The above flags fly from El Morro, one of the oldest Spanish forts in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I see them as a visual representation of Puerto Rico’s long history of colonization: the white flag with the red cross is an old Spanish military flag, the US flag represents the current colonization of PR, and even the Puerto Rican flag in the center was altered from its original state: the original sky blue color was changed to a darker navy blue, to match the blue of the US flag.
News on Puerto Rico is quite sparse in the mainstream media. I have my Google News page (my home page) set up to display all articles with “Puerto Rico” in them so that I catch as much as possible, yet really informative, interesting articles are still few and far between.
But today, two articles from the Miami Herald (here and here). They tell of the December 22 release of the Interagency Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, an effort initiated by President Clinton in 2000 and renewed by Bush in 2003. The report recommends that Congress approve a federally-mandated plebecite, to be held this year, allowing Puerto Ricans to vote on the issue of the island’s status.
Currently, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, which is something of a political limbo. Puerto Ricans born on the island are US citizens by birth and thereby possess certain Constitutional rights; however, they cannot vote in national elections (like the presidential one), nor do they have voting representatives in the national legislature. They are exempt from certain taxes (income tax among them, I believe.) They can be drafted and otherwise recruited into the armed forces, and are subject to all federal laws despite not being able to have a say on their passage.
A plebecite is held on a somewhat regular basis in Puerto Rico, in which voters are asked to choose among three status options: independence, statehood, and the status quo of the commonwealth. In the past, the status quo has always won out, followed by statehood. Independence always garners a very small percentage of the vote, never surpassing 5%.
The new federal plebecite, if approved by Congress, would be conducted in two steps. The first vote would only ask voters to choose between two options: to maintain the status quo, or to choose a non-commonwealth status. If Puerto Ricans voted for the latter, a second poll would be conducted, again with only two choices: either independence or statehood.
I have very mixed feelings about all of this. At face value, it seems like a good move, because it is absolutely essential that Puerto Ricans be given the right to determine their own national status in a meaningful way. As Maurice Ferre writes in a commentary in the Miami Herald:
Until now, the political debate has been based on the rhetoric of the colony and of the territory, ignoring the principal philosophical argument: Democracy. How can there be a capital D, Democracy, for 4 million people on the island if they do not elect their chief executive and legislators, who determine the vast majority of matters that rule over all their lives? When in 2006, after Congress authorizes the plebiscite, Yes or No, the people of Puerto Rico, by voting nonacceptance of the current territory, will then move on to the main event: deciding how they want to elect their national leadership, be it in Washington or in Puerto Rico.
Now, that last bit is the tricky part, the part that makes me wary. If the combined vote of pro-statehood and pro-independence Puerto Ricans surpasses that of the status quo supporters in the first round of voting, then polls indicate that statehood will win over independence two to one in the second round. And that is a scary proposition to me. The thought of Puerto Rican – a nation of people that has been colonized, first by Spain and now by the United States, for centuries – becoming just another state – well, it disgusts and angers me. I strongly believe that Puerto Rico should be a sovereign, independent nation, but I would far prefer the current commonwealth status to statehood, despite the glaring inequities and injustices therein. At least, with the status quo, there’s still some hope that at some point Puerto Rico could attain full independence from the US. If it became a state, all hope for independence would be lost.
Of course, I’m a mainland Puerto Rican. I was neither born nor have ever lived on the island. I do not experience Puerto Rico’s imperialized status like residents of the island do, and I do not understand how it feels to be a second-class citizen (at least, not in that particular respect.) So I feel like my opinion is of somewhat limited importance; clearly, it’s up to Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico to decide their own fate, right?
Only thing is, I worry about how they’ll make that choice. I worry about the reasons behind choosing statehood, or even preferring the status quo.
My mother, who was born in Puerto Rico and lived there until she was seven, thinks that Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth. She wouldn’t want to see it become a state, either, but feels that, without the United States, Puerto Rico would be crippled as a nation, and that its people would suffer tremendously. She doesn’t think that Puerto Rico could survive without being part of the US.
I think that many on the island share that opinion, and that it drives them to either choose to stay a commonwealth despite feeling in their hearts that Puerto Rico should be an independent nation, or that they fall hook, line and sinker for the whole American Dream bullshit and want to become a state. And that last part saddens me most – that my people have been so demoralized, have been made so dependent, have been so brainwashed by the United States that they have lost their sense of national and cultural identity to such a degree that they’d rather become just another state than find a way to succeed as an independent nation.
Additionally, I can’t help but be suspicious of a plan that’s coming from the Bush administration and that seems well-designed to make a state out of Puerto Rico. Yes, I want the people of Puerto Rico to have self-determination, but I don’t want it to be orchestrated in such a way that forces what I see as an ultimately undesirable outcome.
So, I guess we’ll have to just wait and see what Congress decides to do. Who knows – they might decide to ignore the proposal entirely. And while, in some ways, that wouldn’t be in the best interests of true democracy and self-determination for Puerto Rico, I still wonder if it might be better to just leave well enough alone – at least, until the slim possibility for Puerto Rican independence becomes more of a probability.