Category: History

by Amy Thornbury


A Status Stalemate: The 1980s

[Puerto Rico is] after all nothing more
than a territory under the territorial
clause of the United States Constitution,
regardless of the name under which its
local government function[s].
--The U. S. Supreme Court, May 27, 1980

The 1980 political elections in Puerto Rico were supposed to be the "great chance" for the estadistas. In August, 1979, the U. S. Congress had passed a joint resolution which acknowledged their readiness to accept any status alternative to Puerto Rico's Commonwealth, including statehood. In addition, two of the Republican presidential candidates, George Bush and Ronald Reagan, had made their pro-statehood sentiment known to both the Puerto Rican and American electorate. With the steady increase in the number of pro-statehood voters since the 1960s, estadistas grew optimistic that the PNP would win the 1980 elections, hold a plebiscite on statehood, and gain the majority of support which the U. S. Congress would require before considering Puerto Rico's admission to the Union. If Congress still did not want to admit Puerto Rico, then Puerto Ricans would adopt the Tennessee Plan (see Chapter One) by forming a congressional delegation and camping out on Capitol Hill until their demands for admission were met.
Using the slogan "Statehood Now," estadistas predicted an overwhelming victory for their party because of the weakening of the PPD. The populares had lost the urban vote throughout the island, and Operation Bootstrap, the program which they embraced, was faltering. However, the hopes of the estadistas proved to be overly optimistic, as their candidate for governor, Romero Barceló, was reelected by just 3,400 votes. Their defeat -- for such it was, since a victory by that narrow a margin did not allow them the freedom to pursue statehood -- may have been caused by the long-standing loyalty to Muñoz which still existed in the PPD. Muñoz's widow made several emotional speeches immediately preceding the election, urging voters to respect the memory of her husband and claiming that statehood would destroy Puerto Rican culture. The PPD campaign also emphasized the issue of the known (Commonwealth) versus the unknown (statehood).
The "great chance" for statehood in the 1980 elections disappeared overnight. The election results, with 78% of the electorate participating, were almost a draw: the PNP's margin over the PPD was only 0.48%, and the governorship was not decided in favor of Romero until 44 days after the elections. The PPD gained the majority in the Puerto Rican Senate, while the House was evenly divided, 25 to 25, between the PPD and the PNP. The two parties favoring independence, the PIP and the PSP, gained 5.4% and 0.3% of the total vote, respectively. Most Puerto Rican political analysts regard these election results as a fair indication of the amount of support for each status. To the PNP, the elections were a source of disappointment and frustration: statehood remained elusive. To all parties, the 1980 stalemate meant that each had to go back to the drawing board to devise new tactics. Examining the forces for and against statehood helps shed light on the current status debate.
* * *
Pro-Statehood Forces
The statehood effort has taken several new turns over the past decade, not all of which have been in a forward direction. Estadistas began to educate the Puerto Rican electorate on the benefits of statehood in "missionary" fashion in the 1980s: PNP "missionaries" took ten-week training sessions in order to go out on the island and "preach" the benefits of statehood. Various other pro-statehood forces emerged, as well. Cuban exiles in Puerto Rico, for example, support the PNP because they prefer the political and economic stability of statehood to independence, which they believe presents the threat of revolution. That they interpret independence for Puerto Rico this way is significant, for it shows the opinion of some Caribbean natives towards Puerto Rico's future as an independent republic. Their opinion is undoubtedly influenced by the turbulent experience of other Caribbean nations which gained independence in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, many Puerto Ricans say that if Puerto Rico became independent, they would immediately flee to the U. S., for fear of what would happen to Puerto Rico.
Besides the fear of the negative consequences of independence, statehood was advocated for Puerto Rico in the early eighties on both political and economic grounds. Former President Ford discussed his 1976 declaration favoring statehood recently as a way to end "a long chapter of U. S. colonialism and earn new respect for the United States in the Caribbean, Latin America and around the world." As a presidential candidate, Reagan wrote a quarter-page article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in February, 1980, in which he defended statehood for Puerto Rico as a move which would counter Castro's and the Soviet Union's claims about Yankee Imperialism by ending Puerto Rico's "unnatural" status as a Commonwealth, i. e., a colony, within the United States. It would reflect well on all of Latin America, he said, in the following "geopolitical" context: " It is as simple as this: If we in the United States cannot design a model for a political economy that is sufficiently attractive, if we can't win over our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico to the nuptials that statehood involves, how can our model succeed as an instrument of foreign policy anywhere in the world?"
Reagan's logic is closely tied to the Cold War mentality and the idea that Communism will take over unless capitalism takes over first. Puerto Rico, he argues, needs to become a state in order to remain a showcase for democracy and capitalistic prosperity in direct contrast to Castro's Cuba. To him, then, statehood for Puerto Rico would not only clear the U. S. name of slander but would represent a victory for American capitalism and ideals.
Economically, fears about higher taxes as a state instead of a Commonwealth abated in the 1980s. Commonwealth taxes are much more progressive than federal income tax codes provide, so federal taxes could represent a significant break to some individuals in Puerto Rico. Also, Puerto Rico does not have a "negative income tax" for low-income individuals as the U. S. does. With the 1986 Tax Reform Act and the lower tax brackets it established, the once-feared federal taxes which statehood would bring to the island are becoming increasingly less foreboding. As for corporate taxes, currently exempt under Section 936, statehood would require the end of tax exemption. Many in Puerto Rico fear that all of the firms who were initially attracted to Puerto Rico primarily for its tax status would pull up their stakes and leave the island. Others argue that once a manufacturer has invested in building a plant, it is too difficult and costly to cease operations just because tax exemption has ended, and, furthermore, the firms may feel a moral obligation to pay taxes if the island became a state: the government helped them, they would reason, so they should help the government. Still others believe that the federal government would grant a different type of subsidy to save Puerto Rico's economy. Finally, estadistas point out that Commonwealth, though it relies on Section 936, does not guarantee Section 936; only the federal government can decide what that provision's fate will be. In 1985, the U. S. Congress attempted to eliminate Section 936 from the tax code during the tax reform debates. However, through intensive Puerto Rican lobbying, Congress agreed to retain the measure for several more years, as long as firms which benefitted under Section 936 would invest most of their profits in the Caribbean. Another factor in favor of statehood is that public opinion polls in the 1980s have shown that two-thirds of the people of Puerto Rico wish to gain the vote in U. S. presidential elections, although the PPD administration voted against requesting this measure from the federal government in 1985. The desire to participate in presidential elections is significant, for it implies that Puerto Ricans want closer relations with the U. S. and to fulfill the rights which accompany first-class citizenship. However, public opinion polls have also shown that status resolution is not a top priority with the Puerto Rican electorate. Their primary concerns for the Puerto Rican government are to solve the problems of crime and drug abuse. Thus, Jorge Heine argues, elections are not an accurate reflection of status preference, because a large proportion of votes are made in opposition to the incumbent party's performance in solving socioeconomic problems instead of showing support or opposition to a particular status. The discrepancy over whether or not the general elections reflect the status preferences of the people of Puerto Rico underscores the need for a plebiscite which isolates status as the only issue.
Puerto Rico's economy suffered from recession in the early 1980s and has not yet fully recovered. Profitable investment opportunities have been diminished on the island because of the increased cost of energy (almost 100% of the island's fuel is imported), and because of the increasing wage rates: in 1984, factory workers earned on average about 80% of comparable U. S. wages, representing a significant decrease in the wage differential compared to earlier years and to the lower cost of labor in the Far East for industries such as apparel manufacturing, once a thriving industry in Puerto Rico. Carr writes that the lack of investment in Puerto Rico due to these concerns explains the near disappearance of the coffee, sugar, and tobacco export industries on the island.
Puerto Rico has become increasingly more dependent on the U. S. and has experienced rising income differentials in the 1980s. Federal transfer payments to the island were just $7,000,000 in 1950. By 1981, that figure was $605,000,000, and in 1987, it was $6.5 billion. Of Puerto Rico's gross domestic product, 55% goes to the wealthiest two-tenths of the population. Only 15% is dispersed among the lower half of the population. Clearly, not everyone on the island has prospered from Puerto Rico's rising domestic income.
The 1984 elections turned out the PNP administration when former Governor Hernández Colón defeated Romero, whose image was badly tarnished from his implication in the covered-up scandal in Puerto Rico known as the Cerro Maravilla affair. This incident took place in 1978 when two young Nationalists were shot to death by police, apparently in self-defense, in the small town of Cerro Maravilla. By the early 1980s, it was revealed that the Nationalists were lured to the spot in order to be executed and that Governor Romero secretly supported the plan. Even before it was evident that Romero had participated in the incident, many were suspicious of his haste in praising the police as "heroes", rather than waiting for investigations to conclude what had happened before making his judgment. All of the relevant facts in the case are still not known, but the episode served to discredit Romero and his party (the PNP) in much the same way as Watergate did to Nixon and the Republicans in the 1970s. Thus, the PPD assumed control of Puerto Rico's government in 1984, although the Puerto Rican public remained fairly evenly divided between the two parties, perpetuating a 47-47% stalemate. According to one political observer, by 1985 "all political parties [in Puerto Rico] are suffering from severe internal strains, but the ailment is particularly strong within the prostatehood forces . . . ." Part of that "internal strain" hinged on the existence of new civic groups founded to pursue statehood for Puerto Rico independent of the political arena.
Frustrated by the inability of a two-term PNP administration to push through any measures leading to Puerto Rico's admission as a state, a major civic pro-statehood group, Puertorriqueños en Accíon Ciudadana (Puerto Ricans in Civic Action), was formed in 1984 by Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, a physician from Mayagüez on the west coast of Puerto Rico. Ferrer founded the first grassroots organization to promote statehood and to combat the forces against it. One of Puerto Ricans in Civic Action's major goals was to collect one million signatures on a petition favoring statehood for Puerto Rico. As of October, 1985, the group had collected about 300,000 names, of which, it was estimated, one quarter were residents aligned with the PPD. The group also sponsored the first-ever celebration of the anniversary of the granting of U. S. citizenship on March 1, 1987, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Jones Act. The ceremony was held in Hato Rey, a suburb of San Juan, and, though it was not intended to be a party-affiliated occasion of any sort, that is exactly what it became. About 700 PNP supporters attended, but Governor Hernández Colón was not present. Instead, he sent a representative who was booed off the stage for speaking repeatedly of Puerto Rico's "autonomy." Cheering and celebration followed, however, when Ferrer spoke of aspiring to and demanding "complete equality in our rights.' When pro-statehood San Juan Mayor Baltasar Corrada del Río mentioned the need to gain the right to vote in presidential elections, the crowd reportedly jumped up and down with enthusiasm. In sum, the occasion was a "mini-Fourth of July." This incident is significant for it shows the desire among some Puerto Ricans to demonstrate their pro-American feelings and the deep, bitter divisions which separate the PNP and the PPD.
* * *

Anti-Statehood Forces
In spite of the mobilization of pro-statehood forces, the arguments against statehood gained the upper hand, or nearly so, by the late 1980s. Opponents to statehood reside both in Perto Rico and the U. S. For instance, the U. S. Congress has expressed its uneasiness towards admitting a populous "welfare state" with a militant independentista sector, but congressmen are apparently more concerned about the language issue than any other matter. Puerto Rico could not be a member of the Union with Spanish as its only language because government administrators would not be able to communicate with one another, so bilingualism would be necessary. The red tape that is involved in the administration of a state is bad enough, policymakers say, and it would be twice as bad if all communications had to be bilingual. Estadistas point out that Canada and other countries have managed to handle two or more official languages and believe that Puerto Rico could, too.
Another issue is prejudice against Puerto Ricans in the U. S., which diminishes the chances of Puerto Rico's easy acceptance into the Union. One explanation which has been offered for the prejudice is that most mainlanders know little about Puerto Ricans or their island other than what they have seen or heard about Puerto Ricans in New York City, the so-called "Newricans." Two-thirds of all Puerto Ricans who immigrated to the U. S. settled in New York City by the 1980s, which leads mainlanders to stereotype all Puerto Ricans as Newricans, whose image is personified by the musicalWest Side Story from the 1950s. In 1970, Puerto Ricans living in New York City had an 80% school dropout rate (compared with 49% for the total population there), lived overwhelmingly below the poverty line, and had the worst teenage unemployment problem of any ethnic group in the city. Carr summarizes that most Americans view Puerto Ricans at best as Hispanics who either cannot or will not speak English or assume American values, and at worst as "drug addicts and dropouts whose leisure occupation is gang warfare." It must be remembered that those who migrated to the U. S. from the island did so because they were at the bottom of the social ladder in Puerto Rico. Therefore, the image of Newricans is very different from the majority of Puerto Ricans, who live on the island.
Some of the more traditional arguments used to promote statehood are now coming under serious attack. For example, the claim that statehood would bring Puerto Rico increased federal funding must now be reconciled with the U. S. Congress's intense desire to reform and trim the budget. Added to the already high burden of social program payments on the federal budget is the island's public debt of almost $6.5 billion dollars as of 1980. Estadistas have often hoped that the U. S. would assume this debt if Puerto Rico were admitted as a state. It is possible that Puerto Rico would have gained more as a state before the Grahamm-Rudman Bill to balance the federal budget was introduced in 1985. Budget concerns also make it less likely that Congress would be willing to grant Puerto Rico the type of economic concessions, such as a gradual implementation of federal taxes, that estadistas have sought. Further, Constitutionalists in Congress object to granting any state lenient economic concessions, believing that this practice violates the equal footing clause of the Constitution.
In addition, though Reagan has been a strong proponent of statehood for Puerto Rico, his Caribbean policy, the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), has run counter to Puerto Rico's chances for statehood at every turn. First, CBI gave every Caribbean nation access to free trade with the U. S., making the argument that statehood would secure preferential trade agreements for Puerto Rico with the U. S. over other Caribbean nations obsolete. Reagan's "New Federalism" has also hurt the statehood effort, as it has turned more and more of the responsibility for funding social programs formerly administrated by the federal government to the state governments, which defeats the argument that Puerto Rico would gain more as a state than as a Commonwealth or an independent nation.
These effects of Reagan's policies are among the main arguments used by the independentistas against statehood today. The PIP has taken on a more moderate stance since the early 1970s, limiting its attacks on the U. S. to the issues like those above, while reassuring American businessmen on the island that they reject the Cuban revolutionary model and would not threaten capitalism. The militant wing of the PIP left the party by the mid-1970s, while Rubén Berríos Martínez has led the rest of the party in this new direction to date. He realizes that one of the biggest mistakes of the early independentistas was their anti-American stance, which only frightened the U. S. into tighter control of the island's affairs. Berríos advocates working with the U. S. towards Puerto Rico's independence, believing that this cooperative effort has a much better chance than a revolutionary one. But the PIP admits that only about 10% of the people of Puerto Rico favor independence at present. Their weakness may be explained by the alleged blacklisting of PIP members since the 1950s, which would curtail PIP membership and lead many Puerto Ricans with independentista sentiment to vote for other parties in order to defeat the party in power. Another factor contributing to the party's weakness is the lack of financial support to compete with the other parties in electoral campaigns, and the public's widespread fear of the economic consequences of independence. Finally, the party has a history of ambiguity and internal squabbling, as well as an incapacity to attract a wider base of support than just middle-class intellectuals. The ambiguity lies in the seeming inability of the party to define in concrete terms what it proposes for Puerto Rico once independence is granted. In other words, an operative definition for what independence would mean to Puerto Rico's future is either missing or very hard to find.
By the early 1980s, two other clandestine pro-independence groups had received more attention than the numbers in their ranks would merit. These are the Puerto Rico-based Macheteros and the U. S. based Armed Forces for National Liberation (FALN). Though their base of support is very small, their effect has been considerable. The groups claim responsibility for destroying or stealing almost $56 million worth of U. S. property or cash. Although all three of Puerto Rico's principal parties have condemned these groups, their activities are not easily ignored and indicate the lengths to which some Puerto Ricans are willing to go to demonstrate their animosity toward the U. S. Their presence makes the prospect of statehood more risky than either estadistas or pro-statehood congressmen would like.
Operating in the open, but no less vehement about their objection to the U. S. presence in Puerto Rico, is the Partido Socialista Puertorriqueño (PSP). This party has no connection to the Socialist Party of the 1920s to the 1940s. The PSP is even different from the PIP, for although both advocate independence, the PSP endorses terrorism, embraces the Cuban revolutionary model, and fosters anti-American sentiment on the island. It is led by Juan Mari Bras, a Marxist-Leninist who practices law in Puerto Rico. The PSP is committed to defeating the PNP at any cost.
These are some of the forces which have contributed to the difficulties of the statehood movement in the 1980s. In addition, major splits within the PNP over the party's candidate for governor in the elections of 1988 have severely weakened the chances for the party's victory. Public opinion polls showed that as much as 60% of the population supported the PPD in late 1987. When Hernández Colón was reelected in 1984, he swore that status would not be an issue during the quadrennium from 1984 to 1988. Publicly, he kept his promise, although many have suspected his administration of moving towards independence or something very close to independence, referred to as Free Association or an Associated Republic. At this writing, it appears that the elections of 1988 may very well be another watershed in Puerto Rican politics, much like 1940 and 1968, because status has once again become a hotly debated issue.

Cited in Carr, p. 150, from the Harris v. Santiago case.

See ibid., pp. 150, 370, 377-78.

Ibid., p. 382. Significantly, Puerto Rican political parties appealed to the U. S. federal courts for arbitration in these decisions, illustrating the island's reliance on the U. S.

See, for example, García-Passalacqua, p. 161, who estimated that 47% of the electorate favored statehood and 6% wanted independence in 1983.

See Carr, p. 156, for details.

See Ford's foreward to Perusse, p. ix.

WSJ, February 11, 1980, 20: 4. Reagan proclaimed his support for statehood for the first time in public the day before the first-ever presidential primaries in Puerto Rico, presumably to win support from the PNP, many of whom backed Carter in 1976 and 1980.

Interview with Richard Tryon, December 23, 1987.

Perusse, pp. 44-47.

Ibid., pp. 6, 98.

Juvenile crime is especially high on the island. In the early 1980s, 72% of all burglaries and 85% of all court cases involved those under age 17. Every political party has become almost as concerned with crime and drug abuse as they are with status. Carr, p. 249.

Heine, p. 21. Heine states that PNP supporters show the lowest identification with status as their primary concern than any other party's supporters.

Carr, p. 214.

Statistics provided in ibid., pp. 224-25, 430. These dollar amounts are not adjusted for inflation.

In December, 1987, Romero publicly acknowledged that his pronouncement of the police as heroes was premature. His advisors had been against his defense of the police from the beginning.

Arturo Morales Carrión's viewpoint from his chapter, "Puerto Rico and the United States: The Need for a New Encounter" in Bloomfield, p. 23.

Marco Antonio Rigau and Juan Manuel García-Passalacqua, Republica Asociada y Libre Asociacion: Documentación de un Debate (San Juan: Editorial Atlantico, 1987), pp. 356-57.

STAR, March 2, 1987, pp. 1, 10.

Ferrer intended the celebration to be a mini July Fourth, but hoped that it would end the battle of partisan holidays. On the actual Fourth of July, for example, there are two separate parades held in San Juan: one for the PPD and another for the PNP, which demonstrates how deep the rift is between the two parties.

See Carr, p. 442, nn. 33-34.

See ibid., p. 336.

This fact is emphasized by the animosity which many "Newricans" receive if they return to Puerto Rico.

See Perusse, p. 120.

Carr makes many of these points on pp. 172-76.

The PIP's description of what the Republic of Puerto Rico would be like on an everyday basis is very vague. For the best attempt at defining the goals of the Republic, see the article by Berríos.

See Perusse for a complete discussion, pp. 29-32.

See Carr, pp. 171-173.

Rather than discussing Puerto Rico's status, part of Hernández Colón's strategy has been simply to assume that Puerto Rico has the authority to conduct itself more-or-less as an independent nation. For example, Hernández Colón toured the Caribbean islands in 1985 and was received as an independent foreign dignitary. He also attempted to negotiate a trade agreement between Puerto Rico and Japan in 1986, but when he reached Japan, he received strict orders from Secretary of State George Schultz to leave trade negotiations alone, since Puerto Rico has no right to develop its own foreign policy independent of U. S. foreign policy.

My interpretation from personal interviews and newspaper articles. An article from the February 19, 1988 issue of the STAR inquires into the true status preferences of PPD Resident Commissioner Jaime Fuster. (Fuster, incidentally, has been characterized as a man who needs to learn that "it's more important to [know] how to smile than ride around in a chauffeured car . . . . [He] has not been as efficient as he should have been because he doesn't know how to conduct himself," according to Berríos, cited in the STAR, December 21, 1987, 35.) Fuster has indirectly supported independence by his refusal to object to the exclusion of statehood advocates from congressional hearings on the 1987 Dellums Bill, a bill which calls for the prompt withdrawal of all U. S. power and authority from the island. The hearings will include testimony from independentistas and populares only, to the great dismay of estadistas.

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