PUERTO RICO'S STATUS DEBATE
Arguments against Statehood
[Statehood is] a 'monstrosity' tantamount
to the political murder of a nation.
--Raymond Carr, describing the opinion of independentistas.
The alternative of statehood for Puerto Rico has seldom been widely popular in either Puerto Rico or the U. S. Ignorance and ill-feelings have characterized opponents' attitudes toward statehood. As some Puerto Ricans put it, statehood has often been "the ugly duckling" among the three status options. No one has understood exactly how the solutions to the island's problems would occur, as the statehood process is widely misunderstood by both Puerto Ricans and mainlanders. These factors have been just a few of the obstacles to the statehood effort.
Independentistas are naturally the staunchest opponents of statehood. Above all, they argue that statehood would destroy Puerto Rico's culture, since the 90 years of association with the U. S. have been "stultifying" and U. S. tourism is "debilitating." Thus, they argue, only independence can save Puerto Rico's indigenous culture. Populares (PPD supporters) agree with these arguments on the alleged destructiveness of statehood to Puerto Rico's culture.
All opponents of statehood raise the fear of the unknown. What would statehood, an irreversible status, be like? The argument "better the devil I know than the one I do not" prevails in this deep-seated trepidation. Another related argument which many Puerto Ricans agree on is, to use another cliché, "if it's not broken, don't fix it." This argument criticizes the economic disadvantages of statehood, including: (1) loss of tax exempt status, since both federal personal income tax and federal corporate income tax would accompany statehood; (2) loss of the right to impose their own internal revenue and income tax laws; (3) loss of custom and tariff revenues, as well as the loss of federal excise taxes on rum and tobacco produced in Puerto Rico and shipped to the mainland; and (4) loss of congressional "favoritism" in maintaining higher-than-stateside sugar quotas, despite pressures from domestic producers. The overall result, according to some experts, would be to erase the progress made in Puerto Rico under Operation Bootstrap since the late 1940s, including, some argue, the elimination of every firm which moved to Puerto Rico to enjoy special tax exemption and the 200,000 jobs they provide. Many populares take this argument one step farther, believing that not only would the progress be erased, but that the undesirable aspects of Commonwealth status, especially widespread dependency on federal funds, would be perpetuated in statehood.
In addition, there is the argument that the transition to statehood would be accompanied by social and economic upheaval. As Governor Hernández Colón stated in 1982, 'The long and tempestuous process of trying to win statehood could bring investment to a virtual standstill and result in political violence from the more radical sectors.' The experience of territories admitted in the past does not prove this theory, but, admittedly, Puerto Rico is like no other past territory. It does indeed have a potentially violent, though very small, radical sector. And, in the Latin tradition, statehood would very likely be a "tempestous" process, as would any other status change. Thus, this point is another shade of gray in determining the effects of statehood on Puerto Rico.
Many argue that statehood is simply "unrealistic" for Puerto Rico. Not only does it lack the support of a clear majority, but, opponents claim, the special conditions which estadistas seek are misleading and impossible. Samuel Ramírez of the PPD, who is currently the House Vice Speaker in Puerto Rico, has most recently summarized this opinion in the San Juan Star: 'they [estadistas ] don't know what they're talking about because there's only one [type of] statehood.' Independentistas claim that all statehood discussion amounts to one thing: "a political and electoral decoy . . . in order to attain political power or federal funds." There is widespread skepticism that the terms of admission that Puerto Rico would seek (such as the retention of Spanish as the official language, gradual imposition of federal income taxes, and the others mentioned in Chapter 3) would be legally or practically acceptable to the U. S., despite the fact that these provisions are technically plausible, as argued by the Grupo de Investigadores Puertorriqueños.
Recent editorials in Puerto Rico's newspapers have attacked statehood as an economic impossibility. A. W. Maldonado, writing in the San Juan Star, asserts that "In the world that exists, statehood doesn't. . . . The fact is that however one tries to restructure the Puerto Rican economy to make it fit the statehood mold, the results are negative -- for Puerto Rico and the United States. So until someone invents this new economic structure, statehood is impossible." The actual effects of statehood upon Puerto Rico remain unknown. A 1977 Library of Congress study attempted to determine the overall economic impact of statehood, but its conclusions were, unfortunately, noncommital and ambivalent:
If full state treatment would substantially diminish the investment attractiveness
of Puerto Rico to business enterprises . . . then state treatment could have disastrous
consequences for the Puerto Rican economy. However, if state treatment would not
seriously curtail investment in important business sectors in Puerto Rico, or if
any potentially negative impact could be delayed or offset by gradually phasing
in full taxation or by development of more vigorous local investment, then state
treatment could be accomplished without serious economic disruptions.
This study said nothing new and answered few questions, except, significantly, to underscore the need for a period of economic adjustment in Puerto Rico after admission to the Union to offset the potential hole in investment that the loss of Section 936 might create. On the other hand, the passage quoted hints at the Catch-22 situation facing Puerto Rico, for if "more vigorous local investment" were established, much of the longstanding appeal of statehood as an economic "crutch" would be lost. At the same time, if the island does not become more prosperous economically, the U. S. Congress will be reluctant to admit Puerto Rico as a "welfare state."
Another factor which weighs against statehood is the anti-American sentiment which roughly 10% of the Puerto Rican population holds, although this percentage does not reflect those (if any) who are reluctant to admit their anti-Americanism. The aversion to Americans is not new; many accounts trace the existence of anti-American sentiment back to the 1930s or earlier. Initially, most Puerto Ricans were enthusiastic about the American Occupation in 1898 and the promised "freedom" it represented. However, by 1930, there was a dramatic reversal of sentiment as most Puerto Ricans switched allegiance back to their Spanish heritage. Apparently, the years of anticipating greater autonomy and having their hopes frustrated by arbitrary U. S. rule, coupled with the new Latin American "nationalism" which swept Latin America in the wake of José Enrique Rodó's Ariel, an essay which asserted that Latin American culture was equal if not superior to traditional Western culture, Puerto Ricans felt frustrated enough to lash out against the U. S. Thus it would seem that the most opportune moment for granting statehood would have been in 1900 when Puerto Ricans considered the U. S. as progressive liberators.
Anti-Americanism on the island also stems from the belief that the U. S. is responsible for everything that is wrong socially, morally, and politically. For example, the extremely high rates of drug abuse and juvenile delinquency on the island are attributed to the influence of "Newricans," or Puerto Ricans who live in New York for a substantial period of time and return to the island with the bad habits they allegedly picked up in the U. S. One question that must be asked, however, is what accounts for these problems in parts of the world where there has been little contact with the U. S.?
Puerto Rico has a very different culture from that of the mainland, a fact which provides an undercurrent of resistance to the move for statehood. For example, even today there is a fairly strict dress code that is no longer found stateside: women do not wear shorts in public places in Puerto Rico as they do on the mainland, even though the temperature may be sweltering. A different (and expanded) holiday calendar is observed in Puerto Rico. First, there is El Dia de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings' Day, or Epiphany), on January 6, which is a bigger celebration than Christmas to the predominantly Roman Catholic Puerto Ricans. January 11 is the recognition of the birthday of Eugenio Maria de Hostos (1839-1903), a famous Puerto Rican writer, educator, and abolitionist. Another birthday which is celebrated is that of José de Diego (1866-1918) on April 16. Diego was a brilliant writer, orator and lawyer who played a significant role in Puerto Rico's history from 1897 to 1917. Luis Muñoz Marín's birthday on July 17 is another celebrated holiday unique to Puerto Rico, as is Constitution Day on July 25, marking the anniversary of Commonwealth status since 1952. Finally, there is El Grito de Lares day on September 23, in remembrance of the 1868 insurrection to the Spanish empire that was quickly squelched. In addition to these holidays are almost all the usual U. S. holidays, including Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Each status group has its own set of holiday-allegiances, estadistas enjoying the Fourth of July, populares supporting Constitution Day, and independentistas celebrating on El Grito de Lares day. Admittedly, each state and locality within the Union recognizes its own specific traditions, but none seem nearly as devoted to its particular customs as does Puerto Rico.
Such a strong cultural identity leads statehood opponents to the conviction that statehood is a "sad" effort, just as sad, said PPD candidate for senator at large Marco A. Rigau, as "blacks who want to become white." Or, to put it differently, Rigau stated, "The reason I don't want statehood is the same reason I don't want to be Japanese." His point is that Puerto Ricans are Puerto Rican; that is, they already have a nationality and identity, so it is pointless, he argues, to try to become something they are not -- American. Incorporation as a state would be an impossibility because it would deny Puerto Ricans their national identity. "You can't swallow a whole nationality," Rigau explained: "it's like trying to swallow a whole lobster; part of it won't go down." In his opinion, Puerto Rico would rather be a friend of the family than a part of the family. Continued association with the U. S. is beneficial for both Puerto Rico and the U. S., especially for U. S.-Caribbean relations in the use of Puerto Rico as a calming influence or an "Alka Seltzer in the Caribbean," to use Rigau's phrase, but that does not necessarily mean that Puerto Ricans want statehood.
Victoria "Melo" Muñoz Mendoza, daughter of Luis Muñoz Marín and presently a member of the Puerto Rico Senate, voices her objection to statehood on the basis of language and culture. In 1986 she commented. ". . . I think it is unjust for the United States to be asked to accept trouble by incorporating a Spanish-speaking country going under the guise of a state."
This cultural resolve leads to another important argument against statehood. With statehood, the 3.2 million Puerto Ricans would find themselves incorporated into a governmental system which regards them, together with other Hispanics, as a minority. Hawaii did not have this problem because all of the islanders were minorities to begin with; there was no single predominant group of "Hawaiians." Countering this argument is the suggestion that the Hispanic bloc will soon be the single largest minority in the U. S., to which Puerto Rico could attach itself as a vital part, as well as the notion that the U. S. is becoming more ethnically diverse, rather than the great cultural melting pot it once was, and could tolerate the admission of a culturally different state. No one can predict precisely what the U. S. response would be, however, and this so-called "minority argument" generates a great deal of apprehension towards statehood.
Puerto Ricans may be justified in this fear because of the widespread ignorance and prejudice about Puerto Rico and its inhabitants which prevails on the mainland. Former President Gerald Ford alluded to this prejudice last year when he wrote, "We in the United States should not judge Puerto Rico exclusively by the negative stereotypes often associated with its immigrant groups in our midst." Ford would not have pointed this out had he felt that it was not a commonly-held viewpoint. Such prejudice has been longstanding in the U. S. In 1934, one observer wrote: "The Jíbaro [Puerto Rican peasant] already is sadly lacking in enterprise and would become even more so if the goverment provided him with a dole even for a time." One must remember that until the 1950s, Jim Crow laws and prejudice ran rampant in the U. S. These laws would have applied to the 25% of the Puerto Ricans who had black blood in their family. During WWII, an "ugly rumor" circulated on the island as Puerto Rican soldiers were stationed in all the Caribbean posts while mainlanders were sent to the fronts. It was "whispered" that Puerto Ricans "were not considered good enough to fight against the Germans: they were being saved for sacrifice against the Japs -- one inferior race fighting another." The superiority complex which this remark suggests of the U. S. during this period must have inhibited Puerto Rico's chances of admission as a state. In addition, political fraud in Puerto Rico, such as corrupt voting practices, was revealed to the U. S. in the 1930s, supporting the prejudice that Puerto Ricans were an inferior race and raising questions as to "the worth of American institutions as being adapted to the people of Puerto Rico and to the conditions under which they live."
Finally, there exists a belief in the U. S. that the Puerto Ricans are irrational and incapable of complete self-government. Ever since 1900, the U. S. has been reluctant to grant increased measures of autonomy to the island because the Puerto Ricans have experienced so much political unrest. Ironically, it is precisely over the lack of autonomy that most of the unrest occurs. Their political unrest has, on occasion, taken very violent forms of expression. Terrorism with the aim of gaining greater autonomy or independence erupted in the 1930s and quite often since1950. The roots of Puerto Rican terrorism go back to Albizu and the Nationalist Party of the 1920s.
All of these factors combine to hinder support for Puerto Rico's admission on the mainland, as well as, it could be argued, the "mystique" surrounding 50 as the definitive number of states for all time. Much of the opposition stems from ignorance and fear, and from misinformation, especially on the U. S., where the media tends to elaborate on only the most sensational stories about Puerto Rico.
* * *
Since 1953, the "decolonization" of Puerto Rico has been proposed for the agenda of the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations. Each time the subject is raised, the U. S. insists that Puerto Rico freely chose Commonwealth status in 1952 and should therefore be removed from the list of non self-governing territories. And each time, Cuba comes staunchly to Puerto Rico's defense, advocating Puerto Rican independence and denouncing U. S. imperialism. Carr describes the situation succinctly: "As long as the [Reagan] administration pursues a policy of inflexible hostility to Cuba, so Cuba will continue to embarrass the United States by arraigning it as a colonial power in Puerto Rico and as the immoral surviving representative of the imperialism rejected by the international community." Carr's point should be well-noted, as it reflects the world-wide implications and the importance of solving the Puerto Rican status question.
The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) maintains that statehood would be politically disastrous for Puerto Rico, since it would, in their opinion, be a culmination of colonialism, the evil which has stunted Puerto Rico's economic growth potential as a nation. Today, the party is led by Ruben Berríos Martínez, a Puerto Rican intellectual with degrees from Georgetown, Yale, and Oxford. He is considered by many to be the most brilliant man on the island today. Berríos asserts that "statehood is not a real alternative for the United States or for Puerto Rico," arguing that "Puerto Rico would be a beggar state," surviving on parasitic transfer payments. Second, he argues, "It is illusory to think that statehood will ever attain in Puerto Rico the overwhelming support [necessary] for admission . . . support which must come close to unanimity in a Latin American country where, in contrast to Hawaii and Alaska, independence has been a constant of political life." Third, " any serious attempt at incorporating Puerto Rico as a state would unquestionably precipitate a wave of violence, not only in Puerto Rico but also in the United States." And last, as a Spanish-speaking state, the U. S. president would have no means of communicating directly with the nearly two million registered voters on the island "who could very well decide a close U. S. presidential eleciton." Hiram Melendez, National Secretary for the PIP, believes that statehood is "a political and cultural impossiblity" for Puerto Rico. In addition, he cited the economic infeasibility of statehood for Puerto Rico, arguing that Puerto Rico could not afford to pay federal taxes and that it does not have the sort of tax structure in place to be prepared for statehood, lacking a system of sales tax allocation, for example. Finally, the move to balance the federal budget makes statehood unappealing, since Puerto Rico cannot expect to continue to receive the billions of dollars in aid that it receives at present.
Thus, the PIP argues, independence is the only solution for Puerto Rico. Berríos summarizes the case for independence in Puerto Rico:
The Republic of Puerto Rico, conceived in liberty and founded on rational and
equitable economic prinicples, would protect the interests and rights of the people
of Puerto Rico; free the American taxpayer of the increased cost of maintaining
an unworkable economic system; and would make U. S. policies conform to the
principles of liberty on which the Union was founded as well as the principles
of contemporary international law.
While making a fairly convincing argument against statehood, the PIP fails to submit any specific plans for the future of Puerto Rico as an independent nation. Would independence be achieved swiftly, or gradually? Would Puerto Rico become as depressed an island as so many other Caribbean nations which gained their independence in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Jamaica and Haiti? Fear of the unknown when considering independence for Puerto Rico probably explains why that option appeals to under ten percent of the population today.
A final factor weighing against statehood has already been mentioned: terrorism. There are several political groups in Puerto Rico which advocate the use of violence as a means of attaining independence. The PIP is not one of them. The Partido Socialist Puertorriqueño (PSP) does promote terrorism, however, as did the Nationalist party of Albizu's days. The U. S. has never encountered militant opposition to the annexation of a territory as a state, except in Puerto Rico. The question remains: which voice will the U. S. listen to? The majority, or the small but dangerous minority? Will politics of fear and a tyranny of the minority rule, or will the U. S. take its traditional tough stand by not bowing to terrorism?
Arguments against statehood center around economic and cultural axes, for the most part, although there are a number of various other reasons that it is opposed as well. Some of the arguments are well-founded and justified; others are preposterous. The confusion and uncertainty which clouds the debate over statehood is an obstacle in itself. The role of these major obstacles in the status debate and the statehood effort becomes more visible when they are examined on a decade-by-decade basis, as the rest of this thesis attempts to do.
Carr, p. 186.
2 Heine, p. 236.
3 STACOM, Status of Puerto Rico: Report of the United States-Puerto Rico Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1966), pp. 140-41.
4 James, 192.
5The New York Times (NYT), March 1, 1959, 53: 1; also discussed in interview with Rigau, December 22, 1987.
6 Hernández Colon's comments are cited in Perusse, p. 45.
7 STAR, December 21, 1987: 3.
Interview with Hiram Melendez of the PIP, December 22, 1987.
See Chapter Three.
STAR, March 19, 1988, 38.
11 Cited in Heine, p. 201.
12 See Carr for an excellent discussion of this uneasy situation, p. 403.
13 This estimate was made by Melendez in interview, December 22, 1987.
14 See Carr, p. 272-76.
15 Interview with Rigau, Dec. 22, 1987.
17 Cited in Perusse, p. 57.
18 Interview with Roig, December 5, 1987.
19 See Gerald Ford's Foreward to Perusse's book, p. vii.
20 R. H. Whitbeck, "Unhappy Puerto Rico," The Journal of Geography, 33 (May, 1934): 177.
21 Tugwell, The Stricken Land. The Story of Puerto Rico (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1947), p. 565.
22 Senator Millard Tydings (D-Maryland) comments according to the Cong. Rec., 74th Cong., 1st sess., pp. 5925-27.
23 See Carr, pp. 364-65.
24 Roig and Mantilla concurred on this point. In Interview, December 7, 1987.
25 See Berríos, pp. 576-77 for this comment and the arguments which follow.
Alaska, however, did experience violent anti-statehood sentiment in the 1970s, as John McPhee explains in his book, Coming out of the Country.
27 Interview with Melendez, December 22, 1987. A note on this interview suggests the role of the PIP in Puerto Rico: Melendez graciously agreed to speak with me one weekday morning at the PIP headquarters in San Juan. A closed-circuit camera and bubble mirrors greeted me as I walked up the stairway to the second-floor, non-air conditioned offices which house the PIP headquarters. As I later learned, security is a necessity, since the building was frequently bombed and shot at by pro-U. S., anti-independence groups as recently as the late 1970s.
28 Berríos, p. 582.
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