Puerto Rico`s current political situation has basic elements: the relationship with the United States, matters of public policy, and the internal administrative organization (government), with its derived institutions, such as political parties.
The relationship with the United States has undergone three distinct stages: the first one runs from the invasion in 1898 to the Jones Act (1898-1917), the second from the Jones Act to the Federal Relations Act (in 1950), and the third from the creation of the Commonwealth Free Associate State of Puerto Rico in 1952 to the present day.
The first stage was the period of importing American economic and political structures, thereby replacing those of the Spanish regime which had been in effect for over four centuries. The Spanish period had left us with a weak and sparse economic infrastructure (few highways, high levels of illiteracy, few schools, and no universities), and limited political participation. There were, however, important developments in literature and the arts, along with an increasing demand for greater political participation through the creation of local political parties. A process of political participation had begun, structured on local political parties, and culminating in granting real political autonomy with the concession of the Autonomic Charter a few months before the American invasion in 1898.
The reforms contained in the Autonomic Charter of 1898 were the result of negotiations of local leaders with the Spanish government and had the immediate effect of creating a general atmosphere of optimism throughout the country. The Autonomic Charter contained a Bill of Rights with important political concessions such as full representation in the Spanish Parliament, direct participation in the commercial treaties that affected the Island, and the right to reject international agreements in which Puerto Rico had not participated.
With the military invasion by the United States, the Charter was abolished and a military government with absolute powers was organized in its place. The military government reigned for two years, until the Congress of the United States passed the first Organic Act, the Foraker Act (1900) which was in effect until 1917. During this first constitutional period (1898-1917), the local Spanish political structure was supplanted, old Spanish currency was substituted by the dollar, and a massive transformation towards an economic new order began to take place.
In political terms, the Foraker Act created a system of government with three branches that were not separate. The governor`s cabinet, for example, constituted the Upper Legislative Chamber. Only the Lower Chamber (Chamber of Delegates) was representative, elected by popular direct vote. The position of Resident Commissioner was created, but it represented Puerto Rico before the Executive, not the Legislative branch of the U.S. government. Thus, it was not granted the right to vote in Congress. The governor was appointed by the President of the United States, while the Federal Congress could veto any law approved by the local legislature. Puerto Rican citizenship was recognized, but not its sovereignty. Puerto Ricans therefore lacked a particular political identity before the international community. The Jones Act also lacked a bill of rights, which accentuated the undemocratic imperial character of the regime.
In economic terms, Puerto Rico was included under the tariff system of the United States and all U.S. commercial treaties applied to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was not granted the right to negotiate its own commercial treaties. Furthermore, the absolute application of U.S. customs laws was accompanied by the introduction of the American dollar and Puerto Rico was forced to use only the merchant marine of the United States for all transportation of goods to and from the mainland.
The economic and political situation which the Foraker Act created was met, as expected, with dissatisfaction among almost all of the country`s political sectors, generating numerous petitions for change.
Seventeen years later, in March1917, the Foraker Act was repealed with the approval of a second Organic Act, the Jones Act, and for the first time the legislative and executive powers were separated. The new Senate or Upper Chamber was no longer composed of the members of the Cabinet. It would now be subject to popular vote. American citizenship was also granted to Puerto Ricans and the Resident Commissioner`s position was extended to a four year term.
This was the era which saw the birth and growth of the Nationalist Party under the guise of anti-imperialism and national reaffirmation, in radical opposition to the imperial American State. The Rio Piedras massacre (1935), the subsequent murder of the American police chief, Colonel Riggs; and the slaughter of the nationalist terrorist the following day (1936); the imprisonment of the nationalist leadership under sedition charges (1937), the Ponce massacre (1937), the university strike of 1948, the nationalist revolt of October 1950, and the attack against Congress (1954) are examples of this climate of contention and violence.
But that period also experienced a substantial change in the organization of the State, culminating in the creation of the Puerto Rican Welfare State. First, the American federal government, as part of New Deal`s reforms under Franklin Roosevelt, assumed the formal responsibility of addressing social problems caused by inequality. Later, under the aegis of a new local party (Popular Democratic Party) the State consolidated the process of modernization of the public administration and government social services. New institutions were created, all under the banner of political and administrative centralization.
This historical project of modernization under the aegis of political paternalism took place with massive and constant electoral support, yielding concrete significant results: production levels and per capita income increased, production was diversified, housing units were increased and educational and health services were improved, among others.
The Great Depression of 1929 had allowed the most advanced commercial sector of the United States to accept the introduction of reformed capitalism under the federal government’s regulatory leadership. Aware of the negative, social, and political effects of the predatory action of classic capitalism, reformists recognized the need for the State to regulate economic activity with the purpose of limiting the excesses of the market and organizing an extensive public welfare program to correct the effects of an extreme lack of financial resources among impoverished sectors.
The 1930s were a critical period for Puerto Rico. The struggles of the working class, nationalists, and students radicalized at the time because the colonial development model was in a serious crisis. This was due partly to the effect of global depression at the time, but the signs of a deep political crisis had been evident long before the 1929 crash: a high rate of unemployment, higher income and prices, a marked contrast between the high income of the absentee landlords and the poverty of the workers, the structural dependence of export agriculture, and a high level of dependence on trade.
Inadvertently, the New Deal brought to Puerto Rico a new definition of American citizenship. From the common man`s point of view, citizenship initially represented only the possibility to serve in the American army or of traveling without restrictions to the United States in search of work. When the direct economic benefits from the federal government to individuals and families began to multiply, Puerto Rican citizens began to associate their citizenship with superior levels of security and prosperity. At the same time, reinforced by the electoral rhetoric of right-wing factions, Puerto Ricans began to identify any possibility of loss of citizenship with poverty.
From a strategic point of view, Operation Bootstrap, which began after the War, was a program of incentives to American Industrial capital. These incentives included the exemption of taxes, direct and indirect subsidies, construction of infrastructure facilities, and training of personnel, etc. Migration to the U.S. was also promoted by the government.
The reduction of unemployment and the increase in income were, mostly, due to the emigration of thousands of families to the United States. This migration, facilitated by American citizenship, served as an escape valve in the face of the impossibility of the economy to create jobs with the speed of population growth.
In summery, the main achievements during that second period were: 1) the restructuring of the State into a welfare system, a modem and relatively efficient instrument of social activism; 2) the emigration to the United States of a considerable part of the population, and 3) the strategy of economic development based on Operation Bootstrap, which was able to considerably increase the productivity of the economy.
The next stage in the formal relationships between Puerto Rico and the United States dates from the right to vote for its governor (1947). Beginning with these important reforms, a Constitutional Assembly in Puerto Rico drafted and approved an Organic Act or Constitution (1952) which, from then on, has governed the political organization of the Puerto Rican State.
In 1947, Congress passed a law which allowed Puerto Ricans to vote for their governor. The formal relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, according to Act 600 maintains the disposition of the Jones Act, including fiscal autonomy and the application of all federal laws which are not explicitly exempt to Puerto Rico. The difference is that the new Act authorizes Puerto Ricans to organize the administration of their own state under their own Constitution, creating the Commonwealth or Free Associate State of Puerto Rico (as it is called in Spanish). In the preamble, however, the Act indicates that this new order is being established “in the nature of a pact” thereby initiating the debate as to whether or not this document ends the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.
The vast majority of the Puerto Rican electorate has been constant, for decades, in wanting to maintain some type of political relationship with the United States, which includes retaining the citizenship bonds which allow the perpetuation of what writer Luis Rafael Sanchez has called La guagua área (the air bus).
Another factor which impacts the popularity of the status quo is that the Puerto Rican economy with the American economy. Moreover, the programs of the American Welfare State produce funds which directly benefit half of the island population and the other half indirectly. But the matter is truly complex. Public dialogue is complicated daily by the contentious political sectors that constantly quarrel over control of the State.
In a sense, 20th century world history is characterized by the disintegration of territorial empires dating from the Second World War. It was the century of world de-colonization. There are more than 200 Independent countries in the world that serve as example. The status debate has two central aspects: the procedural and the substantive. The procedural aspect refers to the procedure leading to changed in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, in such a way that the result can be perceived as legitimate and of mutual accord. As for the substantive aspect of the debate; that is to say, the content of status alternatives, the arguments are twofold: one based on convenience and the other on considerations of rights and justice.
Independence, the most pluralistic option of the Puerto Rican political universe, is split between those who want Puerto Rico to come completely out of the sphere of influence of the United States and those who think that an independent Puerto Rico can remain inside that sphere provided that national sovereignty is recognized. Most of those who are for independence today are mainly in this second group and consider it convenient for both countries. The sentiment of loyalty to the U.S. is not present among those seeking independence. There has never been independentistas who feel an emotional affinity with the American nation, beyond the universal principle of respect and solidarity.
Independentistas of all types argue that this status option is best because it would return fundamental sovereign powers needed for economic and social development. With this potential at hand, Puerto Rico would be able to establish commercial treaties with other nations; it could, when liberated from maritime transportation restrictions, use a more economic merchant marine; it could control its own system of communications; regulate migration according: to its own Interests; have its own financial system and organize its own participation in international organizations. I t has been proposed that these powers, which are now in the hands of the American State, would give Puerto Ricans useful instruments to promote a more prosperous and harmonious society.
The independence option, however, has not achieved widespread electoral support. The scale of economic dependence, added to systemic practices of political persecution, the inadequacy of public debates, the absence of political work among the neediest sectors, and sectarian conflicts, have limited that option before the eyes of most voters. On the other hand, it is advantageous for the independence movement that Puerto Ricans do not considerer themselves culturally American. Puerto Rico has a dense, mature culture that continues showing a great resistance to assimilation.
Though lacking a broad political and economic project, daily expressions of cultural nationalism are common and ubiquitous. In the United States, however, the fact that we possess a separate cultural identity is linked to debates on the negative effects of migration on the cultural fabric, which produce antagonism and xenophobia in some sectors of the American society at the thought of annexing Puerto Rico to the U.S. political system.
Besides a list of advantages to be gained by Puerto Rico if independence is adopted, independentistas of all types frequently argue that independence is an inalienable right, based on the democratic theories of sovereignty, international rights, and natural law.
The statehood movement, on the other hand, has articulated two messages: the idea that the prosperity and security of Puerto Ricans, personal and collective, is indissolubly linked to the United States and the idea that unconditional loyalty to that nation should be observed. Although the ubiquity of these ideas makes this movement an apparent monolithic block, there are important internal discrepancies regarding its concrete application in respect to how it is intergraded with other general topics such as nationalism or neo-nationalism.
The idea of prosperity and security come, in general, from the image of the United States as the richest country in the world and, in particular, from its welfare policies of transferring (federal) funds to the most disadvantaged sectors of the population. Recognition of that value comes as much from the sectors that receive the benefits, as from those who supply goods and services.
Beyond these material notions, statehood arguments become imprecise. On occasions, comparisons have been made to the economy of Hawaii, highlighting tourism as the powerhouse of the economy under statehood, pleading at the same time for a period of transition during which federal taxes would not be paid, etc. The absence of clarity and coherence in this crucial matter of the economy is neutralized in the political atmosphere by the hope that once we are accepted as a state, the United States will guarantee, one way or another, individual and collective prosperity.
More difficult to catalogue is the problem of the so called puertorriqueñidad (Puerto Rican identity). In spite of more than a hundred years of direct coexistence, and of deliberate attempts of Americanization or cultural assimilation, the identity factor continues to strengthen the notion that there are two separate cultures. In order to deal with this contradiction, the statehood movement has developed the imaginative concept of an “estadidad jíbara” ; that is to say, the idea that a person can participate as a full member of the American Union without losing his own cultural identity, and without making important concessions in language, for example.
This thesis has created controversy inside and outside of the statehood movement. Others believe that statehood implies assimilation, but accept that the advantages of belonging to the United States would compensate for any cultural concession that might be made in exchange for that privilege. These statehood proponents think that “estadidad jíbara” is not a realistic goal and that it can also be counter productive for the strategy of obtaining full political integration.
The other central idea of the statehood movement, which also exhibits some diversity, is unconditional loyalty to the United States. This diversity became noticeable during the campaign to get the Navy to leave Vieques. Some statehood proponents defended the military use of the Island with arguments based on loyalty. Other statehood proponents were opposed to its military use arguing that if Puerto Rico were a state, the Navy would not have acted in such an abusive manner. The first posture identifies loyalty with submission while the second puts an emphasis on equality and on the inherent rights of citizenship.
Regarding the focus on rights and justice, it has been argued that Puerto Ricans, as American citizens since 1917, and having contributed to the well-being of the country, especially through participation in the armed forces during times of peace and war, should not be treated as second class citizens, with a lesser voice and therefore an incomplete citizenship.
The argument that emanates from this idea is ambiguous. On one hand it is said that Puerto Rico is a colony and that this should stop, but this does not excuse the United States from being an imperialistic power. The colony, in other words, is not seen as the result of the hegemonic policies of the United States, but caused by Puerto Ricans who oppose statehood. This incoherence is resolved through the notion that we are dealing with a benevolent empire and that colonialism is not the result of an imposition but of the reluctance of Puerto Ricans to claim their fundamental civic rights. According to this perspective, the party responsible for this indecision is not the federal government, but the local sectors that prefer to maintain a colonial status quo. This contrasts with the position of the independentistas, who believe that Puerto Rico is in fact a colony because the United States, responding to imperial interest, has not created the necessary political conditions for de-colonization.
The average commonwealth supporter or estadolibrista has also presented arguments of convenience along with considerations of rights and justice. The creation of the Commonwealth in 1952 as a legitimate formula of political relationship is described as consonant with the natural condition of freedom. Alternatively, they credit the government”s decrees under the PPD to self governing concessions. Some argue that it is undeniable, in spite of the critiques of the leadership of Luis Muñoz Marín, that P.R. was transformed from a state of extreme hardship to one of relative prosperity and higher living standards.
Based on this history, the estadolibristas relate the autonomous formula to high levels of economic growth without needing to sacrifice cultural values and without the need to leave the sphere of influence of the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world.
Their position alludes to the concrete achievements and benefits palpably enjoyed by the people. The autonomist posture, however, suffers the disadvantage that its political viability is linked to its past and present deficiencies, particularly to its anachronistic economic developing models. There is not doubt nowadays that all political models are bound to their economic viability components.
Those who favor Commonwealth, debate whether it retains a colonial status or not, if it retains “colonial vestiges.” Those who think that the Commonwealth is not a colonial formula believe that Act 600 established a covenant which recognizes our sovereignty, that it is final, and does not need to be amended in a significant way because it fulfills the needs of both Puerto Rico and the United States. The estadolibristas who believe that Commonwealth has colonial vestiges, consider the present status as a transitory condition, therefore surmountable, and that a greater level of autonomy can be reached within a relationship that conserves the basic characteristics of the current political structure.
Arguments based on rights and justice have been shown from the perspective of the Commonwealth as well. Some arguments revalue the concept of the pact. It is alleged that the pact between the United States and Puerto Rico is based on the recognition of the sovereign will of Puerto Rico. This argument links the notion of pact, as conceived in the contractual theories of genuineness, with the idea of the democratic will; and presents any attempt to alter the terms of the relationship without taking into account the preference of the people who have historically preferred the Commonwealth ideal as unjust and unlawful.
We said that the matter of status, beyond the substantive aspect, has a procedural component. The procedures used until now to modify the status fluctuate among popular consultations (plebiscites) and a classic mechanism known in political science as Constituent Assemblies.
Historically, all plebiscites have been won by the defenders of Commonwealth, although the margin of votes continues to fall. These electoral victories, however, have not discouraged their detractors; they have only served to modify electoral tactics. Independence and statehood proponents argue that the Commonwealth is essentially colonial and for that reason illegitimate. They propose, therefore, that a single de-colonization formula should be presented to the electorate. Commonwealth defenders, however, allege that they have never tried to impose opponents a definition of their formulas (statehood and independence) and they should, therefore, desist on defining Commonwealth options.
The Constitutional Assembly as a mechanism to resolve the status has been the object of discrepancies among its proponents. It has been proposed as a mechanism to generate a consensus among Puerto Ricans in order to present their demands as a united front to the Congress of the United States. It has also been suggested thai it could be used as an opportunity to open dialogue with the federal goverment regarding the options that the Congress would consider viable. It has never been explained how the different parties would unite to create a political consensus. As the United States has never sponsored a status consultation or commited itself to accept the result of popular vote, some believe that a Constitutional Assembly is the only viable option for political action.
Raúl Cotto Serrano
Political Science Professor
University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 24, 2010.
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