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Insight on the News
Does Puerto Rico Deserve Independence?
Ralph de Toledano
June 3, 2002
The last word
During the war years, Puerto Rican independentistas - mostly bespectacled writers and intellectuals gathered at El Pardo, a small bar off San Juan's main drag. I used to drink with these earnest young men and argue about the merits of their cause. Puerto Rico at the time existed pretty much on the million dollars a day it received in federal subsidies, plus additional money from Army, Navy and Air Corps units scattered around the island. An earlier hurricane had destroyed most of the island's agriculture, and its major export was rum.
The independentistas would agree to almost every point I made against their independence, including the major point that Puerto Rico could not survive economically without large infusions of yanqui dollars. "Then why do you advocate independence?" I would ask. "We have our pride," they would say, raising glasses. That pride turned ugly when the independence movement, taken over by Marxist terrorists, attempted to assassinate President Harry S Truman in November 1950, killing a Washington policeman in the process. They also shot up the House of Representatives four years later, only wounding a few congressmen because of the bad aim of the excited gunsels.
This happened after Puerto Rico had been granted commonwealth status in 1952, giving it almost virtual domestic autonomy. More importantly, it continued to receive UIS aid and its residents maintained American citizenship without having to pay federal income tax.
I spent a year in Puerto Rico , editing two Army newspapers, working with civil authorities and learning much about the island and its people. I returned several times on major journalistic assignments for Newsweek, developing friendships on all levels. I reported on Operation Bootstrap, a program of appointed governor Luis Munoz Marin to push vitalization of the island's economy, and later took another look at his request after he became the first elected governor and commonwealth status had been achieved.
I went to Puerto Rico expecting a native culture analogous to that of Cuba, Mexico or the rest of the Caribbean and Central America. But the cultural mix was different. The Indian strain did not exist because early Spanish settlers had killed or driven out the Caribes, replacing them with slaves from Africa. The white upper class sent its young men to Spain for their education, and from the bastion of the Casa de Espana expressed racist disdain for the mixed races of the middle and lower classes. Art, music and literature were imported from Cuba and other Caribbean isles. As in Cuba, beisbol was very popular, but there was little interest in other sports.
The Catholic Church was but a very small factor in the Puerto Rican existence of those days. If there was a cathedral, it went incognito. When puertorriquenos migrated to the mainland, they gravitated to evangelical Protestant sects for the most part.
What indigenous culture might have developed was stifled by Spain, and when the island became a U.S. possession in 1898, after liberation, even yanqui ways did not take root. The only tie to Latin America was language, with sharp regional differences.
Commonwealth status was immensely popular for its financial advantages and because of Munoz. It maintained a Puerto Rican identity, the political and economic advantages of U.S. sponsorship and tax policies that brought light industry to the island. Munoz combined idealistic rhetoric and hard-headed political and economic policy, and the governors who followed him to a degree walked in his footsteps.
In polls and surveys, the people of Puerto Rico repeatedly supported the commonwealth and rejected statehood and independence. But the drive for statehood continued. Some businessmen propagandized for it because statehood would put the Puerto Rican economy in sync with the mainland. Local politicians dreamed of becoming part of the Washington Beltway cargo cult. Democrats in Congress also prayed for statehood, since it would give them two more Democratic votes in the Senate and a congressman or three.
But statehood would deprive the island of much in dollars and cents from the U.S. Treasury. And there would be the problem of language. The upper classes speak English, but the language of the island is Spanish. As a state, Puerto Rico's official language would have to be English, which would create deep and poisonous conflict that would play into the hands of Marxists and extreme radicals who play the xenophobic and nationalist cards. Troublemaking, not issues of principle, are what the brouhaha over the U.S. Navy base in Vieques really is about.
Ironically, the United States would gain the most from independence. The steady flood of Puerto Rican immigrants would be cut off and might be subject to quotas. The damaging propaganda circulating in Latin America that the United States holds Puerto Rico in durance vile and oppresses its people would end, although it would be followed by howls of protest that we "abandoned" the island motivated by capitalistic viciousness. Puerto Rico would cease being a port of entry for Castro agents who infiltrate and then slide into America as Puerto Ricans .
Independent or not, Puerto Rico would remain a ward of the United States. But as the independentistas used to tell me, they would have their pride, eating their cake and having it too. And I believe they would be happier if they lost the great sense of inferiority they now harbor as they face their Latin American cousins. Times and circumstance have changed, and so have many of us from the times we used to argue over rum and Coke at the El Pardo bar in a San Juan that has given way to luxury tourist hotels.
RALPH DE TOLEDANO IS THE DEAN OF WASHINGTON COLUMNISTS AND A FREQUENT WRITER FOR Insight MAGAZINE.