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The Rise And Risk Of Nationalism


January 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

It was a real eye opener for me to return recently to Puerto Rico after a 20-year absence. Aside from the many new buildings and highways and the sad development of gated (fortified?) neighborhoods, the most notable change was a discernible, palpable increase in Puerto Rican nationalism. Nationalism is defined in my dictionary as "aspirations for national independence in countries under foreign political or economic domination."

First, it is important not to burden a discussion of nationalism with reflex opposition or hostility. After all, nationalism is just another way of describing someone else’s patriotism. Americans should certainly be able to relate–just read U.S. history. And let’s further admit that the definition accurately fits in terms of the U.S. "political and economic domination" of Puerto Rico. So we are not talking about something that is overly difficult to understand. It is the why and the wherefore of the turn away from America that are puzzling–after 100 years of what many would consider imperfect but beneficial U.S. control, which has obviously led to higher standards of living and liberty for the island.

But to come from a land currently gripped by a wave of patriotic fervor and unity–with American flags waving everywhere–and see Puerto Rico treat the Sept. 11 attack with detached disinterest, is to realize that this island is not emotionally on the same page as the rest of America. Emphasizing this separatism, the governor’s official message of sympathy was directed to "the North American people" in "the North American nation." Then, in a divisively un-American move, the relief money she proposed to send north was specifically limited to Puerto Rican victims.

This selective foreign attitude was right in tune with the remarks of the [former] Police chief at a drug conference, who was reported as saying, "I don’t care how many drugs go to the U.S., my only concern is drugs in Puerto Rico." Add the protracted furor over Vieques, which fairly or unfairly now casts Puerto Rico as opposed to doing its share for American defense in time of war. Note that the U.S. Army has apparently decided to relocate the headquarters of the Southern Command from Ft. Buchanan to Houston, citing a number of reasons, but leaving unspoken the most obvious, which is the unfriendly local ambiance, especially to American military personnel.

Most of all, one can simply trace the focus of the new administration, which seems determined to dedicate most of its efforts towards creating the impression that Puerto Rico is a separate nation.

The net of all this is an increased nationalism on the island on a collision course with increased nationalism in the U.S. It isn’t that Puerto Rico is against the U.S., rather just not with it in the same sense as the rest of the U.S. This is an imprudent time to be out of step.

Viewed objectively, it should not be surprising that a people, acquired by conquest, geographically and linguistically removed from, and politically ignored by, the U.S. and currently guided by leaders whose undeclared but obvious agenda is increased separation–should increasingly feel separate. Indeed, when you live on a separate island, don’t speak the national language of the U.S., don’t pay U.S. taxes, don’t participate in U.S. elections, and prefer primary identification as Puerto Rican, how else could one feel but separate?

The principal blame for this lies in the structural ambiguity of Commonwealth status, which has allowed local politicians to strut and fret exaggerated roles on a small, separate stage with all the trappings of a separate nation–all propped up by massive financial support from the U.S. taxpayer. The puzzle is that this encouraged emotional independence is directly at odds with the financial dependence required to support it. The evenness with which those contradictory elements have been nourished has proven Commonwealth’s cruelest blow because it sets up an internal tug of war that seemingly cannot be decided for the equal strengths of the contesting forces. The emotional pull of being Puerto Rican is evenly matched by the financial expedience of being technically American and the result is chronic status indecision.

As a former resident, I have considerable knowledge of and great affection for Puerto Rico. As an American now living in what your governor calls "the North American Nation," I can report that most Americans are monumentally disinterested and ignorant about the political nuances of Puerto Rico. Their probable response to all this would be "so what?" However, their interest would be quickly awakened were they to realize that $16 billion of their tax dollars flow annually to Puerto Rico. That is a staggering amount of money, more than any nation has ever sent to another nation on a regular basis. It’s more than the U.S. spends on Cancer research, and it approximates what the U.S. is currently spending on the war. And it goes to people who pay no U.S. taxes, whose leaders often openly scorn the symbols of flag and anthem that unite the rest of America.

I can assure you that if Americans knew of the hypocrisy with which island politicians often exploit their U.S. citizenship, there would be widespread indignation, which would quickly reach Washington and spur Congressional action. As many nations have learned to their dismay, it is a grave mistake to underestimate aroused American indignation, and this is a case where awareness will guarantee indignation.

The real risk of rising Puerto Rican nationalism is that it is inherently incompatible with the oft-proclaimed permanent union with the U.S. The only logical conclusion to rising Puerto Rican nationalism is independence, and the many Puerto Ricans who do not wish that outcome had better wake up and step forward and stop indulging the tactics of separation that could bring it in through the back door. No one who reads history can doubt the power of nationalism to inflame actions and reactions, some of which are more rash than rational. Puerto Rico needs to be careful how it plays with that fire.

Garry Hoyt lived in Puerto Rico where he married and raised two sons from 1955 until 1980. He now resides in Rhode Island.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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