The United States emerged as a country, a nation, under the symbol of liberalism. The values of the European Enlightenment, which matured during the 18th century, served as an ideological base for the fight for independence against the English monarchy and later for the design of a Constitution and the creation of other political institutions and norms of coexistence. The political culture of the country, therefore, privileged individual inalienable rights before the State, the separation of Church and State, and a democratic system of government. At the same time, it distrusted power, including its more abject forms of imperialism (power of one country over another) and tyranny (power of the State over individuals). Moreover, that political culture has always maintained that the political field did not extend to other autonomous areas of society, such as the economy, culture, education, and religion.
The U.S. was also born under the aegis of federalism; that is to say, the decentralization of political power. For that reason, its first organic document was the Articles of Confederation, under which each territory (the original thirteen colonies) retained ample sovereign powers, such as the right to maintain its own army and to coin its own currency.
But the imperatives of a strong economy required common commercial norms and a climate of stability and dependability, resulting in political forces that limited federal values in lieu of a central government that could guarantee order and equal treatment. The result was the repeal of the Articles of Confederation and the approval of the Constitution of the United States which still governs today.
The road to centralization was not easy. Some of the federated states which had maintained the institution of slavery alive saw their political influence threatened by the addition of new states. These southern states opted then to keep their sovereignty, leave the Union, and create their own Confederacy. The central government did not accept that such right existed; it argued that the Federated Union, once formed, was indivisible. This gave rise to a Civil War. The Union prevailed over the new Confederacy, and from then on it has been the norm that when a territory is incorporated into the Union, it cedes its sovereignty to the Federal State. Therefore, once a state has become part of the Union, it can never go back. The American Union today is de facto and de jure indivisible.
With the onset of the Spanish American War, the United States obtained overseas territories and transformed itself into a world super-power, competing with the richer and more advanced nations of Europe. Later, the trend towards the centralization of power culminated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt`s New Deal policies.
But the definitive emergence of the United States as a world super-power took place at the end of the Second World War in 1945, coinciding with the consolidation of the National Welfare State. The war concluded with the bombing of Japan with two atomic bombs. The monopoly over such weapons was an unequivocal sign of military and political strength. In July 1944, at the Bretton Woods conference, a new world economic system which greatly favored the United States interests was created. The agreement stipulated that the dollar would be used as currency between nations, at a fixed exchange rate of $35.00 per ounce of gold. This created an unprecedented global need for U.S. dollars, thus opening investments opportunities for American capital around the world.
Not much later, however, the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) broke the U.S. atomic monopoly giving life to a new international rivalry, which became known as the Cold War, and which lasted four decades. This rivalry produced a bipolar world in which practically all nations became affiliated with either side. Those countries that opted not to join either side were denominated Non-Aligned Countries.
Eventually, at the beginning of the 1990s, the USSR collapsed as a nation, disintegrating into independent Republics, with Russia dominating the field. The United States then emerges as the only super-power in a world that has regrouped itself in new configurations of power at regional levels, which are more diverse now than during the Cold War.
The United States strength, however, was not only due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its economy, its incomparable military power, and its assigned role as the world`s policing agent also played crucial roles. It is, therefore, not surprising that New York City, the U.S. financial center was named Capital of the 20th Century.
Nevertheless, the U.S. also faced problems which have affected its prestige before the world and weakened its hegemonic power. It is worth mentioning, for example, the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system at the beginning of the 1970s. Also important were the demoralizing events of the defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.
To date, the United States conserves enormous world authority, in spite of a certain loss of prestige and influence. It should be noted that the American agenda, especially after the attack of September 11, 2001(9/11), has been focused on terrorism. The answer to this event has included the invasion of Afghanistan arid Iraq.
The invasion of Iraq was plagued with controversies and massive protests throughout the world. The United States could not convince the United Nation`s Security Council to support the invasion, and rushed out only with the support of the United Kingdom, Spain (then under a right-wing government) and a group of dependent on small nations. This multinational force (which President Bush named The Coalition) dissolved with time as the situation in Iraq deteriorated.
After a weak opposition on the part of Hussein`s regime, an internal and external resistance degenerated into a sectarian conflict among different Islamic groups. The conflict is not religious, but political, and keeps the country at the edge of civil war. The American military has not been able to stabilize the country. Indeed, the number of American soldiers who die in the conflict is increasing every day. This waste, and the mismanagement of resources during the Hurricane Katrina crisis of 2005, which destroyed New Orleans has considerably reduced the popularity of the Bush administration.
American politics overflow into Puerto Rico. Issues like the migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S., abortion, and homosexual marriages, are among the most popular. Even controversies related to the war in Iraq have touched the status debates.
Immigration has always been a privileged topic in Puerto Rico. One of the perceived benefits of the colonial relationship with the U.S. is that individuals can travel freely to the continent. The burning immigration topic there, however, is not the flow of Puerto Ricans, but the growing scale of illegal immigration from Mexico. There is no doubt that immigration benefits both countries. Mexicans in the United States replace cheap labor and send millions of dollars to their families in Mexico. It has been calculated, for example, that the most important economic activity of the state of Jalisco is money received by families from relatives in the United States.
An important American sector does not perceive the relationship with Mexican immigrants as mutually beneficial. Some right-wing groups, for example, argue that because immigration is illegal, it has a disruptive effect on the social fabric. Others focus more on the aspect of public expense, putting emphasis on the costs of providing social services, in health and education, which impose a burden on local communities. These complaints have led Congress to regulate immigration more strictly. Some of the legislative proposals that incorporate a right-wing perspective have provoked massive protests on the part of immigrants and other groups who value the positive effects of immigration. The main liberal argument is that the United States is indeed a country of immigrants.
The result of this conflict has exacerbated a cultural internal debate which right-wing ideologues call a “cultural war.” Important groups argue that Hispanic immigrants are a threat to the homogeneity and integrity of the American culture because they resist assimilation and seek to maintain close ties to their native cultures. The cultural effect of this practice, they insist, is detrimental to the nation. One of the most debated arguments is the Insistence on making English the nation`s only official language. President Bush has announced that speaking English will be a requirement for future immigrants who wish to legalize their stay; the same applies to eligibility for social services and benefits. Another unfortunate strategy is the construction of an enormous fence at the Mexican-US border, accompanied by an aggressive policy of persecuting illegal Hispanic immigrants. Once again, the tension between universal human rights and the civil rights granted by the State have come to the surface.
Other key issues of the current public agenda relate to abortion and homosexual marriages. Abortion has been a source of controversy for decades. However, the debate is not really focused on abortion per se. Nobody has argued that abortion is good in itself or that as more abortions are performed, the better society will be. What is defended is a woman`s right to choose. The actual debate is located mainly in the country`s ideological spectrum: the religious right is against abortion, while the liberal left is in favor of a woman`s right to choose.
Recently, when President Bush nominated two conservatives candidates to the Supreme Court, the Senate confirmation hearings geared around the Roe v. Wade case. The Senate confirmed both Justices and, as a result, a whole new plethora of abortion cases are expected to be heard. As long as the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States apply to Puerto Rico, the result of these debates will have an immediate impact on our social policies.
The topic of a woman`s right to choose has been related to the feminist movement. This, in turn, has extended the problem of gender freedom and the fight for the rights of homosexuals. Homosexual marriages can be seen in two ways. First, it has to do with the legal protections which the State recognizes only in heterosexual marriages, such as inheritance, property rights and medical authorizations, among others. Few countries, such as Belgium, have extended these protections to unwed couples (who live together), including homosexual couples. But in the United States and Puerto Rico this is not accepted. Because homosexual couples lack those rights, they constantly lobby to legalize homosexual marriages.
The institution of marriage also has a very powerful symbolic value because it endows a couple`s relationships with a mantle of legitimacy. The traditional right wing mentality posits that homosexual unions should not be normalized by the State because they are not natural. If marriage is the institutionalization of human reproduction, thereby allowing for the continuity of a social group, then it cannot be extended to relationships which, by nature, cannot procreate. Doing so therefore weakens the institution of marriage, which is the fundamental social nucleus. Other fundamentalist limit their arguments to supposed biblical principles.
Another conservative sector does recognize the reality of exclusion and discrimination against homosexuals, but its reply does not include the extension of marriage because it considers it unnecessary. This sector argues that the State can legislate to give homosexual couples the same rights that the law grants married couples, thus it needs not legalize marriage per se. The symbolic value of marriage should remain tied to the reproductive process. Therefore, if allowing marriage among homosexuals would weaken the most important social and cultural institution, it is better to create an alternate legal equality, without having to dilute the traditional symbolic value of marriage.
However, the proponents of homosexual marriages argue that extending this same symbolic value to homosexual couples represents civilization`s progress because it corrects retrograde norms of discrimination. The issue is not limited to legal rights. It extends to the enrichment of our cultural values.
The arguments on abortion and homosexual marriage in the United States and Puerto Rico have polarized the political arena between right and left. In both issues, the right-wing supports traditional prohibitions, while the left-wing (the liberal sectors) favors innovation. Because judicial and political decisions in the United States determine what happens in Puerto Rico, we should not overlook their relevancy.
The rise of terrorist activity in recent years has brought to the surface the natural tensions between the value of personal freedom and the political imperative of State Security.
In the United States, until the end of the 20th century, resistance to the encroachment of government on personal freedom defined the political culture of the nation. There have been marked exceptions; one was the so called war against anarchism in the early 20thcentury, when radical labor movements were considered an imminent threat. Another exception was during the early days of the Cold War, with the mass anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.
The political culture of the USA, however, has been a staunch supporter of individual freedoms. During the 1960s, for example, the State supported the Civil Rights Movement by backing groups who fought for the rights of blacks in the south; a movement which had repercussions around the world. The success of the federal government in wiping out racially discriminatory laws and practices which still persisted in some regions, served as an example for the rest of the world, strengthening the confidence of its citizens in its institutions.
So far, things have changed in the 21st century. While the forces of neo-liberal capitalism intensify the dismantlement of the National Welfare State, a new enemy, international terrorism, which it seeks to fight with all available legal and extralegal resources, is growing. After the sudden attacks of 9/11, the principles of personal freedom, though still alive, at least on a rhetorical level, are being questioned by concerns of national security. Laws such as The Patriot Act, accompanied by enormous assignments of resources to bolster security measures, accentuate the State of Exception, where individual freedoms are subordinated to the use of power needed to contain an enemy, in this case, international terrorism. In the current state of affairs, the War on Terror claims that it is now necessary to limit individual rights that for more than two centuries were paramount in the country`s political culture.
It is worth noting that Puerto Rico does not occupy a clear position in the context of this American antinomy. There is no doubt that during the Cold War, the criteria of national security, led by the Armed Forces, determined the policies of the United States towards Puerto Rico, as strategic concerns stimulated building Naval and Air Force bases with atomic capability. Today, however, new military technology has made those facilities obsolete, forcing their closure, and it is uncertain what role Puerto Rico should play in the new geopolitical strategies of the United States. Consequently, some confusion exists on the subject.
Today, the right-wing mentality in the US tends to favor the status quo. Change is not viable until geo-political strategies point in another direction. The basic supposition is that we are a useful territory. The liberal left, meanwhile, fluctuates between two commendable goals: to grant Puerto Rico the right to self determination (including allowing for independence or self government, if the people so choose); the other is to open the way, as an act of generosity, for annexation to the Union with full rights and obligations, even though we are a culturally different nation. In other words, the liberal values of cultural plurality make the integration of a different culture entirely acceptable. Conversely, for right-wing conservatives, this act would represent a dividing event because it would break the cultural unit which has been zealously guarded throughout the nation`s history. It is somewhat ironic that the liberal left, which values self determination and diversity, would readily accept a bid for independence or autonomy. Such a proposal would represent an insult for the right conservative.
Which approach will prevail? Only future events shall shed light on this. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that the question of scale has been a powerful factor in perpetuating the forces of inertia and inaction. Many of the political observers and analysts in the United States (and in Puerto Rico) have given up on the notion of ever seeing the American government take into account the needs of such a small territory which can only exert a limited impact on its economic and political process.
Raúl Cotto Serrano
Political Science Professor,
University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 24, 2010.
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