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Editorial & Column


Why Equal Citizenship Is The Core Issue


August 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The first thing that needs to be decided—before anything else—is Do Puerto Ricans want to be American citizens on an equal basis with the other citizens. That basic question has never been asked by the U.S. or answered by P.R. Finding that answer is the key to clarifying the status confusions that have plagued the island for the past century. The inequality of the present U.S citizenship that is automatically dealt to P.R. is not fully understood either in the States or on the island, so the implicit unfairness—to both parties —is not generally recognized.

To review the terms of the present inequality—U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico do not pay federal taxes, do not share fully in federal benefits and cannot vote in U.S. elections. (No taxation without representation, no representation without taxation.) Since one of the primary elements of a representative democracy is the right to elect representation by vote—denying a group of citizens the vote is a basic inequality. The penalties of this inequality are both real and psychological. In real terms, P.R. and its citizens are denied any representative clout in the U.S. Congress—which is the body that completely controls the island’s fate. Having a resident commissioner who has no vote is only a token gesture that lacks the political muscle to exert any meaningful pressure on Congress. Since P.R. currently provides neither tax income nor votes—the two factors that most interest politicians—congressional indifference and neglect toward the island are the natural and inevitable result.

The psychological penalties go even deeper. Being disqualified from voting participation has, over the years, bred deep-seated feelings of political detachment, inferiority and resentment on the island. The byproduct of this has been a steadily increasing P.R. nationalism, directly fed by the combination of congressional neglect, and the often unscrupulous manipulations of local politicians, who seized upon the island’s political isolation to enhance their own personal ambitions.

The outcome of this perverse mix has been strong feelings of separate P.R. identity, which are understandable enough and respectable enough, except that they are completely inconsistent with the stated terms and spirit of American citizenship, which are clearly defined by the Pledge of Allegiance and the oath of citizenship sworn by all new citizens. Exacerbating the situation are the geographic separation and the orchestrated decline of English on the island. By a recent poll, 80% of the island’s population cannot speak or understand English, despite 100 years of U.S. occupation.

This places P.R. far behind every major European country in English comprehension, with a subsequent direct reduction in the island’s business, scientific, and intellectual development. English is now the accepted international language, and for a small island to deprive itself of this vital tool is an increasingly costly error. The even more potent penalty is the automatic barrier that this deficiency in English has created between P.R. and America; citizenship.Nothing unites people as surely as a common language, and nothing separates people as surely as a separate language.

Regardless of what causes or blame one might attach to this situation, the established fact is that the present, unequal U.S. citizenship dealt to residents of P.R. is steadily generating a separate group of citizens who neither feel, speak, nor act in concert with the rest of America. America is the most diverse nation in the world, with Asians, Africans, Europeans, Indians, and Hispanics each adding valued voices. But America’s wide diversity is operative because it is held together by a shared sense and pride of belonging to one nation. Emphasizing this practical and spiritual union, the official motto of the great seal of the United States of America is "E Pluribus Unum," literally "Out of many—one." There is no provision in this concept for a separate group of U.S. citizens who value another national loyalty over their sense of being American. Those who choose to think of themselves as Puerto Rican rather than American are on a collision course with this reality.

And so inevitably we are back to the need to resolve the basic question, do Puerto Ricans really want to be American citizens on an equal basis with the other citizens? That vital, simple question can only be answered by the people of P.R., but to oblige that answer, the question must be officially authorized and asked by the U.S. Congress—the governing body to whom the answer is equally important. Simply stated, equal citizenship means having the same obligations, benefits, and loyalties. Separate deals are out because separate is not equal.

This is where the equal citizenship plebiscite vote would differ significantly from the triangular trap of past status plebiscites, which invariably get entangled in the three-way choice between independence, statehood and Commonwealth. All that the three-way choice accomplishes is an evasion of clear cut decision, because the many advocates of independence simply choose to hide their independence vote in the Commonwealth column, in order to block a majority vote for statehood. The result is a fake reading. By reducing the choice to a simple yes/no answer on the basic question Do you want to be an American citizen on an equal basis with the other citizens? both the island and the U.S. Congress would get a true reading on how Puerto Ricans really feel on the key issue for the first time. Note that a yes vote is not necessarily a vote for statehood. A yes vote for equal citizenship would merely narrow the choice down to either statehood or a new kind of Commonwealth enhanced in a direction directly opposite to recent efforts.

For example, it is no secret that separatist elements in the Popular Party have been successful in diverting the founding purpose of Commonwealth, which was originally presented to Congress as a practical means of facilitating economic growth on the island while moving toward closer integration with the U.S. A principal element in integration was a concerted effort to make P.R. bilingual, to be accomplished by making English compulsory in the island’s schools. They imported hundreds of English teachers to the island for that purpose in the late ’30s. Having a common language was correctly perceived by Congress to be the glue that would bond P.R. to the rest of America. But political powers on the Island who didn’t want that to happen also perceived the critical importance of language, and they quickly and successfully moved to dismantle English instruction. They knew that the linguistic isolation of P.R was essential to their separation strategy that has directly led to the island’s increased nationalism.

It follows that a yes vote for equal citizenship has to be accompanied by three basic, corrective conditions:

  • Instituting effective instruction in English in public schools is essential to making Puerto Ricans equal citizens because without a common language there can be no meaningful equality. Federal aid to be directly linked to results.
  • Agreement for P.R. to pay federal taxes just like the rest of the U.S., because to expect equal rank you must pay equal dues.
  • Agreement to acknowledge primary national loyalty to the U.S., as specified in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Oath of Citizenship.

With equal dispatch, a no vote would immediately clarify the picture, and directly reveal independence as the desired goal. Here too there would have to be conditions describing and guaranteeing how the U.S. would handle the transition to independence. This would include specifying the duration of the necessary financial support from the U.S., and the termination date for the automatic granting of U.S. citizenship.

Thus, a plebiscite for equal citizenship would not decide any status, but at least and at last, it would reveal how islanders really feel about their relationship with America. Such a plebiscite would have to be organized by the U.S. in order to avoid evasive local shenanigans like the recent none of the above dodge.

For the world’s leading democracy to continue to penalize a small, separate group of its citizens with unequal treatment is illogical, undesirable, and undemocratic. Providing the choice of equal citizenship is the first step towards defining and legitimizing P.R status.

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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