- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Most people think the Captain Morgan of rum fame was a pirate. Yo ho ho and all that. Not so. The eventual Sir Henry Morgan was a privateer - that’s a pirate with a license. The English crown authorized Morgan to wage war on the Spanish as an element of foreign policy. The distinction is worth remembering in the modern politics of the Caribbean.

Captain Morgan - the spiced rum, not the privateer - is at the center of its own piracy controversy. Puerto Rico is furious that the maker of Captain Morgan, which stopped buying rum from that American territory, is building its own distillery in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico claims that the Virgin Islands stole Captain Morgan with the promise of lush tropical subsidies and is demanding that Congress punish those Virgin Island pirates.

The Virgin Islands replies that Captain Morgan’s parent company (which is British, of course) had already decided to leave Puerto Rico before the Virgin Islands offered its tax deal. Captain Morgan can’t be stolen if Puerto Rico already lost him. “We did not want to lure a company from Puerto Rico,” said the islands’ governor, John P. deJongh Jr., during an editorial board meeting at The Washington Times yesterday.

Now Puerto Rico’s congressional allies have introduced legislation, and groups of congressmen are taking sides in what essentially is a commercial dispute.

Even if the Puerto Rican sour grapes reflect reality, the government of the Virgin Islands is no pirate. Like Captain Morgan himself, the Virgin Islands is a privateer. Fifty years ago, it was Congress that authorized both the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to offer rum makers a tax rebate from federal excise taxes paid on the booze.

If Congress is going to set the terms of tax and economic-development policy for self-governing U.S. territories, it shouldn’t come in after the fact and change the rules of the game. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands had the same opportunities; they each had their shot, and now the distillery is under construction. Trucking and shipping companies are making investments to expand their businesses in the Virgin Islands. The game is over.

If Congress wanders in after the fact, Washington’s interference won’t be able to move jobs from one island to another; it will only be able to destroy investment already under way, possibly leaving both territories the poorer. Only a pirate would be that destructive.

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