Editors’ Note: On balance, this article which appeared first in LA Progressive on May 12 has the great merit that it rejects the reactionary notion floating around some Democratic Party circles that statehood for Puerto Rico is legitimate way to guarantee a Democratic Party majority in the US Senate. One of our editors has pointed out, however, that despite many positive features the article understates the role of Puerto Rican working class and unrealistically sees Puerto Rico whose economy is controlled by US multinational corporations developing through its native bourgeoisie.
By Javier A. Hernandez
May 12, 2021
Puerto Rico, unlike Washington, D.C. (an American city), was invaded and militarily occupied in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Rico is a nation that has endured years of military rule; colonial governance; violent statehooder mobs (called turbas); American colonial racism; and the persecution, arrests, massacres, and criminalization of pro-independence leaders and organizations. While statehooders talk of “equality”, particularly within American liberal circles, in Puerto Rico, their narrative is about fear, colonialist loyalty, persecution, and dependence on federal funds, not assimilating to become Americans.
Sadly, many American liberals and academics, ignorant of Puerto Rico’s political and colonial history, see Puerto Rico as a political pawn and have taken up the banner of “statehood” because they are solely concerned with attaining two additional Senate seats. Unbeknownst to such American liberals and progressives, in Puerto Rico, statehood is considered by many the “culmination of colonialism” and associated with right-wing colonial loyalists. In Puerto Rico, statehooders are thought of as the Puerto Rican version of Benedict Arnold and pro-British American Tories. Are these the people Americans want to support in Puerto Rico?
Unbeknownst to such American liberals and progressives, in Puerto Rico, statehood is considered by many the “culmination of colonialism” and associated with right-wing colonial loyalists.
Do the progressives and liberals that support statehood for Puerto Rico know about the colonial persecution of Puerto Rican independence supporters for decades or that Puerto Ricans revolted against U.S. colonial rule in 1950? Most do not.
Independentistas and other pro-sovereignty advocates continue to suffer, on a lesser scale today, a similar brand of persecution at the hands of the statehooders and colonialists. The long-term effects of these surveillance and criminalization policies are still reverberating in Puerto Rico today and it’s a key part of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship that cannot be obscured or ignored like most pro-statehood politicians and American legal scholars do.
Puerto Rico is a nation that deserves its national sovereignty
While some may like the idea of adding a 51st star to the U.S. flag, Americans need to wake up and realize that statehood for Puerto Rico is not and has never been in the American national interest, but there is a path forward, a path to decolonization that the United States has a lot of experience in: Sovereignty. Pro-statehood supporters tell Americans that “Puerto Ricans are clamoring for statehood”, but nothing could be further from the truth. This article aims to dispel the many myths about the statehood narrative and offer a perspective and option that is relevant and growing in Puerto Rico, the perspective of sovereignty and freedom.
Puerto Ricans and Americans must begin with a mutual recognition of our different nationalities, followed by a process that will allow Puerto Rico to join the free world and develop its own path, away from the dependence on U.S. taxpayers’ money, the racist and colonial past of the Insular Cases (which are a series of U.S. Supreme Court opinions in 1901 regarding the status of U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish–American War that attempt to provide a constitutional justification for colonialism beyond U.S. borders), and the nefarious effects of a 123-year-old colonial regime.
In Puerto Rico, the statehood ideology and movement are historically rooted in colonialist, racist, and white supremacist notions that Puerto Ricans, as a unique and racially mixed Spanish-speaking Latin American nationality, are not fit nor capable of self-government thus must be absorbed by the “civilized” United States. These racist notions, justified by the Insular Cases, are ever present today when you hear statehooders and some Americans claim that Puerto Ricans cannot govern themselves, or that Puerto Rico is too small, or that Puerto Rico could not survive without the United States. The colonialist and racist statehood narrative must be exposed for what it is: blatant 20th-century racism and colonialism. The only just, progressive, dignified, and viable path forward is sovereignty, either through Independence or Free Association.
Despite the deceptive narrative peddled by statehooders, there is a strong, historical, vibrant, and growing Puerto Rican pro-sovereignty movement, particularly among younger generations and well-educated professionals. Again, despite over a century of terror, fear, persecution, murders, exiles, disappearances, and failed assimilationist campaigns, pro-sovereignty and patriotic sentiment and support has not just survived, but is now mainstream and thriving in Puerto Rico and its diaspora communities. By supporting sovereignty and freedom, Americans would help Puerto Rico transition from a bankrupt colonial territory to a sovereign nation that would be a U.S. economic partner in Latin America.
After 123 years under the U.S. flag, Puerto Ricans have very little to show for the benefits of being U.S. citizens (ever since the U.S. imposed American citizenship on all Puerto Ricans in 1917 without our consent). Instead of complicating matters through colonialist annexation, Washington should put Puerto Rico on a path towards freedom, democracy, economic self-sufficiency, access to global markets, accountability through political sovereignty, and real progress through nationhood.
In terms of economic development, Puerto Rico as a sovereign nation would not be subject to the antiquated and anti-free trade Jones Act of 1920 and the interstate commerce clause, thus giving the island nation the economic freedom to develop and strengthen its native capital and develop its economy, particularly its maritime economy by allowing Puerto Rico to become a major trans-Atlantic transshipment hub. The Jones Act is to Puerto Rico what the British Navigation Acts were to the Thirteen Colonies – a colonialist policy of exploitation and limiting the economic and trade potential of the colony. By contrast, statehood would mean that Puerto Rico’s less developed economy would still be under the despised Jones Act and indefinitely lag behind every U.S. state, perpetuating a “ghetto economy” that is dependent on more federal funds, just as the statehooders intend.
Despite claims from statehooders that Puerto Rico could not survive on its own, colonialism has kept Puerto Rico’s economy from developing and using its comparative advantages, yet with sovereignty, we can finally develop our economy and become part of the world economy. Puerto Ricans should not be impeded in their quest to achieve the political and economic liberties they deserve after 123 years of shameful American colonialism.
In terms of American domestic politics, it would be a nightmare for E Pluribus Unum to become E Pluribus Duo (Out of Many, Two). Puerto Rico is a vibrant Caribbean and Latin American nation, and will not be assimilated nor absorbed into the American mainstream. Is the U.S. ready to fully annex a different country with its own language, history, national identity, and patriotic allegiance? Are the American people ready to deal with the political, social, and cultural implications and consequences of a Caribbean Québec within the United States that refuses to become part of “America”? Would Puerto Rico be able to ban American white supremacists from moving to Puerto Rico to discriminate and attack Puerto Ricans? What would Democrats and Republicans do if Puerto Rico elects Puerto Rican Nationalists and Independentistas to continue advocating for independence and secession from the very floor of the U.S. Congress?
Americans must understand that if the United States absorbs the Puerto Rican nation, they are absorbing the seed of future secession and disunity because the Puerto Rican nation will fight and resist its own national extinction and continue to struggle for freedom from colonial rule—whether foreign or domestic. Scotland, Catalonia, Yugoslavia, Quebec, and the former Soviet Union demonstrate that one cannot suppress a nationality forever within the political confines and cage of a multinational state.
Why Statehood is not the answer
Dishonesty and scare tactics. Statehood supporters in Puerto Rico use dishonest claims and economic promises of a windfall of federal money to sell statehood to Puerto Ricans. Many actually advocate not for “statehood” as known to Americans in the states, but for something like “Boricua Statehood” that promotes the idea that Puerto Rico would keep its national identity, its national Olympic team (which violates the federal Amateur Sports Act of 1978) to compete against Team USA, and that a hypothetical Puerto Rico state government and public schools would operate in Spanish, policies no other states allow. Their dishonesty on these matters is part and parcel of a long history of political corruption: many statehood party members have been investigated by federal law enforcement and arrested on federal corruption charges.
In the recent 2020 plebiscite, approximately 52% of voters voted for statehood, yet when the totality of registered voters (2,355,894) is considered, only 27% (655,505) went to vote for statehood and 73% of all registered voters did not support statehood in a referendum that was delegitimized by the U.S. Department of Justice. Now, even if you accept that statehood won with 52% (a major decrease from the 97% they claim to have won in 2017), the United States has demonstrated that it is not willing to annex a country where almost half of those who voted did not support statehood – a decision that would be disastrous for the United States.
Without a clear mandate and a 2014 congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that detailed the calamitous economic and fiscal disaster of statehood for both Puerto Rico and the United States, statehood is dead on arrival and has never, in 123 years, been realistically considered by the U.S. Congress.
Also, it must be noted that despite the statehood party winning the governorship with only 33% of support (due to the local prohibition of electoral alliances which keeps the opposition divided), the statehood party lost control of the legislature which is now controlled by the anti-statehood opposition (made up of supporters of Commonwealth, Free Association, and Independence). Also, in the 2020 elections, a record number of pro-sovereignty legislators were elected throughout Puerto Rico, despite statehooders’ fear mongering about electing “separatists”.
Today, supporters of Puerto Rican statehood and their lobbyists have succeeded in selling the “idea of statehood” to two different audiences: American politicians and Puerto Ricans. To Americans, they sell the “51st State” idea as a Democratic bastion that will secure Democratic control of the Senate for many years to come, while to some Puerto Ricans, statehood is viewed as an ever-abundant source of American taxpayer money to augment dependency, welfare programs, and to prop up an economy that has been suffering a depression for more than a decade after the U.S. eliminated the tax code incentives under Section 936 that propped up Puerto Rico’s colonial economy.
In fact, statehooders advocated for and supported the elimination of Section 936 so that Puerto Rico would be treated more like a state, even if it meant plunging the Puerto Rican economy into a depression, the loss of thousands of jobs, increasing poverty throughout the country, and pushing many Puerto Rican professionals to seek a better life elsewhere. In keeping with the statehooder strategy, with more poverty comes more dependence on federal welfare funds, and with more dependence on such funds, comes more support for statehood by those looking to score bigger checks from American taxpayers. This is literally what statehooders say in Puerto Rico, but they would never say to an American. Americans need to know this.
Statehooders have also falsely equated the glorious African-American civil rights struggle to their struggle for statehood, in spite of the multiple corruption scandals, acts of racism (like the use of the N-word on the floor of the Puerto Rico legislature by statehood supporters), anti-LGBT policies, anti-women’s rights policies, election fraud allegations, and minority and political persecution that pro-statehood governments have historically unleashed in Puerto Rico. Statehooders talk of “civil rights” and attempt to tug on American heartstrings by referring to Puerto Ricans as “fellow Americans” in order to get their support, all while persecuting pro-sovereignty activists and supporting anti-human rights policies in Puerto Rico.
With their corruption and economic policies, they have accelerated the exodus of thousands of Puerto Ricans from the island-nation, have closed hundreds of schools, have promoted the arrival of tax-dodging settler Americans (who are fiercely detested by Puerto Ricans), and enacted policies to decrease salaries, labor rights, and access to information.
Even today, with two status bills (the Statehood Admission Act – H.R. 1522 and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act – H.R. 2070) in the House Committee on Natural Resources, both Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, have indicated that statehood will not have their support. Also, Democratic leaders such as former congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and the late congressman Vito Marcantonio (ALP-NY) and Ron Dellums (D-CA) publicly supported Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence.
The statehood option has been constantly supported by the most radical, violent, right-wing extremists in Puerto Rico
Moreover, the statehood option has been constantly supported by the most radical, violent, right-wing extremists in Puerto Rico, which now includes a new fringe pro-statehood Hispanic and right-wing fascist group called El Nuevo Estado. The statehood party, sadly still in power after the 2019 civic revolt and forced resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, continues its staunch anti-labor, pro-austerity legislation because they have surrendered to the Congressionally imposed and undemocratic Fiscal Control Board’s budgetary demands. The statehood party also courts the conservative-evangelical Christians that oppose a woman’s right to choose, gender perspective education, and the separation of church and state, while staunchly supporting “gay conversion therapy”, a heinous and torturous practice banned by many jurisdictions around the world.
Let’s end colonialism together!
Today, the vast majority of Puerto Ricans, and a growing number of Americans, are finally calling and acknowledging that Puerto Rico is a colony. The values of self-determination, social justice, and fierce anti-colonialism should be at the core of any American and elected official that identifies with progressive politics. The only dignified solution to a colonial problem is a transparent, fair, and deliberative self-determination and decolonization process and the only truly progressive and decolonizing option is national sovereignty.
The United States has already decolonized the Philippines, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau via sovereignty (either Independence or Free Association). Puerto Rico should be next on the road to freedom and democracy, not remain dependent and isolated from the world in Washington’s colonial basement.
Freedom-loving Americans who want to be on the right side of history should reject the idea of the United States keeping Puerto Rico under colonial rule, in any of its forms or names, or open to the prospect of annexing a defiant and proud Latin American nation (that has fought and defeated all American assimilationist and English language policies) into the Union. Americans must reject the siren songs of pro-statehood Caribbean Tories and instead support the pro-sovereignty Puerto Ricans that wish to forge a new free country and establish a democratic Republic of Puerto Rico that can rise and thrive from the ashes of colonialism. Puerto Rico has the potential to become a prosperous country, but only as a sovereign nation in control of its economy and destiny.
Finally, after 123 years of humiliating and economically disastrous U.S. colonial rule, paraphrasing our pro-independence Scottish brothers and sisters, “it’s time for Puerto Rico’s future to be in Puerto Rico’s hands.” After over half a millennium of colonial rule and resistance, Puerto Ricans deserve their freedom. Help us make this a reality so that future generations of Puerto Ricans can enjoy the freedoms that Americans have long enjoyed as a free, sovereign, and democratic nation since 1776.