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Commonwealth Drove The Modernization Of A Caribbean Backwater

By Rober Becker

July 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD.
All Rights Reserved.

First of two parts

The commonwealth of Puerto Rico celebrates, in just a few days, the 50th anniversary of its founding. This peculiar entity is a newcomer in Puerto Rican history, as Puerto Rico has been organized in various ways in the pre-European cultures of the Tainos and Arawaks and their forbears; the subsequent structures following the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century and their profound impact on Puerto Rico over four centuries of colonial rule; followed by the 20th century Puerto Rico of the American dominance, in which the island labored, for more than five decades, under American-style colonial rule.

Fifty years is an eyeblink in history, but long enough to look back to judge the success or failure of the commonwealth political model. I prefer to disregard the political myths and obfuscations and regard commonwealth in its proper legal and constitutional form. The "Free Associated State," as it is called in the commonwealth constitution in which Puerto Ricans defined themselves, is neither free, nor associated, nor a state.

But it is many other things.

The creation of the commonwealth has created, for better and for worse, the Puerto Rico that exists today. Its very existence has created deep political fissures in Puerto Rico, one so deep it may never be closed. But whatever one thinks of its political, cultural and constitutional implications, commonwealth’s achievements were profound.

Before commonwealth, many Puerto Ricans lived in appalling destitution, ground down by the poverty of daily life and the island’s dependency and subservience to the United States. Diet was poor, clothing inadequate, disease rampant, schools scarce, and health care was available only to those who could pay. The humiliation and despair of life on the island was fertile soil for the quasi-fascist nationalist movement of the 1930s led by Pedro Albizu Campos. Albizu had no program, only the self-destructive lure of nihilist violence, which found a later resonance in the left-wing Macheteros and FALN terrorists of the 1970s and 1980. Some of whose elements have now gathered inside the Popular Democratic Party, fanning its darker anti-American and separatist instincts.

After the birth of commonwealth, Puerto Rico was transformed in a series of breathtaking leaps forward, aided in no small part by U.S. investment, technical assistance, easy access to the mainland market and investment tax incentives. But the commonwealth structure also unleashed the creative energies of Puerto Ricans, under the visionary leadership of Luis Muñoz Marin, in ways that drew the admiring attention of the world. Puerto Rico went from a sleepy, backward agricultural based society in the early 1950s to a modern, dynamic society that now has a gross domestic product of more than $40 billion, according to the CIA Factbook. Where cattle once grazed in pasture land in Isla Verde and Carolina, now rows upon rows of sleek modern hotels, office buildings and condos glitter in the afternoon sun. Road s and highways reach everywhere, bringing the jibaro out of his mountain towns into the metropolises of San Juan, Ponce, Bayamon and Mayaguez.

Nowadays, everywhere people are well fed and healthy, consumer culture is in full flower, the modernized health care system bristles with modern equipment and the island’s pharmaceutical and high-tech factory workers are well paid and highly productive. Education levels are higher, housing is better, leisure time is greater, and per capita incomes have increased exponentially.

Along with those material and social changes came a change in the individual psychology of Puerto Ricans. The docile, obsequious jibaro of colonial times has been replaced by an assertive, confidant boricua eager to take their place in the world. Puerto Rican artists, performers and athletes are known world-wide, and their flowering coincides with the development of the commonwealth.

The commonwealth has also brought it the illusion, if not the reality, of autonomy. Puerto Rican governors now take their place among the governors of the 50 states, and wield comparable influence in Washington, D.C. Puerto Rico sends a resident commissioner to Washington, and has a voice, if not a vote, in the U.S. Congress. Where Nationalist fanatics once burst in with pistols blazing, Puerto Rican elected officials, lobbyists and officials effectively work the congressional halls. The commonwealth political structure, closely rooted in the U.S. multi-party democracy, has given Puerto Ricans a political footing in their dealings with the colossus to the north that was once unthinkable.

So we see that commonwealth has brought Puerto Rico a long way from the days of bare feet and hunger, from the fetid slums of La Fanguita in San Juan and La Perla at the base of the old city walls. But 50 years is a long time, as I noted at the beginning of this column, and there are cracks in the venerable institution’s foundation that portend difficult times ahead.

Robert Becker, Charlotte County bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald Tribune, lived in Puerto Rico from 1991 through 2001.

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