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Give Puerto Rico Its Independence

by Pedro A. Caban

June 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Newsday. All Rights Reserved.

AFTER HIS INVASION force landed in Puerto Rico in 1898, Gen. Nelson Miles announced, "We have not come to make war upon the people ... but to give to all the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization."

Over a hundred years later, the U.S. military is still there. Even though President George W. Bush yesterday announced an end, in 2003, to the Navy's decades of bombardment of Puerto Rico 's island of Vieques , Puerto Ricans , in the words of Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano, are not dismissing what has been an "arrogant abuse of a poor, Spanish-speaking and colored people."

Relentless military maneuvers on economically and ecologically devastated Vieques -without regard for the welfare of its inhabitants or the consent of Puerto Rico 's government-have been an affront to most Puerto Ricans . The debacle has come to have major national political implications. Justice for Vieques has become a rallying cry for a sizable portion of the growing Latino population on the mainland. Enterprising politicians, some driven by electoral ambitionsand others by moral indignation, realize that being on the side of the Viequenses is the right move.

The situation is not only putting pressure on Congress to rethink Puerto Rico 's ineffective political status, but also has forced Bush to realize that the Navy's maltreatment of Vieques has become a national political issue with potentially serious ramifications for him and his party.

While the military has always asserted that Puerto Rico is a unique possession of immense strategic value that should never be relinquished, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of genuine revolutionary movements in Latin America have undermined the urgency of the claim. Bush's decision further erodes the credibility of the Navy's relentless assertions that without the use of Vieques as a bombing and strafing range, U.S. troops will be unable to train effectively.

Some will welcome Bush's decision as vindication of an effective campaign of civil disobedience and popular mobilization. But others will interpret it as a cynical move to preempt an upcoming and potentially embarrassing referendum on Navy use of Vieques and a reinforcement of the belief that Washington will continue to treat Puerto Rico as a mere territorial possession. It's also doubtful that this latest move will actually generate warm feelings among the Latino electorate for the Republican Party.

It seems everyone agrees that Puerto Rico 's current status is an unworkable anachronism. Last June, Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) described the commonwealth as "a drain on the American taxpaying public. Its status is an affront to our constitutional system of government."

Congress is increasingly opposed to the continuation of Puerto Rico 's commonwealth status. Puerto Rico 's statehood and independence parties want to abolish it, and even the Popular Democratic Party that devised it wants to radically alter this defunct political formula.

The truth is that Puerto Ricans have never been truly satisfied with the territorial status of their island-nation. The independence movement, which has included political parties, university student federations, self-proclaimed revolutionary organizations, and other legal and illegal groupings such as FALN and the Macheteros, has been subject to ceaseless government persecution.

Indeed, official intimidation and discrimination help to explain the failure of independence to garner more support than commonwealth status in plebiscites held in 1952, 1967 and 1993. Moreover, a relentless fear campaign has convinced many Puerto Ricans that a complete break with the United States would quickly result in political chaos and economic ruination. Despite this, everyone agrees that poor showings in the polls fail to capture the depth of popular sympathy for independence.

Puerto Ricans are caught between a rock and a hard place. Since Puerto Ricans are proud cultural nationalists they are apprehensive that their culture and language would be threatened by statehood. This helps to explain why Puerto Ricans rejected the statehood option in a 1998 plebiscite. However, they are also leery of independence given how it has been so demonized. Puerto Ricans have opted for commonwealth as it provides U.S. citizenship and economic support on one hand, and a measure of autonomy to protect its language and cultural institutions on the other.

After the 1898 U.S. invasion, Puerto Ricans at first believed that the enlightened, modern and wealthy empire of the north would be a vast improvement over Spain, their previous colonial masters. Puerto Ricans were convinced their island-nation would soon be incorporated into the Union on an equal footing with other states, and they would at last attain the dignity and self-government denied for centuries by the Spanish.

Statehood seemed preordained, if for no other reason than to guarantee the U.S. perpetual control of the strategically significant island. But Congress balked at paving the way for statehood because Puerto Ricans were considered overwhelmingly poor, dark- complexioned, Spanish-speaking, Catholic and simply incapable of appreciating the virtues of U.S. democracy.

According to Gov. George Davis in 1899, Puerto Ricans were "all of an alien race and foreign tongue" and were not fit "for participation in federal affairs." Davis also feared the repercussions if this "alien race" were permitted to send two senators and six representatives to Washington.

A century ago, Congress declared Puerto Rico a territorial possession subject to its plenary powers. This forestalled independence and, to this day, Congress quietly continues to oppose statehood. Legislation to change the island's antiquated political status has always foundered on fears that the Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans would choose statehood and increase the political power of mainland Latinos.

It is true that after a century of Americanization, and despite being exemplary citizens who have fought in every major U.S. military engagement, Puerto Ricans proudly proclaim their distinctive nationality and cultural identity.

The current commonwealth governor, Sila Calderon, has made this evident. To the chagrin of the statehood party and the annoyance of Washington she has stated: "We are Puerto Ricans who are U.S. citizens, we are not U.S. citizens who happen to be Puerto Ricans . We are Puerto Ricans first." To complicate matters further, surveys suggest that the majority of Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland agree with Calderon.

A consensus has formed around the recognition that commonwealth is no longer appropriate for this era of globalization. Both the statehood and commonwealth parties been proven incapable of resolving the serious social problems, which include high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime and addiction.

It is time to initiate a transition process to grant Puerto Rico its independence-an independence grounded in economic security, mutual respect and appreciation for the contributions that Puerto Rico and its people have given the United States during the long American century.

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