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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The Invisible Citizens


March 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Considering that last year's total budget for all U.S. foreign operations -- including economic, military and humanitarian aid -- was about $12.6 billion for countries like Israel, Egypt and Jordan: Is the United States quietly sending close to $13 billion to one Latin American "nation" alone?

That overwhelming assistance, in spite of this Latin American "nation's" disregard for the civil rights of its people by denying them their basic democratic right to vote for their president or have voting representation in its Legislature?

The shameful answer is yes -- sort of.

Puerto Rico, as a U.S. commonwealth, doesn't really violate the civil rights of its U.S. citizens by choice; they have no real say under the U.S. Constitution.

Puerto Rico doesn't really "receive" all these federal funds, as close to half is actually salaries, wages, retirement and disability payments.

Seemingly stranded in the Caribbean, Puerto Ricans born on the island are U.S. citizens, but without the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship as a result of the Jones' Act of 1917. The exceptions are those who make the two-hour plane ride and relocate to the continental United States, as millions of islanders have done for the last century.

So conceivably, Puerto Rico and all its U.S. citizens are a "not really." Not really independent, not really a state, or as we would say in Spanish, "ni se peinan, ni se hacen rolos" (neither brush their hair, nor wear curlers).

It is no secret that the status of Puerto Rico is as divisive an issue among Puerto Ricans as the U.S. embargo is for Cuban- Americans, but it should also be known that no political party in Puerto Rico favors the status quo, including the reigning pro- commonwealth party. Yet, there are no visible civil rights movements to promote a just, U.S. Congress-formulated self - determination process for the island's U.S. citizens, focused on the process and independent of the outcome.

And yes, there are still Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the states who like to "brush their hair and wear their curlers, too," but as someone dramatically told me recently: "There were just as many slaves who liked their masters and didn't care for their civil rights, but that didn't stop our great nation from doing what was right."

It was not until 1998, precisely 100 years after Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, that the possibility of developing a self - determination process for the island was favorably voted in the U.S. House of Representatives. Of course, not one of the voting representatives actually represented Puerto Rico, with its population greater than 25 states of the Union.

To no one's surprise, the bill later died in the U.S. Senate. Might it be because the island is considered to have the lowest standard of living among Americans, even though in comparison to Florida's top trading partners, Puerto Rico has double the buying power of the Dominican Republic ($13.6 billion) and very close to that of Guatemala, Honduras and Panama combined ($25 billion).

Most probably, however, U.S. senators rightfully dismissed the initiative for lack of visible constituency support for the bill, probably because invisible people do not affect elections.

Four million U.S. citizens with limited rights, sequestered, disenfranchised in the smallest of the Larger Antilles of the Caribbean; another 3 million or so residing all over the continental United States, apparently taking their full rights for granted: Are we really invisible, or is it the same U.S. citizenship so many seek that ironically makes Puerto Ricans invisible?

While statutory citizenship gives Puerto Ricans a clear advantage, in contrast to our immigrating and exiled cousins of Hispanic heritage, it also encourages a well-documented constant resettlement and circular migration of Puerto Ricans within the U.S., and to and from the island. This continuous movement erodes our roots, even in the larger Puerto Rican communities in New York and Florida, snatching our sense of belongingness and leading to a heightened invisibility, indifference and lack of empowerment.

As a result, we in the United States continue to nurture an unexplainable, internationally unacceptable, anti-democratic 21st century U.S. colony. And so the "Island of Enchantment" and its second-class citizens -- including about 200,000 U.S. military veterans, many of whom were drafted into service to fight and die for our nation's major conflicts since World War I -- remain a slap in the face to our great, democracy-preaching world leader.

Perhaps we Puerto Ricans are so adaptable that even if we are not accounted for at all, we feel successful because we can eventually cease to be a "not-really," and finally become a "really" -- a really invisible nation and people.

The author is president of the Puerto Rican Professional Association of South Florida.

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