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The Annexation of Puerto Rico
Photo: Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.
Today’s guest blogger is Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. Hector is a freelance writer and community activist of Honduran-Puerto Rican descent living in Chicago. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his departmental concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. In 2007 he co-founded an online blog, YoungObservers, and has remained its main contributor. Since 2010 he’s been the Opinions editor for the Chicago Flame, and he also contributes periodically for Examiner.com as its Chicago City Buzz Examiner. He is currently working on his first book.
This week marks the 112th anniversary of the day when the Treaty of Paris between the United States and Spain when into effect, making Puerto Rico a virtual colony of the United States ever since.
The political status of Puerto Rico has been a contentious issue since Spain ceded the island to the United States following the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Jones Act of 1917 made people born in Puerto Rico official citizens of the United States, but because the island is an unincorporated territory governed by the plenary powers of Congress, citizenship may be stripped by the federal government. Also, since living on the island does not count as living in the United States, all American citizens living in Puerto Rico – whether born there or not – are prohibited from voting in any state or presidential elections.
Puerto Ricans do enjoy some rights that a normal colony wouldn’t. The United States granted Puerto Rico the right to elect its own governor in 1947, until then a power of the federal government. The United States also allowed the island to draft its own constitution, which Governor Luis Muñoz Marín declared official on July 25 – ironically, the same day that American troops landed in Puerto Rico in 1898. The Puerto Rican Constitution makes the island a commonwealth of the United States, and the insular government adopted the name Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (literally translated to the “Free Associated State of Puerto Rico,” but officially translated to the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico”).
The use of the term commonwealth and the island’s current political status is, well, a bit complicated, to say the least. Four American states are also self-styled commonwealths: Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. But the difference between these four states and the other 46 is only nominal; the word commonwealth simply means that the states’ governments have the authority of the people they serve. Illinois, for example, does not style itself as a commonwealth, but the state’s political status is no different than Massachusetts’.
The United States government and the government of Puerto Rico might call the island a commonwealth, but people who understand the political relationship between the island and the mainland know that it’s not. Puerto Ricans exercise the right to elect representatives in the insular government, but the island is supremely governed through the plenary powers of Congress, even though Puerto Ricans have no representation in Congress. These plenary powers – which are reserved solely for Congress and carry little or no restrictions – mean that any federal law applicable on the island automatically becomes law in Puerto Rico. (So much for commonwealths having the consent of the people governed.)
When a territory is not fully incorporated into a larger political entity and is not politically independent either, you call it what it is: a colony.
Puerto Rico’s century-long status as a colony of the United States offends me on two fronts: first, as an American who doesn’t want to see the republic degenerate into an empire, and second, as a Puerto Rican who doesn’t want to be colonized. I wish I could say that America is not actually an empire; that it only acts like an empire. But when a nation seeks to control other places and their people with utter disregard for their political sovereignty, you call it what it is: an empire.
America has always controlled territories, of course, but those territories either eventually became states or were granted independence (the Philippines, 1946). The United States has controlled Puerto Rico – along with Guam and American Samoa – since 1898, not to mention the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and other islands scattered around the globe. It’s perfectly acceptable for a republic to acquire territories so long as the relationship is temporary, resulting in either full incorporation or independence. However, a republican government should always be weary of suffering from imperial syndrome, a side effect of possessing too many territories for too long. Once infected, a government will begin believing that it’s occasionally permissible to ignore a people’s right to govern themselves. Just a reminder: it’s never okay.
That Puerto Rico was ever a colony of the United States is a tragedy; but that Puerto Rico has remained a colony of the United States for over a century is a crime, perpetrated by both the federal and insular governments. Citizens of the United States, on the island and at home, should seek to dissolve this unbefitting relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico and establish a more equitable relationship, one that respects a people’s right to govern themselves.
Last month the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status submitted its report. While hinting toward the fact that Puerto Rico has already been incorporated into the United States, the report urged the federal government, the insular government, and the people of Puerto Rico to reestablish the relationship between the island and the mainland by no later than 2012. The report also recommended that the process be carried out through two plebiscites: the first allowing the people of Puerto Rico to decide between complete independence or inclusion in the United States, and the second allowing Puerto Ricans to choose the nature of that inclusion (the choices being statehood, independence, free association, or commonwealth).
I think these are excellent recommendations, but the terms free association and commonwealth are too ambiguous for a plebiscite. To make the choices clear and easy to understand, the options on the plebiscite should read: Statehood, Independence, and Semi-autonomous Colony. This would make the results much more substantive and meaningful.
But for goodness’ sake, my insular countrymen, please don’t pick the third option.