Category: History

by Amy Thornbury


Alternative Futures and PNP Politics:
Restlessness in the 1970s

[Puerto Rico is not a] "Free Associated State"
in the full meaning of this term. Puerto Rico is
not free in the sense of being a sovereign state. It
is a territory of the United States. It is associated
with the United States, but how is subject to much
debate. And it is a state only in the generic sense of
an organized political community.

By the early 1970s, political analysts predicted social discontent or even civil war in Puerto Rico because of Ferré's policies and the rapid industrialization which preceded him. A spirit of materialism, coupled with division over Ferré's goals of statehood, technology, and corporate growth, created widespread uneasiness. The threat of civil war turned out to be an exaggeration, but there is no question that unrest over Puerto Rico's status and general condition was increasing. Nationalist violence was once again on the upsurge, but so was pro-statehood sentiment. In fact, the two trends seem to have been directly related: as statehood sentiment increased, independentistas became more active to counterbalance the movement.
Since 1970, estadistas have taken a more aggressive stance on behalf of their cause. They began to regard statehood as an inalienable right to all American citizens, asserting it as the key to the fulfillment of their citizenship by providing the equality and dignity which the Commonwealth status lacked. Another change was the composition of the pro-statehood electorate. The PNP became a party of "statehood-oriented populism" instead of one of conservative elitism, which had traditionally characterized the statehood movement. When Ferré was not reelected to office in 1972, San Juan Mayor Carlos Romero Barceló took the reins of the PNP. He produced the active "Statehood Now" campaign and led estadistas towards a more cohesive ideology which enlarged the rifts between the political parties. Romero's major contribution to the statehood effort was his Statehood is for the Poor booklet, published in 1973, which promoted statehood on the grounds that it would end federal tax breaks for the rich and would bring greater social legislation, such as the minimum wage, to benefit the low-income residents on the island. He also adopted a tactic used by estadistas in the past: he threatened the U. S. Congress that if they were not prepared to grant Puerto Rico statehood if the islanders requested it, then he would throw the PNP's support in with the independentistas. Many consider Romero's ideas harmful to the prospects of statehood, since, the logic goes, a budget-conscious U. S. Congress would almost rather sever the ties with the island if the Puerto Ricans asked for it than spend billions of dollars more in transfer payments to Puerto Rico.
By the end of Ferré's term, he had lost much of his popularity with the masses, who complained that his emphasis on industry and big business did nothing to alleviate their desperate situation. His opponents claimed that Ferré had allowed mainland corporations to take over the island, and concluded from the frightening reality that 80% of Puerto Rico's food consumption was mainland produced that Puerto Ricans were more dependent on the mainland than ever. Another illustration of the extent of the connection between the U. S. and Puerto Rico is that Puerto Rico accounted for more than 20% of all U. S. investments in developing countries by the 1970s. Those who favored increased autonomy for Puerto Rico, therefore, argued that Ferré 'had to be turned out'; that Puerto Ricans had to defeat 'a bad government' in 1972.
Rafael Hernández Colón, a PPD candidate, was the one who turned Ferré out. He was elected Puerto Rico's governor in 1972 with 51.5% of the vote, while the PNP obtained just 44%. The PIP, which had barely survived the 1960s when it fell from 19.6% in 1952 to just two to three percent of the vote on average thereafter, began an upward trend in 1972 when it received 4.5% of the vote.
During its term in government from 1973 to 1976, the PPD gained little popularity, as it was unable to improve Commonwealth status and the economy stagnated. While its members claimed that Commonwealth status was responsible for the 309% increase in the island's GNP since 1950, they could not boast that anything had been done to lower unemployment, which hovered at about 20% in the 1970s. Even though new industries were still attracted to Puerto Rico under Operation Bootstrap, they were not providing the number of jobs that the program's creators had hoped. Another criticism of Operation Bootstrap was the independentista claim in the early 1970s that 80% of the island's income found its way off the island into the coffers of absentee American corporations. Furthermore, Hernández Colón lost popularity when he raised income taxes, which ultimately led to his defeat in 1976.
One of the trends that has accompanied Puerto Rico's two-party system since it reemerged in 1968 is the practice of voting against a party or candidate. This was the case in 1972, 1976, and 1984, when the Puerto Rican electorate, although almost evenly divided between the PPD and the PNP, would shift away from the party in power if its recent term had brought about economic problems. Thus, when the PNP members became aware that the public was dissatisfied with the Hernández Colón administration, they adopted the slogan "La Nueva Vida " (New Life) for the party in 1974. Carlos Romero Barceló was at the forefront of the statehood movement at this time. Like Ferré, he had an elite background and was well-educated, graduating from Yale in 1953 and later receiving a law degree from the University of Puerto Rico. Perhaps in an effort to overcome what would have appeared a glamorous upbringing to most islanders, Romero made the most of his hearty and gregarious nature by campaigning on the island on horseback, for which he earned the nickname El Caballo. He appealed to the masses on the basis of the arguments set forth in Statehood is for the Poor, and narrowly won the elections with 48.3% of the electorate's support. The PPD was turned out of office with 45.3% of the vote.
One of President Gerald Ford's last acts as president was to proclaim his support for statehood by endorsing a statehood bill in the U. S. Congress in January, 1977, apparently because he had realized the futility of trying to improve the awkward Commonwealth status and interpreted the election of a PNP governor on the island as an indication of growing support for statehood. Congress ignored Ford's recommendations, however, when independentistas condemned the proposal as a denial of the island's right to self-determination of its status, a right which the U. S. had vowed to respect since the 1940s. Ford's proclamation backfired somewhat, as it generated a new wave of anti-American, pro-autonomist sentiment in Puerto Rico.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter abandoned the official "self-determination" policy of the U. S. towards Puerto Rico which had helped perpetuate the status quo. In a speech delivered on July 25, the anniversary of the Commonwealth, he stated: 'I will support and urge Congress to support whatever decision the people of Puerto Rico reach,' whether statehood, independence, or Commonwealth. This declaration was the start of a new policy of "alternative futures" for Puerto Rico, a policy intended to motivate the people of Puerto Rico to decide which alternative they would choose. Thus, Carter broke the unofficial Democratic pledge to support the Commonwealth which remained from the days of the Muñoz-Tugwell coalition in the 1940s.
The issue of statehood for Puerto Rico received attention elsewhere in the U. S. during the late 1970s, as in the following Wall Street Journal editorial:

The economic obstacles [to statehood] highlight some of the follies of U. S. domestic
policies and the political issues involve the future of U. S. policy toward the Caribbean
in general. . . . Puerto Ricans would be out of their minds to vote for statehood if it
meant paying U. S. income taxes on top of the already burdensome tax rates on the
island. A pre-condition of statehood would certainly have to be a move by the
commonwealth government to sharply cut its tax rates.
This editorial helped illuminate the complexity of Puerto Rico's efforts to become a state. Romero had already lowered taxes on the island, and sentiment toward statehood on both the island and the mainland was on the increase. The Washington Post reported in 1978 that 'For the first time, virtually the whole spectrum of political opinion in Puerto Rico has appeared before a UN Committee here this past week and criticized the island's Commonwealth status. All the speakers, despite their otherwise conflicting views [including Romero and Hernández Colón] agreed that there are at least vestiges of colonialism in Puerto Rico's current relationship with the United States.' The American public now had it spelled out that the U. S. had colonies, a fact which many had for a long time denied or tried to ignore.
In light of these developments, by 1978 Romero was confident that statehood would be accepted by Congress if a majority of Puerto Ricans asked for it. Romero felt that there was a majority in favor of statehood on the island, since surveys showed that 70% of all Puerto Ricans favored closer union with the U. S. as opposed to greater autonomy for Puerto Rico, almost all of the 70% in favor feeling that disorder would result in Puerto Rico if the American connection were dissolved.
However, mainland Americans did not feel the same way. A 1979 Gallup poll on Puerto Rico's status revealed that, while 67% of those surveyed would accept Puerto Rico's independence (up ten percentage points since 1962), just 59% would favor Puerto Rico's admittance as a state if the Puerto Ricans voted for it. Carr explains that one of the reasons many were unwilling to accept Puerto Rico into the Union was its impoverished conditions relative to the U. S., which meant more tax dollars would go towards welfare and food stamp payments.
In 1978 and 1979, after postponing a decision regarding Puerto Rico's status for almost three decades, the United Nations Decolonization Committee adopted two resolutions which "for all practical purposes declared Puerto Rico a colony of the United States." Puerto Rico's plight was attracting more attention on the mainland, and islanders were realizing that Commonwealth was failing and that Puerto Rico had "alternative futures" to consider. With Muñoz's death in the 1970s, support for the PPD and Commonwealth status was declining, especially after numerous attempts to "improve" Commonwealth had failed in the U. S. Congress. Commonwealth had shown that it lacked the political voice to accomplish these changes, as shown by the experience of the Fernós-Murray Bill of 1959, which would have granted Puerto Rico greater participation and representation in the federal government, but died in committee. A similar bill, the New Compact, was proposed in 1975, but it, too, was showing no signs of progress in the federal legislature.' There was "a growing and inexorable realization," writes one Puerto Rican observer, "of the pressing need to end the prevalent political schizophrenia with new non-colonial political structures suitable to the needs and aspirations of the 21st century." In addition, as the economic progress of Operation Bootstrap peaked in 1977, Commonwealth lost more of its popularity. Meanwhile, the statehood movement was becoming more organized and popular.
The 1980 elections should have been the golden opportunity for statehood. There seemed to be support for the island's admission among U. S. and Puerto Rican leaders, and social and political developments which demanded that Puerto Rico achieve greater equality and dignity than its colonial status allowed had matured since their tumultuous breakthrough in the 1960s and early '70s. Statehood seemed to be the logical solution to enable the realization of these goals. But the elections did not materialize as expected.

Perusse, p. 6.

See pp. 11-13 of Robert Anderson's chapter, "The Party System: Change or Stagnation" in Heine.

See ibid., p. 13, for an explanation.

Interview with Rigau, December 22, 1987. Other authors have reached the same conclusion.

PIP gubernatorial candidate Noel Colón's comments are cited in Carr, p. 176.

See ibid., p. 176. This statistic is often used to justify the economic aid which Puerto Rico received from the mainland. Since so much of the island's wealth is tranferred to the U. S., it is argued, it is only fair that the U. S. pay Puerto Rico back.

The comments of Juan Mari Bras are explained in ibid., p. 351. Interestingly, Hiram Melendez of the PIP told me that that the U. S. policy of self-determination is perceived as a "cop out" by his party today. He explained that since the U. S. has the authority over Puerto Rico, it also has the responsibility to help Puerto Rico out of its status stalemate.

Cited in ibid., p. 98. A group of young Puerto Rican intellectuals who constituted a subset of the PPD had suggested this policy to Carter during the 1976 Democratic presidential primaries.

WSJ, January 7, 1977, 6: 1.

Cited in Heine and García-Passalacqua, p. 53.

Ibid, p. 303.

Grupo de Investigadores Puertorriqueños, p. 1309.

See Heine and García-Passalacqua for an excellent summary of the various proposed changes in the U. S.-Puerto Rico relationship from 1922-1975, pp. 18-19.

Grupo de Investigadores Puertorriqueños, p. 1307.

Per capita income for Puerto Rico soared to $2,472 in 1977, as opposed to $118 in the pre-Operation Bootstrap 1940s. $5 billion in U. S. investments had been initiated on the island by 1976. "As long as economic expansion and optimism lasted, the commonwealth idea prospered." By the end of the 1970s, this optimism faded quickly. See ibid., pp. 1302-03.

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