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Let Puerto Rico Decide How To End Its Colony Status, True Nationhood Stands On The Pillar Of Independence

Let Puerto Rico Decide How To End Its Colony Status

Rosalinda Dejesus, Special to The Morning Call - Freelance

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL. All rights reserved.

"The bill (to permit Puerto Rico to write its own constitution) merely authorizes the people of Puerto Rico to adopt their own constitution and to organize a local government...The bill under consideration would not change Puerto Rico's political, social, and economic relationship to the United States."

These were the words of Oscar Chapman, then-secretary of the U.S. Interior, in 1950 when a bill to authorize Puerto Rico's Constitution was being debated in Congress. Fifty years after the enactment of the island's Constitution, Puerto Rico's unusual and unresolved political status is still being debated on Capitol Hill.

Just recently, Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner, Anibal Acevedo Vil, introduced a resolution on the House floor commemorating July 25, the day when then-Gov. Luis Muoz Marn proclaimed the Constitution of the Commonwealth.

But not everyone is celebrating this day. Congressman Jos E. Serrano of New York, a consistent voice for resolving the island's political status , was the first to express his opposition to the resolution because, "To celebrate any colonial status is to promote it and prolong it ... This Congress should not be celebrating nor promoting the continued colonialism of Puerto Rico. We hold the key to ending the colonial status of Puerto Rico. It is high time that we use it"

His speech struck a chord. By the end of the day, 31 other members voted against the resolution.

In order to understand the complex political debate over Puerto Rico's status , it's important to understand the historical context of the relationship between the United States and the Island.

Puerto Rico holds the dubious distinction of being the oldest colony in the world. It was a colony of Spain for over 400 years until 1898 when the United States acquired the Island as a spoil of the Spanish-American War. In 1917, Puerto Ricans became United States citizens, and in 1952 the Island became a commonwealth.

That arrangement may have worked back then, but it doesn't work today. We live in a global society. Puerto Rico is a prime trading spot between the mainland, Caribbean basin, and Latin America.

The perception that other countries have of the United States is even more important today, especially at a time when we are fighting the war on terrorism. Therefore, it benefits the United States to have an equal relationship with the Island. This can only serve as a catalyst for establishing democracies in other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

But how can we espouse democracy in Afghanistan and other parts in the world when we continue to ignore the Island's desire for political self - determination ?

The answer is simple. Allow Puerto Ricans an opportunity to decide whether they want to become a state or an independent nation. Then Congress must act expeditiously on those wishes and grant Puerto Rico's wishes.

It's in our best interests to give Puerto Ricans that right.

Ironically enough, Acevedo Vil, who supports the status quo, made an argument as to why we should care about Puerto Rico's political, social, and economic health: "Today, Puerto Rico consumes more U.S. goods per capita than any jurisdiction in the world and represents the ninth-largest market for U.S. goods in the world. In 1999, Puerto Rico purchased $16 billion worth of U.S. products, which translates into over 320,000 jobs in the mainland United States."

Back in 1950, people like Oscar Chapman weren't ready to grant Puerto Rico the right to self - determination . But the world has changed, and so has our thinking.

It's time to grant Puerto Rico the right to decide. As Congressman Serrano put it, "We must do so without excuses and without fear, but with courage and the unshakeable conviction that it is the right and honorable thing to do."

Rosalinda DeJesus, a freelance writer who lives in York is a second-generation Puerto Rican born in Hartford, Conn. She covered the Latino community for the Hartford Courant and is a former press secretary to U.S. Rep. Jos E. Serrano, a Democrat who represents the Bronx, N.Y.

True Nationhood Stands On The Pillar Of Independence

Myriam Marquez

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

One of my favorite pastimes growing up in 1960s Miami was watching Abuelo playing dominoes almost every night. My grandfather would slam down his ivory piece with such passion, whooping and hollering at his pals' moves.

"It's all a game of chance," I would tease them.

My grandfather would correct me: "It's what you do with what you're given that matters. That's not chance. That's strategy, mi hijita." His Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban domino-playing pals would concur. Often talk would turn to the Cold War politics of that era, and each would share the hopes and angst about his own country's future.

My grandfather would worry that the United States wasn't doing enough to help Cubans free themselves of a communist dictatorship then beholden to the Soviet Union. The Puerto Rican and Dominican friends would counter that the problem was an arrogant United States that had interfered in the hemisphere. Back and forth it went, in between slamming and whooping and hollering.

I learned a lot about geopolitics by watching those old men play what seemed to me then as a simple game of matching little black dots on rectangular ivory pieces to the others slammed on the table. When my high-school teacher lectured on the "domino theory" and the Vietnam War in 1970, it was personal. This wasn't just a theory about communism gobbling up country after country, it was our reality.

I've thought often what my life would have been like had Cuba turned into a real democracy. After living 15 years in Orlando, where Puerto Ricans are the majority of Hispanics, my outlook has broadened. What would Puerto Rico be like had the United States allowed its people to determine their own destiny after the Spanish-American War?

Puerto Rico and Cuba shared many of the same struggles seeking independence from Spain a century ago, but the paths they have taken are so filled with contradictions, so cluttered with the hubris of Uncle Sam's old machinations for "manifest destiny" that it's difficult to imagine what true sovereignty would mean to either Caribbean country.

Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderón calls the island's U.S. commonwealth status "the best of both worlds," because Puerto Ricans for the past 50 years have democratically voted for their own local leaders and laws yet also benefit as U.S. citizens.

This will not please many of my pro-commonwealth friends, and I'll be told it's not my business because I wasn't born there. But to me the whole notion of nationhood stands on the pillar of independence. To say that Puerto Rico is a nation that happens to have an association with the United States is disingenuous.

Statehood offers advantages, for sure, and some 40-plus percent of Puerto Ricans have voted for it in the recent past. But even more Puerto Ricans fear that statehood would strip the people of their national identity, of their distinct culture and language.

Commonwealth, when it was created at the height of the Cold War, served a purpose: To keep communism from spreading in the hemisphere while granting Puerto Ricans the right to have their own local government. It guarantees U.S. citizenship to every person born on the island without requiring them to pay federal income taxes. U.S. investment over the decades has brought jobs and peaceful political transitions.

It's little wonder that independence captures few Puerto Ricans' attention. Independence is hard work -- blood, sweat and tears kind of work, and Puerto Ricans suffered plenty the first 50 years under U.S. domination, with governors appointed from Washington, without any say at all. Even today, many seem to have a love-hate relationship with the United States.

Yet eventually Puerto Ricans will have to recognize that their unique status must be a temporary one. Commonwealth extracts too much from a people's national psyche. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought heroically defending this country since World War I. They are subject to the draft, subject to federal rulings, subject to the whims of Washington.

Neither an independent nation able to make its own foreign policy or trade laws despite the "libre asociado" label nor a state that would benefit from more federal tax revenue and the obligation, too, of paying a federal income tax, Puerto Rico remains mired in a political limbo.

Puerto Ricans have made the best of what they've been given, my grandfather might have said.

But is that good enough for a people who went from being subjects of Spain for 400 years to become what amounts to a U.S. territory for the next 100 years?

It may take another century, but at some point Puerto Ricans will have to make a choice that only they can make. Neither Congress nor the courts should decide for them.

There are only two choices that can be healthy for their national psyche and their future, and commonwealth is not one of them.

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