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Nothing Short Of War Affects Puerto Rico Status

by Lance Oliver

September 10, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

People who have devoted their lives and careers to the issue of Puerto Rico's political status have time and again predicted that this development or that incident would propel the problem toward resolution by forcing Washington to pay attention.

The latest case is the clemency given by President Clinton to the Puerto Ricans imprisoned for independence-related acts. Republicans, who believe Clinton's offer was a botched attempt to win votes for his wife in her New York senate race, plan to hold hearings on the issue.

The Orlando Sentinel quoted two people prominent in the status issue as saying the hearings would inevitably turn attention to the status problem. Fernando Martín, the Puerto Rican Independence Party's candidate for mayor in San Juan, and pro-statehood commentator Luis Dávila Colón were both quoted as saying the hearings would air the status issue and make Washington pay attention to the issues that have occupied Puerto Ricans for decades.

To go even further afield, an Efe news agency report last week quoted others as saying that the pro-independence vote in East Timor would also increase scrutiny of Puerto Rico's status question. It quoted New Independence Movement leader Julio Muriente as saying the similarities between East Timor and Puerto Rico, both of which became colonies through military occupation, would put more pressure on the United States to resolve Puerto Rico's status through international law.

So the question arises: how much effect on Puerto Rico's status will Congressional hearings on the prisoners issue have?

None of any significance.

How much pressure will Congress feel because of East Timor's cry for independence?

About as much pressure as a horse feels when a fly lands on its back.

Working to end the colonial situation in Puerto Rico is a laudable goal, but it doesn't lead to clear and objective vision. It's very easy to be hopeful and see, in each new development, the possibility of a breakthrough.

But let's take a historical view for a moment.

Here's a sobering thought: In the entire history of Puerto Rico, the island's status has never significantly changed except due to war or the fear of imminent war. It takes virtually a worldwide crisis for Puerto Rico to win any change in its relations with its colonizers.

The island struggled under smothering Spanish rule for 400 years and only won significant autonomy when a weakened Spain faced rebellion in Cuba and feared losing Puerto Rico, as well.

Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens largely because of World War I. The United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark to keep them from the Germans and agreed as part of the deal to make the residents U.S. citizens. Then it had to do the same for Puerto Ricans. But it had ignored the citizenship issue quite successfully for nearly 20 years until war forced Washington to act.

World War II and the subsequent Cold War again played a role in Puerto Rico's conversion to commonwealth in 1952. The war made Puerto Rico suddenly very important to the United States, which wanted to keep Germany out of the Caribbean and Brazil and to protect the Panama Canal. Some 65,000 Puerto Ricans were in the U.S. military during the war, which was fought, according to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, over "the right of people to choose the government under which they live."

If only for military reasons, World War II ended the "benign neglect" toward Puerto Rico and increased the momentum toward commonwealth.

So here we are today, without a war, but with the prospect of a Congressional hearing.

Sure, a Congressional hearing will create an opportunity for the unresolved status questions to be raised again in Congress. But there have been hearings in Congress before. Several were held in 1997 and 1998 as the Young bill died its slow death. Nothing changed.

Only three things could be a catalytic agent strong enough to bring about a significant change in Puerto Rico's status:

A national security issue of such importance to the United States that it can't be ignored (like the wars cited above).

A similarly huge financial crisis that would push the United States to re-evaluate its relationship with Puerto Rico for financial reasons.

Or an overwhelming expression by the Puerto Rican people in favor of either independence or statehood. And I don't mean the 50.1% majority that the statehood movement has struggled mightily and unsuccessfully to build and that would have no hope of moving Congress to approve statehood. I'm talking about 80% to 90% of the voters clamoring for statehood for Congress to grant it (not just begin considering it) or perhaps a lower
percentage asking for independence.

The prisoners issue, a congressional hearing or a pro-independence vote on the other side of the world may get the topic of Puerto Rico's status back in the air again. But it will take a hurricane, not a breeze, to bring about a change.


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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