PUERTO RICO'S STATUS DEBATE
Estragon: Wait! I sometimes wonder if we wouldn't
have been better off alone, each one for himself. We
weren't made for the same road.
Vladimir: It's not certain.
Estragon: No, nothing is certain.
Vladimir: We can still part, if you think it would be
Estragon: It's not worthwhile now.
Vladimir: No, it's not worthwhile now.
Estragon: Well, shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.
--Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1948)
As Puerto Rico's status dilemma enters its 90th year, the ugly taint of colonialism is revealing itself to be at once undesirable and also indispensable. Many believe that the uneasy stalemate must be resolved before a full century of U. S. imperialism is allowed to pass. But a satisfactory resolution is going to be difficult, because although the people of Puerto Rico have decided what status they want, unfortunately, they did not all decide on the same alternative, and each group is convinced that its choice is the right choice.
A new status plebiscite is currently being promoted to reevaluate exactly how divided the islanders stand. Former PNP governor Romero has advocated a referendum on the issue to ask the electorate simply, "Statehood, yes or no?" If a majority voted affirmatively, Puerto Rico would immediately file for an Enabling Act from the U. S. Congress to establish Puerto Rico's admittance to the Union. In Romero's scheme, Puerto Rico would the retention of Spanish as the official language, a 20-year transition period for federal taxation, and elimination of the island's public debt by transferring it to the federal government as conditions for its admission. Of these requests, none would be likely to meet with enthusiasm in Congress, although the language provision seems to be the most controversial, since Puerto Ricans adamantly refuse to give up their native language, while the U. S. Congress believes the nation must be united by one language. Similarly, Puerto Rico's Hispanic culture has shown a tenacity and stubborn resistance to Americanization during the 90 years of U. S. rule which cannot be ignored in the prospects for the island's decolonization.
Romero's notions about statehood are overly simplistic. The issue is complex: the stalemate persists because both the U. S. and Puerto Rico have their hands tied. The U. S. cannot legitimately force any status on an unwilling people in the name of democracy. On the other hand, by sitting on the fence, it sends out a message to the world that it does not care about Puerto Rico and has no desire to end its own imperialism, a message which historically has been detrimental to U. S.-Latin American relations. At the same time, Puerto Rico has its hands tied because maintaining its current relationship vis à vis the U. S. appears to be vital to its economic well-being. The consensus among Puerto Ricans and mainlanders is that without the association with the U. S. whereby Puerto Rico receives sustantial amounts of economic aid, the island would sink to the level of poverty in the Dominican Republic or worse.
Another problem which perpetuates the stalemate is that a lot of time is wasted pursuing possibilities which may be unrealistic for Puerto Rico's future. For example, the present administration has focused a great deal of attention on the recent Marshall Islands and Micronesia Compacts, in which the U. S. granted full autonomy, just short of independence, to these Pacific islands. Some Puerto Ricans, among the foremost of whom is Marco A. Rigau, believe that the U. S. must adopt the same measures for Puerto Rico. However, there are fundamental differences between these sparsely populated, tiny, distant islands and Puerto Rico. Even the conditions under which the PNP seeks Puerto Rico's admission as a state (language, culture, and economic transitions) may be unacceptable to the U. S. Yet the U. S. has made no official statements on what conditions it would accept, and the Puerto Rican public remains fairly complacent and gullible about the status issue, as the people tend to believe almost everything they read, much of which is biased and unfounded.
Finally, there is the problem of ambivalence among the Puerto Ricans towards status: "The current status -- while imperfect and defended by no one --" writes U. S. policy analyst Robert Pastor, "most accurately reflects the ambivalence of all the Puerto Rican people, which explains why there is no popular groundswell on the island for change." In other words, just as Commonwealth is something of a compromise of many different needs, so is the general political climate, which can only lead to stalemate. Pastor shows how the U. S. and Puerto Rico have very different perceptions of the history of their relationship with one another. He writes, "The divergence, . . . is symptomatic of a political gulf and an agonizing problem. It is precisely because the problem is so agonizingly difficult that neither side has been willing to walk up to it, and both sides insist that the other must take the first step."
Puerto Rican political analyst Juan M. García-Passalacqua writes with outrage about the stalemate:
Puerto Ricans are deadlocked at 47-47-6 percent in electoral votes, precisely because
the pendular, indecisive nature of American policies has led our people to believe
that anything is possible in the ideological world. If Puerto Rico existed in a
political vacuum, it could decide its future on its own. That is not the case . . . .
. . . . . .
It was the United States that invaded in 1898. It was the United States that granted
American citizenship in 1917. It was the United States that enthroned the status quo
after 1952. It is now the time for the United States to decolonize: make us equal or
let us go.
This sentiment is echoed by many who believe that the responsibility for ending Puerto Rico's status stalemate lies with the U. S. The first step must be for the U. S. to lay its cards on the table with regard to Puerto Rico's future, for until the Puerto Ricans know what is and what is not acceptable to the U. S., they will continue to pursue ideological daydreams. Then and only then can the people of Puerto Rico express an honest opinion about what status they desire with their votes in a plebiscite, rather than continuing a perennial status debate of sophistries. Strangely, this logic seems not to have entered the thoughts of many policymakers who have pursued the ends without regard to the means. Pastor explains that the two decisions are inseparable: "For the United States to demand a decision first and leave questions about whether that decision will be accepted, is to leave the Puerto Ricans with no margin of error, no dignidad."
What is really needed, then, is mutual determination. Puerto Rico's relationship with the U. S. is a "two-way street": "The U. S. has the moral responsibility [to resolve Puerto Rico's status] because you [Americans] have the control." Rigau concurs with this view, stating that the policy of self-determination, of "let Puerto Ricans decide for themselves", is "like telling a three-ring circus to put its act together." A mutually advantageous decision, decided upon in a "joint, bicameral, and bipartisan approach" is the only way to resolve Puerto Rico's status question, and many believe that the sooner the U. S. and Puerto Rico realize this, the better. Indeed, the U. S. cannot afford to delay the decision much longer as it begins to comprehend that its indifference towards the status quo in Puerto Rico has been a costly mistake which is getting even more expensive: the U. S. spent $6 billion on Puerto Rico in 1987, but it will spend an estimated $30 billion a year on Puerto Rico by the year 2000 if the current arrangement persists.
Status resolution is not only urgent for the economic security of the U. S. but also for the stabilization of Puerto Rico's economy. Determining the island's future once and for all would make investment on the island less risky and more appealing to outside investors. The Tobin Committee Study in 1975 concluded that Puerto Rico's status and economic crisis were linked, and Puerto Rico has a serious dependency problem under its current status: it is addicted to the U. S. federal budget outlays. One of the primary concerns of status resolution efforts must be to generate self-sufficiency on the island.
The history of Puerto Rican politics suggests that Puerto Ricans are not going to renounce their long-standing divisions over what Puerto Rico's status should be. The statehood effort exemplifies this trend in microcosm, because even when the movement's popularity waned, there remained a hard core of estadistas who refused to let the dream of statehood die. The popularity of the statehood movement seems to have peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at least to the extent that election results have indicated status preferences, and there have been no major shifts in alignment of status preferences since then.
It is naive for the U. S. to continue believing that Puerto Rico will solve its problems on its own. To come to grips with resolving Puerto Rico's status, the U. S. should notify the island of its general intentions toward Puerto Rico's future, so that the islanders can make an informed decision about their status. In the case of statehood, the U. S. should carefully weigh the reality of the Commonwealth's condition and then outline the conditions under which it would accept the island as a state. This would provide some targets for the estadistas. Likewise, it should do the same for independence and a more autonomous Commonwealth status, although the latter option is quite vulnerable to leaving Puerto Rico with very little political voice and may not accomplish much in terms of decolonization, as was the case in 1952.
Since 1914, nearly 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the major wars fought by the U. S. Of these, 2,285 were killed while "defending democracy", a democracy which was not fully extended to them. For the U. S. to tolerate colonialism in its own domestic policy while claiming to oppose it in foreign affairs is blatant hypocrisy. For the situation to persist into the 21st century would be inexcusable. Over 90 years have passed since the U. S. fought that "splendid little war" with Spain. The time has come for the U. S. to formulate a consistent foreign policy with regard to imperialism.
I borrow this from Robert Pastor's chapter in Bloomfield, p. 99.
Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, a Puerto Rican who is related to Luis Ferré, has put the language issue in terms of discrimination: 'You can't discriminate against me because I happen to speak a different language. . . . Permanently speaking a different language. . . .As an official language. Not on the way to English. What I'm saying is that what color is to blacks, language is to Hispanics. And that's something that has to be very clearly understood.' See Joel Garreau, The Nine Nations of North America (New York: Avon, 1981), p. 218.
Carr's conclusion, p. 405.
Interview with Rigau, December 21, 1987. See also Rigau's articles in Rigau and García-Passalacqua on the Micronesia Compact, pp. 46-73.
See Perusse's article entitled "Where's the Beef?" reprinted in Rigau and García-Passalacqua, p. 281.
In Bloomfield, p. 127.
Ibid. Italics his.
García-Passalacqua, pp. 142, 163.
In Bloomfield, p. 128.
According to Melendez, in interview, December 22, 1987.
Interview with Rigau, December 22, 1987.
See Bloomfield, p. 132.
Rigau and Mantilla stressed this point in interview, December 22, 1987.
(New York: Avon, 1981), p. 218.
Carr's conclusion, p. 405.
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