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Editorial & Column


The Quandary Facing Statehood


April 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico finds itself caught in an insular world where local political expediencies (winning the next election) and the concerns of conflicting status ideologies continually trip and trump each other. The result is that political leaders who may be strong status spokespeople--but are indifferent or incapable administrators--often end up penalizing the status cause they represent through bad government management. The reverse of this are candidates who may be efficient public servants but who find their abilities clouded or distracted by the need to constantly push the status preference of their party.

This evokes reflex opposition from the other status parties, which creates a state of administrative friction whereby whatever might be accomplished by one administration is promptly undone by subsequent administrations, whose real intent is to discredit the status cause previously represented. The net result of this convolution is that the island often gets the worst of both worlds--neither a stable and efficiently run government nor clear-cut status resolution. Compounding the confusion is the U.S. Congress’s unfortunate tendency to automatically equate current election results with current status preference, when the reality is that the very active and informed P.R. voter has a more nuanced view in which the candidates’ character, personality, and on-the-job performance can outweigh all other factors.

It is hard for Americans to understand that political party differences in P.R, which are largely based on status, are far deeper and more divisive than the differences between republicans and democrats, or between conservatives and liberals. What holds the differing factions in the U.S. together is a strong, shared sense of national identity and unity, which in moments of important decision easily overrides party lines. That strong, clear bond of national identity and unity is critically lacking among the people of Puerto Rico, and is contradicted and confused by the technicality of their U.S. citizenship and status uncertainty.

It is the statehood movement that is most challenged and compromised by this contradiction. For reasons of perceived political expediency, statehood supporters have accepted the doctrine that winning the next election depends on their being seen, above all, as 1,000% Puerto Rican. In so doing, they have swallowed--hook, line, and sinker--the nationalist bait of the opposing parties, and ended up in an ideological spiral where each party must "out-Puerto Rican" the other at every step.

This puts all the parties on the same nationalistic track, which directly feeds the thinly disguised, separatist passions of the Popular Democratic Party and the openly admitted separatist passions of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. But that tactic ends up being a poison pill for statehood. Because, lost in this unseemly shuffle have been vital factors like English instruction and comprehension, plus an aspiring sense of American identity and loyalty--basics without which statehood hasn’t a prayer of being accepted or even considered by the U.S. Congress.

So, in effect, the New Progressive Party (NPP) faces the riddle that the tactics they perceive as necessary to win the election automatically damage the statehood cause they espouse. That’s a dilemma of Gordian proportions. Now throw in a rash of corruption scandals on their watch and you have a surefire formula for public distrust and disfavor. It is possible that a statehood candidate of sufficient stature may be able to rise above this debris, but it will be uphill work and must involve a change in direction that addresses the aforementioned contradictions. There is little evidence that statehood leaders either see or are willing to admit this.

Years of pandering to the nationalistic tendencies of the opposing parties have taken their toll, and have made the NPP look more like American apologists than American advocates. They have evaded the requisite first step: to profess and promote a desire to become an integral part of America, sharing the same loyalties, language, and obligations that unite the rest of America.

I repeat that it is highly delusional to think that the U.S. Congress or the U.S. public will ever accept as an American state an island that refuses to allow effective instruction in English and continually promotes a primary identity and loyalty to P.R. while backing leaders who are unwilling even to take the Pledge of Allegiance recited by American schoolchildren every day. Under those conditions, it is more likely and more logical that Congress may begin to question the automatic granting of U.S. citizenship to this separate group that neither thinks of itself as or feels American.

With the U.S. now at war, it is predictable that there will be increased American impatience with those who equivocate or dissemble their loyalty to America. For example, lending themselves and attempting to lead all the ranting and raving that surrounded the Vieques issue probably seemed like smart local politics to many statehooders, but it may prove costly in terms of future congressional sympathy for P.R.

With their insular blinders firmly in place, it is difficult for many on the island to see this. But living on the mainland, I can certify that if the average American were aware of the separatist antics of current leaders on the island, all massively financed by the U.S. taxpayer, there would be widespread indignation that could rather quickly translate to congressional initiatives that are neither foreseen nor favorable to any of the factions in P.R.

It seems reasonable that the NPP should be the natural exponent of promoting primary loyalty to the U.S., since, as mentioned, that element is central and essential to gaining the cause they purport to represent. But statehooders seem paralyzed by a fear of looking "too American," which opens them to scornful references like "piti-yanqui" (American sympathizer) or "vende-patria" (one who sells out the fatherland). Instead of challenging those disrespectful phrases as directly anti-American, they retreat to trying to prove they are just as Puerto Rican as the critics.

That is an evasion of their party’s stated purpose. If you remain silent when somebody smirks and derisively refers to the Star Spangled Banner as "La Pecosa" (The Freckled One) and claims greater or purer Puerto Rican patriotism by so doing, then you really don’t belong in a statehood party because you aren’t willing to stand up for what you allegedly hope to achieve.

So when, if ever, will P.R. be ready for statehood? Maybe when a statehood candidate dares to begin and end a speech in the same way every governor of every state routinely does--by starting with the salutation "My fellow Americans" and closing with "God Bless America."

Needless to say, in the annals of P.R. politics, that has never been done. Gaining that kind of all-American enthusiasm will require a seismic shift in P.R. attitudes, which for the past 20 years have been led ever deeper into a separate nationalism. But for statehood, that is a nettle that must be grasped, and ducking that need will only distance the goal they represent.

In summary, the quandary facing statehood supporters is that the nationalistic tactics they have employed to gain support for their cause in P.R. are ill suited and counterproductive to gaining the support of the only authority that can grant them their goal: the U.S. Congress. It will take nimble gymnastics to slip between the horns of that dilemma.

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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