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After 50 Years, Islanders Long For Next Step
July 24, 2002
Ordinarily, few people on the mainland, including Puerto Ricans, would pay attention to the birthday of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
But this year, things are different.
Puerto Rico is marking the half-century mark of self-government under the United States flag.
Of course, Puerto Rico has been a part of the United States much longer than that -- for 104 years, to be exact. But for Puerto Ricans, the first 54 years were undemocratic.
After the Spanish-American War, Puerto Ricans lived under U.S. military rule. Later, the U.S. president named the governor of the island, and he was not Puerto Rican. It took Harry Truman in 1946 to appoint a Puerto Rican governor.
Six years later, Puerto Rico finally had the opportunity to write its own constitution, which paved the way for self-government as a commonwealth.
It was a great day in Puerto Rican history, and this is what Gov. Sila Calderón, U.S. officials and Latin American heads of state will celebrate in Puerto Rico on Thursday. "We're celebrating 50 years of the exercise of democracy," Calderón said.
But much has changed since that day in 1952, and that's why a host of people think "there's nothing to celebrate," in the words of Rep. José Serrano, D-New York, who last week tried to crush a congressional resolution saluting the commonwealth on its 50th birthday. The measure passed overwhelmingly the next day.
The commonwealth's shortcomings have become abundantly clear. Congress retains control over Puerto Rico, which means island self-government truly is limited. Attempts by island governors to gain greater self-government have failed in Congress.
Meanwhile, pro-statehood forces have increased in number by exploiting the commonwealth's weaknesses. Now, islanders are equally divided between commonwealth and statehood.
To gain influence in Congress, Calderón last week launched a massive voter-registration drive to take place in mainland Puerto Rican communities, including the Orlando area, as part of the anniversary activities.
For most of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans who migrated to the mainland soon were forgotten, and as for their descendants -- forget about it.
But now there are 3.3 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland -- almost as many as there are on the island. Because the commonwealth has reached its political and economic limits, harnessing the mainland Puerto Rican vote has become important.
A new day has dawned, in which Puerto Ricans "over there" look to Puerto Ricans "over here" to get things done.
The great majority of Puerto Ricans on the mainland hold Puerto Rico dear to their hearts, including those who never have set foot on the island. They will do all they can to help Puerto Rico. I need only mention the example of Vieques, which is dominated by the U.S. military, but which Puerto Ricans would like to take back.
A majority of Puerto Ricans, here and there, are united in their desire to oust the military from Vieques.
But the great irony of Calderón's latest move is inescapable. On the 50th anniversary of Puerto Rico's so-called self-government, Gov. Calderón is looking not to the island but to the mainland for political power.
Wouldn't it be extraordinary if the Puerto Ricans "here" were the ones to break Puerto Rico's political logjam?