. federal government amounted to an astounding $178 billion. The reliance on federal money, which has only increased with Hurricane Maria reconstruction programs and COVID-19 relief checks, has created several layers of perverse incentives.  

To begin with, the public sector dwarfs the private. In 2005, scholars Steven J. Davis and Luis Rivera-Batiz wrote that "the Puerto Rican government has traditionally accounted for a large share of employment and production activity on the island," where "private sector employment rates are less than half the U.S. rates in recent decades." Meanwhile, the few who do operate in the private sector "have learned to focus their creative energies on how to curry favor with government officials and circumvent bureaucratic obstacles to commercial success." 

According to Sergio M. Marxuach, policy director at San Juan's Center for a New Economy, such obstacles include occupational licensing requirements that restrict the supply of services, as well as government restrictions to business entry and location, which afford "commercial rivals the opportunity to block" competitors from entering the market. There are also "buy local" laws that "insulate business interests from foreign competition." Inevitably, such barriers to the free market raise prices for consumers. As a whole, Marxuach told a U.S. Senate hearing in 2015 that these obstacles "reflect and promote a business culture focused on rent seeking."

There is also a culture of dependence on the government. In 2005, Davis and Rivera-Batiz wrote that transfer payments from the state had accounted "for more than a quarter of Puerto Rican household incomes in recent decades." Rodríguez thinks that this is particularly harmful in a territory that has never managed its own affairs; Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony from the 16th century until 1898, when Spain ceded control of the island to the U.S. after its defeat in the Spanish-American War. Thereafter, American military governors and presidential appointees ruled Puerto Rico for half a century.

One of them was Rexford Tugwell, who was appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941. He proceeded to nationalize two private electric utility companies with the sale of $20 million in government bonds. Thereafter, state-owned enterprises themselves began to issue their own debt, which soon surpassed that of the commonwealth. As Reason Foundation's Marc Joffe argues, these are the New Deal roots of the 2017 energy crisis, which arose when the bankrupt, state-owned Puerto Rico Electricity and Power Authority (PREPA) announced that it wouldn't be able to provide its customers with power for six months.

It was only in 1948 that the first native Puerto Rican was elected governor. Rodríguez says that "the lack of self-rule and the large welfare state have consequences in people's moral agency." He thinks that this contributes to the fact that many Puerto Ricans were in favor of harsh COVID-related lockdowns. "The attitude toward the government has been: 'If you lock us down, you are good because you are helping me.'" Rodríguez adds that "the spirit of the Bill of Rights, where giving excessive power to the government is dangerous because it can deprive us of our liberties, never reached Puerto Rico."

The culture of dependence has even influenced the debate concerning Puerto Rican statehood, a step that one of the island's main political parties (the NPP) supports and which 52 percent of voters backed in a 2020 referendum. One argument against statehood has been that, if the island becomes a state of the union, a decision that ultimately rests with the U.S. Congress, its residents would stop receiving federal subsidies without paying federal income taxes. The status quo option implies that Puerto Rico can continue to act as a banana republic as long as it remains a heavily subsidized quasi-colony, with no say over U.S. policies that harm the island. These include the Jones Act, a protectionist measure that seeks to shield American maritime unions from competition, but drives up the prices of goods in Puerto Rico. 

Ultimately, what may decide Puerto Rico's future is not an abstract debate about the benefits of statehood, but the experience of more than a million Puerto Ricans who reside in one particular U.S. state. Life in pro-business Florida, which takes second place in the Fraser Institute's Economic Freedom of North America 2020 rankings, has shown them a clear, successful alternative to their homeland's interventionist, big government ordeal.

For instance, thousands of Puerto Ricans in Florida currently work under at-will contracts, whereas Puerto Rico's inflexible labor laws contain a protectionist ban on at-will employment. This lack of labor mobility and competition helps explain why, historically, Puerto Rico has had much higher levels of poverty and unemployment rates as well as lower labor force participation rates than the U.S. as a whole, let alone compared to the states that fare best economically.

Prominent Democrats including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) have supported Puerto Rican statehood, likely due to the belief that it would afford their party two additional senators. But if the "Disneyricans" and other members of the diaspora ever return home to rule the roost, Puerto Rico could end up not only rejecting AOC's brand of democratic socialism, but also taking a turn toward the free market policies that it needs so urgently.

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  3. Puerto Ricans Flocking To Florida Are Escaping Big Government

    I don’t believe that. They may be escaping corruption, but I’m not convinced they’re escaping ‘Big Government’.

    example of someone who moved to Puerto Rico… to escape big government.

    1. They’re escaping the Liberals that they elected.

      1. Spot on.

        These articles about how everyone is fleeing everywhere to escape big government are getting tiresome. There’s another one about California posted just today.

        Yes, many people hate the taxes, restrictions and regulations progressives put into place…but 99% of the people leaving California or Puerto Rico don’t believe those things they hate are the fault of government. They are fleeing the oppressive state to recreate it somewhere else where this time it’s going to work. Better politicians or more redistribution or less personal responsibility…whatever it takes to make it work.

        1. California Republicans are constantly leaving for Arizona and leaving both place more Democratic than they were. It’s a strange phenomenon.

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        2. This does a better job of summarizing the situation than the column.

        3. Yes, many people hate the taxes, restrictions and regulations progressives put into place…but 99% of the people leaving California or Puerto Rico don’t believe those things they hate are the fault of government. They are fleeing the oppressive state to recreate it somewhere else where this time it’s going to work. Better politicians or more redistribution or less personal responsibility…whatever it takes to make it work.

          I would add that it also implies a social awareness or depth of though that large groups demographics generally lack. They’re poor in PR and see that gov’t officials are corrupt. They see FL where officials are slightly less corrupt but, more importantly, the people are less poor. Whether they’re fleeing the corruption or the poverty *they* don’t know. Much less do they know whether they’re fleeing *their* poverty or bringing *their* corruption with them. Moreover, it’s likely not even *their* corruption, but their parents’ corruption they’re fleeing and/or carrying with them to dump on *their* children. Some, even a good portion may understand it, almost certainly not a majority. I say this as someone who’s watched the collar counties around Chicago turn from red to purple to blue over the last couple decades or so.

  4. Unfortunately, Latinos carry with them assumptions about life imparted with their mother’s milk – wealth is taken from others, so the only way do get it is to take it back, and the most important thing in life is relationships with family and friends.
    So, policies promising to return stolen wealth through government intervention make basic sense. Placing family and friends in cushy jobs is only watching out for those you must care for, a natural action.
    Of course there is a minority who do not see the world this way, but except in Chile, where have they prevailed?

    1. It’s funny because Chile just elected a left-wing guy who promised a lot more government. I guess if Chile taught us anything, it’s that the only way Latin Americans seem to get a freer market is if it’s forced on them by a military junta.

      1. Funny thing is we get a socialist government forced on us by a D.C. junta.

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      2. Because military juntas are such bulwarks of freedom. They will give you freedom, even if they have to torture you to death for it.

        1. I’m not saying it was right. Just pointing out that Latin Americans have a poor track record of wanting a more capitalistic economy. And yes, I get the irony of having to force economic freedom on people.

    2. By the way, Chile has just thrown out the Constitution put by Pinochet and will probably get a leftist one. I guess that it did not work that well..

      1. If by didn’t work out too well, you mean it made Chile the wealthiest and freest country in South and Central America, then I guess it didn’t work out too well.

        Maybe Argentina and Venezuela are more to your liking.

    3. and the most important thing in life is relationships with family and friends.

      Don’t most people everywhere believe that? Are they wrong? Is nepotism the only thing that belief leads to?

      1. I think you’re splitting hairs. I don’t think he’s saying holding family in a primary position is a bad thing. I think he’s saying that some groups of people (hardly just Latinos) hold family higher than justice or general prosperity. Not everyone thinks their family should be above the law, but you don’t get to that position without a firmly held belief in the primacy of family.

  5. My only knowledge of how Puerto Ricans in New York act.

    1. They’re a festive people

    2. Clearly you missed the greatest documentary on Puerto rican/American relations


  6. One of the better Seinfeld episodes, they never show.

    1. the traffic jam?

  7. Bravo to Raisbeck for a good article on Puerto Rico (PR), writing as someone who escaped after living there for many years. Though IMHO, it’s actually worse. Crime is horrible, with little help from the police, who like a lot of the government employees there don’t work much. Further, with such a large portion of the population getting their income from government (employment or welfare), not enough people are available to do provide the goods and services people want. That with restrictions on starting businesses (including the necessity to payoff officials) means it’s hard to get those goods and services, and prices are much higher. I haven’t been there in many years but even finding a parking spot at Plaza Las Americas mall often took 30 minutes, and the selection of products sucked. I recall counting the options for jam/jelly at the grocer, it was about 15, while my mainland grocer too many to count (. I’m sure Amazon has improved the island though delivery often takes two weeks I hear. I also recall the electricity going out every week or so. And taxes for all income levels, are higher in PR than in the mainland.

    Raisbeck correctly reports why so many are fleeing. He writes that they “could” bring back freedom to PR if they return (unlikely they’ll return IMHO). I worry they’ll bring support for bad policy, especially the ones on welfare fleeing for better government welfare without PR’s hassles.

    1. Right after centuries of misrule apparently the only solution Ricans can envisage is yet more government subsidy and regulation. A popular love of liberty seems extraordinarily rare and difficult to create and preserve.

  8. Puerto Ricans vote Democrat by wide margins. I don’t care how much they say they love the free market; the proof is in the pudding, by voting so overwhelmingly for the party that wants to strangle the free market. So, no thank you. They can stay on the island.

    1. That’s been my observation, as well.

    2. Stated vs Revealed Preferences.

  9. It would be interesting if Reason invested in some journalists that went out and surveyed people instead of relying on assumptions of what motivates the people they are writing about. They don’t NEED to rely on the NYT’s anemic reporting.

  10. It has less to do with Big Government as corrupt government. As Norman L. Stamps noted in his study of the collapse of democracies in the twenties and thirties, what people do want is to be governed well and demand results.

    1. Big government = more restrictions. That’s because governments, even at their least corrupt, are more expensive and less efficient than the private sector.

      All government does is pass laws (make stuff illegal, i.e. more restrictions), and transfer wealth (higher taxes). So all government services come through the burden of high taxes and heavy regulations. And that’s what people flee when they flee big government.

      1. They are supposed to enforce law and adjudicate conflict, as well. There is more to government than just passing laws and raising taxes.

    2. Corrupt people are attracted to Power. More Power = More Corrupt People abusing it.

  11. Instead of making Puerto Rico a state, how about we anex it into California.

  12. Puerto Ricans Flocking To Florida Are Escaping Big Government

    …and voting big time for big government here in the continental US.

  13. “According to the health authorities and some media outlets, Puerto Rico’s harsh lockdown measures have been an undisputed, lifesaving success.” At least some of us in Puerto Rico would not agree with this statement. Unfortunately, too many don’t seem to chafe at the restrictions. At first, I felt sorry for businesses considering the draconian measures have to be bad for them, but it seems many employees and supervisors are relishing the newfound power they have as tinpot bureaucrats. My homeland has turned in some ways to a prison that I want to escape. It is tragic to see.

  14. Imagine your place is so bad that people will voluntarily pay state income taxes just to live somewhere else.

  15. Peurto Rican govt. is a dumpster fire. My Mom and her partner bought land there and hired an architect. The amount of bureaucracy there would make a Detroit city planner blush. They ended up selling the property.

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  17. They come here and vote for big government:


    Fantastic. They’re a disaster at home and a vote for disaster here. Why do we want them to be part of the US, again?

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  19. Although the Puerto Rican government relaxed its authoritarian measures and allowed inbound tourism in July last year, the Puerto Rican government still maintains arguably the longest running blockade in the world.

  20. “We know they are lying. They know they are lying, They know that we know they are lying. We know that they know that we know they are lying. And still they continue to lie.”
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    1. Just got a copy. Need to bump up my reading list.

  21. Even assuming all those Florida Ricans would vote for small government, this only matters if they move back to PR and vote there. And why would they do that when opportunities much better in Florida? AOC knows perfectly well PR statehood, like DC statehood, is a guaranteed two more Democrat senators forever.

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  23. Puerto Rico, never has so much paradise been wasted and destroyed by so many violent and ungrateful people.

    Trash beyond imagination, as for Realestate, most buildings look like something from a Tim Burton movie gone ugly. While stupid mainlanders send them fortunes to waste, Puerto Rican’s tax themselves on property at 1957 rates. Every scenic location will be accompanied by a mountain of garbage. You can see where the feds build the roads, bridges and dams in the 1920’s and 30’s and the only maintenance done since is from the yet more 10’s of billions sent after Maria. 50-80,000 SUV’s everywhere, food is 90% expensive meat and the number of roadside bars uncountable.Nice job middle America suckers.

  24. I can’t figure a single rational reason Puerto Rico is still a junior state instead of just a state.

    I can think of one or two nonrational reasons.

    1. Considering that team (D) wants to use Puerto Ricans as useful vote cattle like the good old slavers they are, I think it would be most rational for Puerto Ricans to tell them to fuck off and become their own state, independent from the US?

      Maybe they would be well-advised to tell you to fuck off as well?

    2. I can’t figure a single rational reason Puerto Rico is still a junior state instead of just a state.

      What’s the rationale for making PR a state but not making, large quasi-suburban sections across the country states as well? Magic dirt?

  25. so they will come to the same thing here

    Didnt we learn about P.Rs from Fred Sanford?

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  27. Puerto Ricans Flocking To Florida Are Escaping Puerto Rican Big Government For Biden’s Big Government.
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  30. You would think no federal income tax would make Puerto Rico an anti-government haven

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