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Death Penalty Controversy Another Example Of Colonial Problem

by Lance Oliver

March 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

As if Puerto Rico needed one more example of the contortions caused by a colonial relationship, we now have people demonstrating outside a federal courthouse in opposition to a trial that may end in a death sentence for two alleged drug dealers.

What’s new about that? Don’t people all over the United States peacefully protest the death penalty now and then?

Yes, Puerto Rico’s constitution prohibits the death penalty. Despite that ban on capital punishment, it is only a matter of time before a federal court in Puerto Rico sentences someone to death.

The Omnibus Crime Bill passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1994 created the possibility of executions in Puerto Rico by adding more than 40 crimes to a list of federal offenses that could be punished by death.

Under that law, federal prosecutors must get approval from the U.S. attorney general to seek the death penalty. The federal trial that began this week is not the first time Janet Reno has given her approval, but previous cases ended in plea bargains. If this trial goes all the way to a verdict, it could be the one that returns capital punishment to Puerto Rico. If not this one, then another will.

Wherever the execution takes place (and that’s another story), many people will still feel that Puerto Rican laws and cultural mores have again been ignored and trampled by Washington.

When protesters stand vigil outside a prison in Texas or Florida or some other state where an execution is occurring, they are hoping to change public opinion. They are trying to reverse the current situation in which a majority in the United States favors the death penalty. They are not suggesting that capital punishment is being imposed on them by outside forces.

That is the feeling in Puerto Rico.

This is a clash caused by colonialism. Cultural differences mean that while about two thirds of the residents of the 50 states support capital punishment, a similar majority in Puerto Rico opposes it. And while some states do not allow capital punishment to be meted out by state courts, I have never heard, for example, the leader of the Bar Association in one of those states say it is immoral and insulting for the federal government to sentence one of its citizens to death.

The difference is that the people in those states consider themselves Americans, not just U.S. citizens, so they accept federal rule. In Puerto Rico, most people are happy to be U.S. citizens but do not consider themselves Americans. They wish Washington would let them run things their way, whether that means removing the Navy from Vieques or deciding nobody should be put to death.

There are two clear routes out of Puerto Rico’s colonial situation: statehood and independence. Yet in this case, as in many others, statehood does not resolve the clash.

If Puerto Rico became a state, the majority opposed to capital punishment would not convert overnight into a majority in favor. The federal courts’ right to execute citizens would be the same. The culture clash would remain.

Of course if Puerto Rico were an independent country it could decide for itself if it wanted to execute convicted criminals, just as many of Puerto Rico’s Caribbean neighbors have done despite tremendous pressure from their former colonial rulers. But almost nobody in Puerto Rico wants the island to become an independent country.

Such are the results of five centuries of colonialism. For more than 90 percent of those five centuries, Spain and then the United States persecuted and imprisoned people who wanted autonomy or independence.

Now, in just the last few years, many in Congress have become amenable to independence but they can’t understand why so few Puerto Ricans vote for it even though they act like they want it when they demand more control over federal issues such as national defense (Vieques) and the death penalty.

The death penalty controversy not only exposes the island’s colonial situation, but also why it will remain in that situation: Puerto Rico will not be accepted as a state until Puerto Ricans feel like they are Americans, and Puerto Rico will not become an independent country until centuries of history are overcome and feelings of national identity are accompanied by the willingness to take the responsibility of going it alone.

Neither is likely to happen soon, which means more evidence of the results of colonialism will keep popping up for years to come.

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

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