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ISR Issue 55, September–October 2007


Who will determine Puerto Rico’s future status?

ROBERTO BARRETO examines Washington's shifting debate on Puerto Rico's status

THE UNITED Nation’s (UN) Decolonization Committee approved a resolution in June to submit the colonial case of Puerto Rico to the plenary of the General Assembly. The resolution submitted by Cuba and Venezuela was approved unanimously. For decades, the ambassadors of the United States rejected any resolution directed to discuss the colonial status of Puerto Rico, but in recent years that opposition has disappeared. Any current political perspective about Puerto Rico must explain the reasons for Washington’s new stand.

In 1952, under censorship and repression, Puerto Rican voters approved a constitution, amended by the United States Congress, which basically preserved Puerto Rico’s colonial status while at the same time trying to disguise it. The United States and the Democratic Popular Party (PPD)—ignoring that Puerto Rico was an occupied nation—used the theory of the bilateral compact, the idea that two sovereign nations entered in a mutual agreement, to define the political relationship between them as a commonwealth or Estado Libre Asociado (ELA). In 1953, in the context of the Cold War, Washington persuaded the UN to withdraw Puerto Rico from the list of colonies, arguing that the ELA was a noncolonial form of government. That position was adopted in Resolution 748 (VIII), the last time the United Nations General Assembly considered the case of Puerto Rico.

After the Cuban Revolution, Washington used the economic development model of Puerto Rico to counteract the influence of the revolution in Latin America. For its part, Cuba took up the colonial issue of Puerto Rico as a flag of struggle against imperialism. All the attempts to reconsider the case of Puerto Rico in the UN were systematically rejected by the United States. In 1972, the Decolonization Committee assumed jurisdiction over the case of Puerto Rico, but the U.S. ambassadors prevented any discussion about Puerto Rico from being considered by the General Assembly.

Since the end of the Cold War, the ELA has lost some of the importance it had for the United States. During the Cold War, the United States competed with Russia for the alliance of former colonial countries. Blatant colonialism in the Caribbean—just as the racial segregation laws in the South of the United States—discredited the image that the United States wanted to project. These examples of racism and colonialism gave great momentum to the arguments of Washington’s opponents worldwide. That is why the ELA was established to hide the colonial subjugation under a veil of autonomy and self-government. In the 1960s, the U.S. used the ELA in conjunction with initiatives like the Alliance for Progress to prove that there was no need for new social outbreaks like the Cuban Revolution because development and modernity could be achieved under the tutelage of Washington.

In recent years, the importance of Puerto Rico for the United States has diminished even further. Puerto Rico ceased being a low-wage zone for many labor-intensive industries. In addition, the U.S. Congress eliminated Section 936 of the Federal Internal Revenue Code that offered tax exemption for the repatriation of profits for U.S. companies. The military value of the island has diminished as well. The successful struggle to remove the U.S. Navy from Vieques prompted the closing of Roosevelt Roads, the largest naval base of the United States outside of continental territory, greatly reducing the strategic usefulness of Puerto Rico to the United States.
In the 1990s, the U.S. Congress began to consider possible changes regarding the political form of the relationship with Puerto Rico and submitted several proposals for plebiscites regarding its status that weren’t successful. The profound political divisions regarding Puerto Rico’s status made it impossible to reach the minimum consensus necessary for a plebiscite to work. In addition, all the recent plebiscite proposals have been colonial ones, leaving the final decision in the hands of Congress. By defining the plebiscite as “non-binding,” the electoral exercise, far from being an act of self-determination, turns into a mere survey. These plebiscites are essentially opinion polls to be considered or ignored by the body that reserves for itself all decision-making powers, the U.S. Congress.

Since the invasion in 1898, the U.S. Congress has always held all power over Puerto Rico, but deployed a complex series of legal fictions, such as the Foraker Act, the Jones Act, the Law 600, and the 1952 Constitution to hide it. In December 2005, three months after the assassination of a pro-independence leader, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, the United States government finally admitted in a public document that Puerto Rico is a colony subjected to the absolute powers of the U.S. Congress. In the new world order, a post-Cold War and post-September 11 one, this admission is the one that better serves the interests of the United States. In April 2007, the White House officially adopted it as the Bush administration’s public policy.

In the last five years the United States has suspended their efforts inside the UN to obstruct the resolutions that declare Puerto Rico a colony. It was expected that eventually the Decolonization Committee would decide to refer the case of Puerto Rico to the General Assembly. At the same time two bills have been introduced in Congress, HR 900 and HR 1230, to change the form of the political relationship between Puerto Rico and United States.

The main pro-independence groups in Puerto Rico have been preparing for these events in a very particular way. Instead of mobilizing their grass roots and trying to generate popular support for independence, they have dedicated their efforts to lobbying in the halls of power. In November 2006, the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) celebrated the Latin American and Caribbean Congress for the Independence of Puerto Rico in Panama, with the participation of several Latin American presidents. There, Rubén Berríos, president of the PIP, affirmed in a triumphalist way that independence of Puerto Rico was imminent.

I don’t have any doubts that the independence of Puerto Rico is about to come. Puerto Ricans know it, but our comrades from Latin America and the Caribbean do not know it.

The PIP ceased believing years ago in the possibility of winning Puerto Ricans to the struggle for independence. In the 2004 elections they did not raise the slogan of independence, but instead limited themselves to calling for a protest vote against the governments of the past decades, with disastrous electoral results. Contrary to Berríos’s statements, in Puerto Rico no imminent political status change is expected. Faced with lack of support in the country, the PIP searches for support for independence among Latin American leaders to generate pressure in Washington. According to Berríos, “Latin America and the Caribbean ought to transform themselves into the speakers for independence of Puerto Rico in front of the United States and the world.”

Ultimately, independence for the PIP is a process to be negotiated with Congress itself. The PIP attempts to convince Congress that the independence of Puerto Rico is convenient for them. As Fernando Martín, executive president of PIP, said in his deposition to the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs:

For the first time in more than one hundred years there are no fundamental contradictions between your interest and ours as far as political status is concerned. It is up to Congress to seize this opportunity without delay.

In the same hearings, Rubén Berríos invited Congress to act in their own interests, with these words:

In 1950–52, the United States engineered a process of consent to colonialism through a yes-or-no referendum in order to justify and legitimize territorial status. Now, as then, your interests dictate your policies, but now U.S. interests in Puerto Rico have changed and “Commonwealth,” an undemocratic, bankrupt status, serves no useful purpose to anyone.... Now is the time to dispose of the territory. Now you need a process to end colonialism.

The PIP, as well as important sectors of the New Progressive Party (PNP), supports the initial process recommended by HR 900 that is designed to eliminate the ELA (commonwealth) option or any variant of this option. This is a yes-or-no referendum to continue or to terminate the current political status, designed to create an alliance between pro-statehood and pro-independence forces to generate an artificial majority. Kevin Marshall, the Bush administration’s representative at the congressional hearings, referred to the process as one “structured to produce a clear outcome” and pointed out that the bill intends to “structure the process so that popular majorities are likely.” Marshall explained two fundamental points. First, that the status options are limited to those “that are not incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws and policies of the United States.” Second, that after the Puerto Rican people make clear their status preference through a plebiscite, “Ultimate authority of course remains with Congress.” There should be no doubt as to the manipulative and colonial character of the proposals under Congress’s consideration.

Some sections of the independence movement are somewhat more critical of the process. According to Julio Muriente, from the Hostosiano Independence National Movement (MINH), “We should be very cautious when evaluating the scope of the initiatives that arise from time to time in the Congress and the Executive, supposedly to attend to the political condition of Puerto Rico. Nobody should trust those spurious and treacherous initiatives from governmental agencies or congressional committees, which only lead to the perpetuation of colonialism in Puerto Rico.” Muriente also points out that any genuine self-determination process must include the transference of powers from Congress to Puerto Rico as stipulated by international law. The liberation by the United States of Puerto Rican political prisoners is equally an unavoidable requirement.
Nevertheless, both the PIP and the MINH agree on a crucial point: they both believe that independence—or some approximation to it—is going to be the product of negotiations initiated in a Constituent Assembly and not the result of the mobilization and self-organization of the majority of the Puerto Rican people. The Constituent Assembly is a procedural mechanism to produce a proposal to Congress’s liking, precisely so that the support of Congress makes it acceptable to the Puerto Rican voters. Without massive support for independence these leading independence advocates won’t have the strength to guarantee a favorable result in the negotiations and won’t be able to prevent Congress from turning their aspirations for freedom into another colonial farce. A process led by Congress will not produce any significant change to domination over Puerto Rico by the United States. Even in an extreme case where a negotiated process leads to independence, the neocolonial character of the new republic would be assured.

The United States is currently considering mechanisms to change the political relationship with Puerto Rico. They are most likely looking for a less expensive arrangement that permits a gradual reduction of federal aid. One of the possibilities is that through a plebiscite or a Constituent Assembly some form of independence, non-territorial formula, or associated republic will be established. Another possibility, although unlikely, is the beginning of a process toward statehood. The PIP insists on the absolute impossibility of statehood, even resorting to racist arguments to defend this thesis, but the statehood option cannot be dismissed completely because it has widespread support. In early August, Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) presented a bill, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007 (S 1936), which proposes holding a plebiscite in Puerto Rico that would choose among four options: maintain the present status, seek independence, become a state, or become a nation in free association with the United States.

In past decades the pro-independence movement has been incapable of convincing Puerto Ricans of the necessity of independence. Now, they have abandoned that goal, arguing that colonial dependency and social welfare (the dependence of impoverished Puerto Ricans on social welfare provisions provided through the U.S. federal system) have made it unattainable. They propose as an alternative the Constituent Assembly as a mechanism to reach independence from above, because they do not think they can rely upon a grass roots majority movement.

The reality is that independence is unpopular because it raises the issue separated from the social problems that the majority of Puerto Ricans have to confront. The struggle to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques wasn’t popular until it was proven that the poverty and illnesses that residents were confronting were caused by the U.S. Navy. Likewise, in Puerto Rico, as long as independence doesn’t establish the connection between colonialism and social problems—the poverty that half of the population lives under, neoliberal attacks on the working class, and the lack of housing, health services, education, and many other problems—independence will continue to be a minority movement, because it doesn’t represent a real alternative for the working class.

To build a massive independence movement in Puerto Rico with the capability to force Washington to recognize our right to self-determination, we will have to demonstrate to the working class in Puerto Rico that the colonial relationship with the United States is the main obstacle in the struggle for a better standard of living. A real liberation movement must aspire to win the majority to a revolutionary consensus, instead of dreaming that the U.S. Congress will give us freedom just because of the mere fact that we request it. As long as the pro-independence leaders dream of turning Puerto Rico into the next Singapore or to include it in the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, the movement will remain minuscule and it will be incapable of opposing U.S. plans for Puerto Rico. When the class demands of the great majority become the central axis of a movement for independence and a broad discussion about the relevance of socialism gets underway, then the independence movement will have the possibility of defeating the imperial power to the north.

Roberto Barreto is a member of the Organizacion Socialista Internacional in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Katherine Adames Rodríguez translated this from the original Spanish.

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