Weighing in on the question of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the USA
Look, I wasn’t born on the island of Puerto Rico, or on one of those little islands situated nearby (like Vieques for example); so one can say I have no standing on this matter of PR’s relationship with the USA: and that’s fine with me. However, like most things political in nature, I do have a healthy opinion; and the last time I looked, I have a constitutional right to express that opinion: so afford me that luxury here folks.
I was born in the Caribbean. On an arrogant island -of a little less than two thousand square miles- called Trinidad. It is part of a Republic named Trinidad and Tobago; since it has been historically coupled with the tiny Tobago (116 square miles) situated a dozen miles north. This coupling -like so many things Caribbean and Latin American- was imposed by European colonizers (the British in particular in 1889). It is undisputable that Europeans made the Caribbean islands, plus North, South and Central America their playground of sorts, from the fifteenth century onwards. In fact, as I write this, many of the European nations still attempt to maintain their antics through economics, religion, politics, militarism, one-sided diplomacy, duress, unfair trading arrangements, monetary policy and the like.
So this brings me to Puerto Rico. Some historical accounts suggest that PR was invaded by the USA in 1898; others suggest that Spain ceded the island over to the USA that very year. Whatever the truth is, there has been an ongoing and one-sided relationship between this beautiful island and its mainland abuser: the USA. And as with most abusive domestic relationships, both sides seem to reside in permanent denial.
Back in the 1980s, when I was a militant and angry black student at New York City’s only ivy-league university (Columbia U), Michael Manley -who was a former prime Minister on the island nation of Jamaica- would fly in to hold a series of lectures on Caribbean-American politics. He eventually addressed the relationship between PR and the USA. It was just around the time he had published a book entitled: “Struggle in the Periphery”.
Mr. Manley went on to describe the economic-development models used on PR (by the USA) that helped to create the situation of near total dependency, which has been in existence since around 1898 and continues still. He demonstrated that financial aid from successive US governments came with so many strings attached, that the independence of most Caribbean nations which engaged in these quasi-symbiotic relationships, were severely compromised.
He further suggested that these economic-development models were similar to others used throughout the region, and only helped to foster an uneven development between metropolis and quasi-colony. He showed where the European influence was still heavily felt almost two centuries after the abolition of the slave trade (and later slavery).
He further reiterated that both the Europeans and the USA (in collusion at times) still played heavy hands in the domestic and foreign policies of regional governments. He said that the honest thing for most countries of this region to have done, would have been to take down their respective national flags and fly either the Union Jack, Stars and Stripes, or the flag of whatever (first or second-world) country was doing the behind the scenes manipulations/domination. He said the same thing about their various national anthems. He was totally correct.
Whenever there is a verbal spat between people born in the Dominican Republic and those born in PR, Dominicans usually get around to asking this question of Puerto Ricans: where is your flag? You see PR is not a member of the League of Nations which we today call the United Nations (UN). Presently, the UN has grown from 51 original members in 1945, to where it recognizes close to 200 today. And while all this has happened, Puerto Rico remains a colony. Even now, we find many on the island making excuses as to why PR cannot demand independence from the USA. It’s shameful and embarrassing to many nationalists of this region.
In this day and age, an island as large as this, being a colony still, is historically anachronistic. It is as though the worldwide anti-colonialism struggles of the sixties, seventies and eighties, just passed Puerto Ricans by: in either the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon).
When you view Puerto Rican athletes at various international or regional sporting events, you have to wonder about their nationalism. It’s like claiming to be a man but always being forced to wear short pants by some supposedly malevolent foster parent. Let me apply a Chris Rock line here: to Puerto Ricans, the USA is like the uncle who put you through college, but sexually molested you in your childhood. It’s a relationship that’s really a recipe for schizophrenia.
PR is not a member of the Organization of American States (OAS). In this body there are 35 member nations including Cuba, Canada and Mexico. Even tiny islands in the Caribbean Sea belong to this important regional body/alliance.
Essentially, PR has limited political autonomy. Puerto Ricans can vote in the US presidential primaries but their votes have no weight in the Electoral College’s role in selecting the US president. And tomorrow, if the USA were to be involved in some war against a mighty enemy from Europe, Asia, the Middle East or wherever; expect that Puerto Rico would probably the first place to come under some type of military strike. You see, there are US military bases, offensive and defensive installations/technology, troops, ammunition, equipment and such, in various sites throughout PR and the outlying smaller isles.
Yes, it is true that there are a few benefits to this present flying-trapeze: a status of “non-formalized” limbo between the US and PR; since immediate US citizenship is conferred on Puerto Ricans at birth. But there is a difference in the quality of that citizenship, once you stay on the island as compared to residing on the mainland.
On the island, the poverty rate has been measured anywhere from 22 to 30 percent at various points in time. On the mainland the poverty rate is from 5 to 10 percentage points better; once the PR-born person is isolated as a demographic/stat under the Hispanic umbrella.
On the island, the main language spoken is Spanish; on the mainland it is English. This change presents many challenges for some of the indigenous folk. On the mainland, this language-barrier has been an impediment to the successful development of many a Puerto Rican; on the mainland there also exists many types of economic opportunities almost non-existent on the island itself.
And then there is a question of the distribution of wealth. In PR the gap between rich and poor is probably more pronounced than on any other Caribbean island. Some will argue that it is because of an almost non-existent taxation policy that helps redistribution in other islands. Others will argue that it all makes to defray the higher cost of living on the island as compared to living on the mainland (and on many other Caribbean islands).
Many scholars who study PR suggest that the natives behave like dependents who refuse to grow up and leave the nest. Others suggest that it is because successive US governments have refused to let them flower, bloom and grow.
So now Congress has a bill moving forward which will allow residents of the island to vote on formalizing the future relationship with the mainland: with statehood as an option (likewise independence). I hope that Puerto Ricans vote for independence and take their rightful place alongside other Caribbean nations.
My friend and “Room Eight” colleague Manny Burgos wrote in a recent column, that Puerto Ricans possesses more cars per capita than US citizens living on the mainland. This may be true, but then: so what? In Trinidad and Tobago- with a population of less than 1.5 million people- there are close to a million cars on the roads daily. That’s nearly two cars for every three persons living there. Because of this, there are more and more traffic jams on the main roads and highways. There is even difficulty getting around local streets at times. All in all it makes it harder and slower for people to get around. What’s so good about that?
What Mr. Burgos really highlighted was the lack of planning on the part of local elected officials, who might have missed tremendous opportunities to invest in mass transportation: especially when it affects the ecology.
The environmental impact of the US military testing hard-core weapons on the nearby islands (like Vieques) also highlights a kind of disrespect for the sensibilities of the indigenous people. Puerto Ricans need to stand up and demand independence. Only then can they make full decisions over their lives and livelihoods. Only then would they be fully respected by other Caribbean peoples.
Stay tuned-in folks.