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The Conundrum Of Commonwealth


March 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Commonwealth is a description that suffers from being both ambiguous and inaccurate, with the added twist that it was deliberately portrayed one way in English to the U.S. Congress, and another way in Spanish to the Puerto Rican public. Commonwealth was the phrase created to describe Muñoz Marin’s 1950 proposal for a new relationship between P.R. and the U.S.

For stateside consumption, Commonwealth was a label broad enough to be essentially meaningless, and it had a comforting British ring to it. For consumption in P.R., Commonwealth was presented as Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) or Free Associated State. This was a very creative translation that offered something to all of the differing factions on the island. Free for the advocates of Independence, State for the Statehooders, and Asociado for those wanting a little of both. While politically brilliant, ELA was inherently inaccurate, since P.R. was neither free, nor a state, nor technically associated. The island was then, and is now, "an unincorporated territory" belonging to the U.S. It was Muñoz Marin’s hope in 1950 that ELA would change all that, and he further wanted U.S. Congressional approval that the P.R. laws could not be altered by external authority, and any changes in the island’s status had to have P.R.’s full agreement.

That was a nice try, but Congress didn’t buy it. And while allowing a cosmetic change to the deceptive and differing labels of Commonwealth and ELA, nothing really changed and P.R. remained a colony acquired by conquest, controlled by ultimate U.S. Congress authority. Despite the strenuous efforts of every Popular party governor since Muñoz to enhance Commonwealth with greater autonomy, there has been no gain in that area, because all efforts run head on into Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States." Since P.R. unquestionably belongs to the U.S., the issue of controlling authority is very clear and no amount of Status Commission recommendations or reports can alter that Constitutional reality.

Frustrated and stung by their failure to gain more autonomy from the U.S. Congress, the leaders of the Commonwealth Party moved swiftly and deftly back on the island where they had full control of communications. Their unstated, long-term aim became to swerve the hearts and minds of islanders away from integration with America, and identity as Americans, towards the goal of Puerto Rico as a separate national entity whose citizens’ primary identity and loyalty was to Puerto Rico.

The first key element in this strategy was the elimination of English instruction in P.R. public schools. This required dismantling the existing public education system, which since the Colonial conquest in 1898 had been staffed largely by American administrators and teachers, teaching all subjects in English. From the point of view of educational standards, this was an effective system, which produced several generations of bilingual islanders, many of whom went on to attend the most prestigious American universities.

But producing a general populace that was competent and comfortable in English did not fit the separation strategy of Commonwealth. They needed language to be a barrier to further integration with the U.S.--not a facilitator of closer integration. So they invented the theory that instruction in English was a threat to Spanish and Puerto Rican culture. Never mind that there was not a shred of evidence to support this theory, and thousands of islanders who had been taught in English observably never lost a word of their Spanish, which continued to be the preferred language of everyday communication. And of course those most fervently advocating the subtraction of English in the public schools for the general populace, were themselves hypocritically reserving the advantage of English for their own children in private schools, thus creating a two-tiered class society. As a direct and calculated consequence of the dismantling of English instruction, no major English media were ever viable on the island, which completely blocked out U.S. press, radio, and TV and guaranteed that the general P.R. populace would remain politically isolated from the U.S.

The second key factor was the programmed disregard of the standard rituals of American patriotism and citizenship, i.e., respect for the flag, singing the national anthem, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Though never formally decreed, these practices were simply phased out and replaced by more prominent display of the Puerto Rican flag and Puerto Rican anthem, "La Borinqueña". Today very few in P.R. even know the Pledge of Allegiance, and current Party leaders are plainly unwilling to ever say it.

Third, there was active promotion of separate P.R. national participation in major sports events like the Olympics and the Pan American, and Caribbean Games, where the island competed directly against the U.S. As a former member of the P.R. sailing team, I was a beneficiary of that system, and I recognize its jingoistic appeal. But along with highly publicized events like the Miss Universe Pageant, separate P.R. participation in these events came with a direct cost to any feelings of American identity and became a direct contradiction to American citizenship.

The fourth factor was a concerted drive to maximize the federal financial benefits that were provided by U.S. citizenship and paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. This transfer of federal funds totaled 19 billion dollars last year, more financial aid than has ever been regularly provided by one nation to another. The problem here again is the same issue of studied hypocrisy that has plagued Commonwealth since its inception, using the privileges and dollar benefits of American citizenship to finance policies that diminish American identity and loyalty on the island. That is simply not honest and certainly not honorable.

For all of these reasons, Commonwealth stands more as a shallow subterfuge than a respectable status. Pretending to be American in order to collect federal funds from the U.S. taxpayer, while reserving primary identity and loyalty for a separate Puerto Rican nationalism is not what the founding fathers intended for the privilege of American citizenship. Yet that is the philosophy that Commonwealth politicians have steadily followed.

My conclusion is that Commonwealth’s long pursued strategy of separation has been too successful to easily be reversed. The accomplished fact is that islanders put their Puerto Rican identity and loyalty ahead of any American identity and loyalty. That’s not a crime, it’s just entirely inconsistent with even the minimum standards of American citizenship. Special exceptions to that are the many Puerto Ricans who have served honorably in the Armed Forces, whose loyalty is beyond question.

So I say to the U.S. Congress--let’s end the pretense, the sham, the hypocrisy. In practice, Commonwealth stands revealed as a status that lacks legal credibility and intellectual clarity. The only two alternatives that have legal credibility and intellectual clarity and international acceptance--are Independence or Statehood. Each of those choices comes with its own share of hurdles and hazards, which will be discussed in future columns. But to move forward, the U.S. Congress should eliminate Commonwealth as an acceptable alternative, because it has proved to be a pretense whose primary effect is to dodge the only two real choices--and to devalue the American citizenship it promised to preserve. You cannot build a permanent relationship on the shoals of pretense, where trust founders.

My dictionary defines "conundrum" as "a problem admitting of no satisfactory solution." For Commonwealth, that shoe fits.

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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