Puerto Rico: Bearing Her Chains

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By  Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera
December 28, 2005

Originally Published by NY Latino Journal

James ConnollyThe great Irish patriot and socialist James Connolly once wrote, “The needs of our time call for a frank recognition of the fact that our Slogan must be All for the Cause and The Cause over All. Shall we see another year and Ireland patiently bearing her Chains?”

The centuries-old Irish freedom movement, at one known historical juncture, intersected with another freedom movement across the globe. In the 1920s, as the Irish Free State surged forward under the leadership of Eamon De Valera, a Harvard-educated lawyer and Doctor of Engineering, Pedro Albizu Campos, lent his nascent internationalism, knowledge, and commitment to the Irish Free State in the development of the Republic’s Constitution. Albizu Campos, who would later go on to become not only the President of Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (and who was an admirer of the revered James Connolly), would also go on to become the most influential (and perhaps controversial) figure in modern Puerto Rican history. Scorned by critics for his use of armed struggle and adored by most Puerto Ricans for his passionate defense of Puerto Rican sovereignty, cultural values, and forgotten history, Albizu has become today the symbol of Puerto Rican dignity, nationalism, and sacrifice for a higher cause.

Today, as Northern Ireland embarks on a new future without the armed campaign of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Puerto Rico continues to languish in a political vacuum even as George Bush’s White House releases a new report calling for federal action to decolonize the island.

The new report by the President’s Task Force On Puerto Rico’s Status, released just days ago, briefly analyzes the current political status of the island and its prospective political future vis a vis its relationship with the United States. 

Among its more significant assertions is the open declaration that Puerto Rico is merely a territory of the United States, “subject to congressional authority, under the Constitution’s Territory Clause” and reminds that “Congress may continue the current system indefinitely, but it may also revise or revoke it at any time.” It describes the current status of the archipelago as “often described as a Commonwealth, and this term recognizes the power of self-government that Congress has allowed. (page 5, section titled Continuing Territorial Status)”

It discusses the Statehood option by including a reminder that current tax exemptions for Puerto Ricans would be eliminated under statehood and by describing how the Democratic/Republican balance of power in Congress would be affected. It also mentions that “Congress may set conditions for admission of a territory as a state (page 7, ‘Statehood’)”, an ominous reminder of the English language requirements included in the failed 1998 Congressional bills for Puerto Rico’s status change.

Under the Independence framework, the report makes clear that “Congress thus may determine whether and upon what conditions a territory may receive independence and its authority to regulate those conditions remains until the point of independence (page 8, ‘Independence’)”, using the example of the Philippines as a case in point. It also discusses the tricky issue of citizenship in the case of independence.

In a blow to the current territorial status, the Task Force states that “the Federal Government may relinquish United States sovereignty by granting independence or ceding the territory to another nation; or it may, as the Constitution provides, admit a territory as a State…But the US Constitution does not allow other options.(page 6, ‘Continuing Territorial Status’)” In friendlier terms, the report describes that “…there are only two non-territorial options recognized by the US Constitution that establish a permanent status between the people of Puerto Rico and the Government of the United States. One is Statehood…The other is Independence. (page 10, ‘Task Force Recommendations’)” There is no other option.

For several years now, more and more Puerto Ricans have loudly complained about the colonial nature of the current political relationship. Indeed, in the 1990s, all three political parties in Puerto Rico demanded action on the issue. But local referenda have always produced results that showed a preference for the status quo. How is this explained? And why such low numbers for independence, an option that is supposed to contain so much dignity and international value?

It all lies in the presentation. The pro-Commonwealth party is split between those who advocate for a version of the internationally defined Free Association status and those who insist that the Commonwealth is not a colonial status (make this the island’s final status). The party, knowing that it maintains majority support of the electorate, refuses to take the next step, refuses to take a risk, refuses to gamble on altering its platform and presenting it to the people of Puerto Rico. It is a deer caught in the headlights of decolonization. It is terrified that dismantling the fraudulent and ineffective colonial relationship will mean its loss of governance and historical dominance. Power corrupts. And so it repeatedly presents the populace with misleading definitions of “Commonwealth” at the polls. Presented with this bag of tricks, the electorate, a people subject to over 500 years of colonialism, sees perfection and pulls the lever. Indeed, a January 18, 2001 letter to the Chairman of US Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (which is the Committee that has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico) from Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben shreds the impossible version of the “New Commonwealth” promoted by the party, calling it’s elements “…constitutionally unenforceable. (Appendix E, Report By The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, December 2005)”

This blow to the Commonwealth status coming from the White House has produced, not surprisingly, standard reactions from Puerto Rican politicians but may also provoke movement on the issue from the island itself. The pro-Commonwealth governor, Anibal Acevedo Vila, blasted the Administration’s report, denouncing what he saw as the United States’ retracting of the Commonwealth compact created in 1952 and of lying to the international community in 1953 when it was able to have Puerto Rico’s name removed from the UN list of colonial territories (claiming that decolonization had just occurred). The governor’s highly publicized case of denial showcases how many Puerto Ricans actually believed that the Commonwealth status was a real compact between two countries of equal standing, instead of an imbalanced colonial status predicated on the supreme authority of the US Congress, a condemnation heard consistently from pro-independence forces from 1952 through today. Indeed the armed campaigns of the Nationalist Party led by Albizu Campos in 1950 and 1954, including the famous attack in Congress, were an effort to denounce this reality to the international community.

Truly, the raging debate over how to define the status options is not new. Earlier this year, the Congressional Research Service produced a report for Congress titled, “Political Status of Puerto Rico: Background, Options, and Issues in the 109th Congress (June 6, 2005)” in anticipation of the White House’s report. Among a more detailed analysis of the history and issues involved it recognized that “Standard definitions of the [status]options do not exist. Some argue Congress should define the terms. Others, however, advocate direct involvement by the people of Puerto Rico, or their elected leaders, in setting the definitions. (page 18)”

Politicians on the island debate what this process might be, including a possible national Assembly to delineate status options and negotiate with the US government. The Puerto Rican Independence Party is publicly soothsaying the demise of the colonial status and of the pro-Commonwealth party, while other independence supporters lend no credibility to the document, saying that it is yet another tease, another initiative that highlights the colonial nature of the United States government in stipulating the conditions of Puerto Rican self-determination without involving the United Nations, its Decolonization Committee, or its known steps and resolutions toward decolonization. They hedge their bets on international jurisdiction and on a national process started and driven and decided locally. Those who advocate statehood, themselves in denial of a Congress that will not admit into the Union a Spanish-speaking Latin American nation that refuses to give up its linguistic and cultural identity, are lining the pockets of their Washington lobbyists, salivating over the prospects of increased federal dollars under statehood.

The Task Force actually recommends that a Federally sponsored plebiscite be held on the archipelago – a first – to ask the electorate if they wish to remain under the territorial status or move to a permanent status. If the permanent option wins, then Puerto Rico would choose between Statehood and Independence. If the territorial option wins, the issue will be revisited every several years. It is unclear if Congress will act on these recommendations.

Puerto Rico: Bearing Her ChainsSo the question then becomes, as Connolly once demanded, as we wait for this process to draw out yet again, Shall we see another year and Ireland patiently bearing her Chains? Shall we see another year and Puerto Rico patiently (and for some, proudly) bearing her chains?

Something has got to give. In the case of Puerto Rico, democracy does not require allowing her people to choose slavery over freedom, colonialism over independence, Commonwealth over other options.

In the case of Puerto Rico, democracy requires the justice of undoing the injustice of invasion, conquest, violent political repression, medical and environmental experimentation, and intelligence techniques to shape mass opinion through fear. The only option for justice and democracy is a political independence where Puerto Ricans can officially join the international community as an equals. This may seem a long shot to some, a dark remote possibility to others in light of the Bush White House and Republican controlled Congress.

The bright side is that, in recent years, while the Bush neo-cons slyly planned and acted to take over the world, Puerto Ricans successfully removed the Navy from their beloved Vieques. Even the murder of venerated Machetero leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios has sparked a silver lining of increased nationalistic fervor and re-awakening of the need for self-determination. Given these bright possibilities amidst such dark forces at work, the possibility of freedom for Puerto Rico is never truly that far off. Our freedom movement could well heed Connolly’s message of unified struggle as well as the fortitude expressed by his great predecessor Wolfe Tone, who in darkened days in 1796, wrote, “Nothing on earth could sustain me now but the consciousness that i am engaged in a just and righteous cause.”

No matter the mechanism or the cost, Puerto Rico’s just and righteous cause will be victorious.

Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera is a social worker, professor, activist and writer currently based in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. He has done activist work with various organizations in New York and Puerto Rico and has contributed articles to online media such as Latino Rebels, La Respuesta,CounterPunch, NY Latino Journal, Socialism and Democracy, and the North American Congress in Latin America.

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