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Why Independence For Puerto Rico Finally Makes Sense


December 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

My perspective on this is a transition--a journey that covers 50 years of close observation. It has seen me first support commonwealth because that status was demonstrably jump-starting the Puerto Rico economy, based largely on the lure of tax exemption opportunities under the safety of the U.S. flag. That formula brought in outside investors and industries that otherwise wouldn’t have looked twice at the island, which had long been known as "the poorhouse of the Caribbean."

The economic practicalities facilitated by commonwealth were enough to overshadow the philosophical shortcomings of its colonial nature, and Muñoz Marin had the political genius to see this with his head--if not with his heart. Commonwealth bought time and brought new levels of relative prosperity to the island, and that--very sensibly--was the first priority.

Over time, though, I gradually became disenchanted with commonwealth because of the two-faced character it fostered--a pervasive governmental hypocrisy that involved, for financial benefit, the pretense of being American while reserving primary identity and loyalty to being Puerto Rican. As an American who reveres his country, I increasingly found that duplicity to be both dishonest and offensive.

I then turned to statehood in the frank hope of showing P.R. that becoming full-fledged Americans would be rewarding and worthwhile--as it has proved to be for millions of others who came to America from all parts of the world. Despite good efforts by many well-intentioned people, however, the statehood movement on the island has never generated the kind of open and widespread enthusiasm that propelled Hawaii and Alaska to statehood. You can’t impose that kind of enthusiasm; it has to come from the people--and in P.R. it just didn’t happen.

My initial reaction to this rebuff was annoyance. How could the island be so ungrateful and so foolish as to turn down full membership in the world’s foremost democracy--an economic powerhouse that had lifted P.R. out of poverty to the highest standard of living in Latin America, and in the process had become home and haven to half the island’s population?

It has taken me a while to realize that to see the true picture one has to remove his star-spangled spectacles and use heartfelt American patriotism to understand the heartfelt durability of someone else’s patriotism. After all, despite 100 years of U.S. occupation and extravagant outlays of U.S. taxpayer money, Puerto Rico’s primary loyalty hasn’t been "bought," and assimilation into America has been steadily and sturdily resisted and rejected. In the history of patriotic struggles--including America’s own revolution--steady resistance to the influence of an outside, occupying power has to be read as a strong, latent desire for independence. P.R.’s record of resistance to American influences is consistent and formidable. Consider the following:

    • P.R. has rejected adopting, or even effectively teaching, the language of the occupier; 80% of the populace can’t speak English. In a world that has universally accepted English as the international language, P.R. denies English to emphasize and ensure its separation from the U.S.

    • P.R. has rejected personal identification as American. Ask Puerto Ricans what they are and 90% will reply "Puerto Rican"--many adding "de pura cepa," to erase any doubt about the degree of their preference. That isn’t a crime--just a pertinent reality.

    • P.R. has rejected observance of and respect for the American flag. Individuals daring to display the American flag at home or on their car risk harassment and physical damage. At the University of Puerto Rico, where $105 million in Pell grants from the U.S. were distributed in 2001-2002, it is prohibited to fly the American flag.

On the island, the Pledge of Allegiance and the U.S. National Anthem are widely unknown and unobserved, while the Puerto Rican flag and anthem are widely displayed and respected.

    • P.R. has rejected the presence of the American military. Puerto Ricans of all political parties united in the drive to force the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, and persistent hostility has led the U.S. Army to move the southern command from Fort Buchanan to the U.S. mainland. Military personnel are advised not to wear their uniforms on the streets of P.R., since many consider this "a provocation."

    • P.R. has rejected any payment of federal taxes, but bids aggressively for increases in the already-immense package of federal aid paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Federal funds transferred to the island amounted to over $19 billion in 2001-2002. That is more financial aid than any nation has ever provided to another nation on a regular basis.

I used to get mad at this accumulation of rejections, because to an American they make no sense--and no justice. Seen in another light, however, these rejections are merely additional evidence of the island’s deeply felt emotional separation from the U.S. In fact, in all the emotional aspects that define a separate nation--in every sector except the legal issue of ownership--P.R. is already independent. All that is lacking to complete the equation is the stroke of the congressional pen that would grant P.R. the national independence to which its actions and rejections clearly point.

From the U.S. point of view, when the costs of maintaining an inappropriate and unappreciative colony begin to outweigh whatever benefits may once have existed, it is time to think about an exit strategy.

From P.R.’s point of view, the inherent indignity of its colonial status will continue to fester in a globalized economy of sovereign nations in which P.R. can never have the separate voice its separate interests desire and require. So where does all that leave us?

Well, the present commonwealth government’s push for more autonomy is predestined to fail because it is specifically against the Constitution and makes no particular sense to the U.S. Congress. Sooner or later, the voting public in P.R. is going to wake up to the fact that what is repeatedly being promised by the Popular Democratic Party for election appeal has no basis in the reality, which is entirely controlled by the U.S. Congress. The statehood cause appears to be in disarray, paralyzed by past scandals, ineffective leadership, and a conspicuous shortage of wide support.

Looking at a Republican-controlled White House and Congress, it is hard to see why they would ever be enthusiastic about the prospect of adding a probably Democratic-controlled state. Certainly it won’t happen without a strong popular mandate from the island--which is clearly lacking. So, by the elimination of alternatives, independence emerges as newly viable because it finally makes more sense than the other options.

It is safe to say the issue of P.R.’s independence is currently far from top of the White House’s list of considerations, where Iraq, al Qaeda, and the economy are primary concerns. Things could change come the 2004 election, though, perhaps giving pivotal importance to the Hispanic vote in the U.S. An issue that could deliver appeal and equality to all the diverse Hispanic sectors--Mexican, Dominican, Cuban, etc.--is the support of independence for P.R. It could also resonate in the United Nations, where the Bush administration has run up a lot of IOUs in order to enlist worldwide support against Iraq.

Here the current government’s efforts to use stateside commonwealth offices to mobilize the Hispanic vote could backfire. Because for Hispanics--particularly the numerically dominant Mexican bloc--independence for P.R. establishes a desirable equality they will never get if P.R. becomes a state or continues as a privileged colony.

Thus, ironically, Puerto Rico’s chronic and often cynically maintained status indecision could have the effect of turning initiative on the issue over to forces on the U.S. mainland. The lesson here is that ducking responsible choice has consequences. And trying to have your cake and eat it too isn’t a responsible choice.

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island and maintains strong ties with Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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