The Jones Act: The Modern Day Intolerable Act

The Jones Act (officially the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) is an act that every Puerto Rican should know and understand. Specifically, everyone should know how the Jones Act limits the Puerto Rican economy and closely resembles the treatment of the Thirteen Colonies by the British. Section 27 of the Jones Act requires ships travelling between two or more American ports (known as “cabotage” or coastwise travelling) must be built, registered, owned, and operated by United States citizens. The Jones Act also applies to Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory. That does not sound so bad at first, does it? When you look closely, however, the constraint on the nation’s economy becomes much clear.

During the past month, ships carrying aid from nations like Colombia and Mexico are repeatedly delayed because they must stop in American ports like Jacksonville, have their cargo placed on an American flagged ship and then sent to Puerto Rico. This results in millions of Puerto Ricans—United States citizens—left waiting longer for bare necessities like food and water after Hurricane Maria’s devastation. The Jones Act, the law responsible for this, was passed in 1920, right in the wake of World War One. Initially passed to protect American shipping interests, the Jones Act has hurt Puerto Rico’s economy as well as the rest of the America,

The Jones Act hurts Puerto Rico because it raises shipping costs and lengthens shipping times. Current global pricing rates to transport items by ships are at historic lows, but that is not true for American-owned vessels. American shipping costs are usually three times higher than foreign shipping costs. Why? Because the Jones Act reduces competition between competing shipping companies, thus allowing them to add increased mark-ups on the freight costs. Shipping companies also choose a shipping schedule that suits them, without considering the wants and needs of customers like you. In fact, a group of shipping executives in Florida were convicted of conspiring to fix freight routes from Puerto Rico to Jacksonville, which is a federal crime.

The Jones Act costed Puerto Rico 537 million dollars in 2010 alone. These higher costs have made electricity costs in Puerto Rico more expensive than in forty-eight states! American companies in Puerto Rico routinely buy Canadian because importing items from there is cheaper than buying American and paying the added costs of the Jones Act. The Jones Act restrictions have caused Puerto Rico to lose out on being a logistics hub for shippers out of the Panama Canal to Jamaica, because shippers want to avoid the added costs. Shipping a container from New York to Puerto Rico typically costs about $3,000; to ship that same container to nearby Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic costs $1,500; for an even shorter distance such as to Kingston, Jamaica, $1,600. Absurdly expensive? You be the judge.

Puerto Rico is not the only place hurt by the Jones Act, Hawaii and Alaska deal with the same problems, too. The estimated costs to ship a container from Los Angeles to Shanghai, China—6,400 miles—is $800. If that same container were going from Los Angeles to Honolulu, it would cost $8,700 on a Jones Act compliant ship, for only travelling half the distance. The Jones Act has put the last Hawaiian sugar plantation out of business because the high shipping costs make importing sugar from Latin America cheaper. Alaskan oil is more expensive than imported oil, , causing a decline in Alaskan oil tankers. Foreign ships could transport oil for one-third the cost of American ships. In fact, shipping oil from, say Texas, costs about $2 a barrel, would cost up to $6 to be shipped within the country. The Jones Act failed our Armed Forces during the Gulf War when none of the 460 transport vessels that participated during that war were American. The Act was temporarily waived to allow American vessels to be fueled in Saudi Arabia.

Lastly, the Jones Act is a form of colonial repression left from the days of the American Imperialism. In 1651, the British imposed the Navigation Act which restricted trade of most colonial goods onto English ships. The Navigation Act also required half of the crew to be English. Nine years later, in 1660, the British passed a more stringent law for all colonial trade to be on English ships as well as three-fourths of the crew to be English. The Staple Act of 1663 further required that vessels bound for the colonies from Africa or Europe stop in England first.

The Jones Act requires all cabotage trade to be on American vessels. It requires the entire crew of these vessels to be American. Ships have to be owned by Americans, now mostly large conglomerate corporations whose ownership themselves can change daily. The American ownership requirement forces Alaskan oil prices up, and forces the power bill for Hawaiians up. Foreign vessels bound for Puerto Rico to lend aid to Hurricane Maria survivors must first stop in ports like Houston or Jacksonville before continuing. Puerto Rico. Does this sound like the strict regulations the British imposed to profit off the Thirteen Colonies under their rule? Yes indeed.

Every day, the Jones Act acts like a leech, sucking the life-blood out of millions of Americans in Puerto Rico, as well as Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam. Thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Maria will be paying sky-high shipping costs to transport their belongings to places like Florida because of the Jones Act. Foreign aid will continue to be delayed because of the Jones Act’s vessel ownership requirement. Now is the time to end this century-old relict of American protectionism and save three million Americans in Puerto Rico It is time to repeal the cabotage requirement of the Jones Act.

By Mark Berrios-Ayala, Esq. & Member of Mision Boricua


Misión Boricua is promoting the participation of the Puerto Rican Diaspora of Central Florida in a unified, non-partisan campaign against the Jones Act of 1920. Contact us if you are interested in furthering the Campaign for the Exemption of Puerto Rico from the Jones Act.