Two Wings of the Same Bird
“Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of the same bird,” said the Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió in her poem “A Cuba.” In 1895 these words echoed the close bonds and common heritage that the two island-nations shared and had shared for centuries. Both islands were the last colonial vestiges in the Americas of the decaying Spanish empire. With the emancipatory creed of “The Antilles for the Antilleans,” patriots from both islands conspired against Spanish dominance and dreamt of an Antillean Confederation. El Grito de Lares in Puerto Rico and El Grito de Yara in Cuba, both occurring with a difference of twelve days in 1868, were the first and most remembered attempts to achieve the goal of a unified Caribbean. Although these uprisings failed, they paved the way for further cooperation between Puerto Rican and Cuban revolutionaries and consequentially lead the Spanish government to enact a series of reforms to placate discontent.
In the 1890s, with the intensification of the Cuban insurgency, José Martí and Ramón Emeterio Betances would work together in exile on gaining independence for Cuba and, from there, to lead the push to liberate Puerto Rico. This collaboration would be confirmed in 1892, wh
en during a Cuban Revolutionary Party meeting in New York the Puerto Rican flag was created using the recently developed Cuban flag as inspiration. Yet the cession of Puerto Rico to the United States, a product of the 1898 Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War, would clip the wings of the Caribbean bird.
On December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama gave an unequivocal statement in his end of the year address declaring “the end of an outdated approach” that had for decades created a divide between the Cuban and American people. Starting with a prisoner exchange that lead to the release of American defense contractor Alan Gross and Cuban intelligence officer Rolando Saraff Trujillo, both nations began normalizing their diplomatic relations.
Several agreements have already been set in place, among them the beginning of the process to remove Cuba from the list of countries that “condone terrorism.” Perhaps most significantly, Cuban exporters will be allowed to sell their products in the US, and Cuba will allow for a gradual process of openness to US products and investment. Assets belonging to Cuban citizens will be unfrozen and the limit for remittances to Cuban citizens will be increased to $2,000 USD per trimester.
Additionally, Cuban officials have agreed to allow American corporations to open accounts in Cuban financial institutions, and Cuba will begin importing telecommunication technology from US manufacturers. In January, advances were made towards loosening travel restrictions, thereby promoting the flow of people between the two countries. Collectively, these policies will not only improve the living conditions of Cuban citizens but also will help allay any concerns regarding the transparency of Raul Castro’s efforts to grant greater political freedom to Cubans.
These short-term accords have drastically advanced negotiations and have lead President Obama to affirm that the US might have an embassy in Havana by April. There is still a long way to go; many justifiably expect opposition from the current Republican Congress to any proposal eliminating the half-century old economic embargo. Nevertheless, it is not unbelievable that the current bilateral diplomatic effort may lead to the removal of these sanctions and a long-overdue normalization of trade and diplomacy. But given the historical affinity between Cuba and Puerto Rico, what would this shift imply for Puerto Rico?
After US intervention both islands differed diametrically in their political courses. While the Cuban Republic was established in 1902 by guarantee of the 1901 Platt Amendment, Puerto Rico remained a colonial possession of the United States as specified by the Foraker Act of 1900. The smaller of the Antilles received only limited self-government, constrained by the authority of American-appointed governors and the US Congress. Unarguably, both nations were American spheres of influence until the Cold War. Cuba remained a client state vulnerable to US military intervention on behalf of American commercial interests; Puerto Rico was, and still is, subject to the US Constitution. For the first half of the twentieth century, inhabitants of both islands would fall victim to widespread poverty as a consequence of American-backed regimes.
The Cold War instituted the current status quo for both islands, and reshaped US policy towards them. The Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950 afforded the island partial self-governance and the ability to enact a constitution. Commonwealth status was granted to Puerto Rico on July 25, 1952, effectively appeasing appeals to end colonialism and safeguarding American influence in the Caribbean; Puerto Rico would serve as a Caribbean “window to democracy” in America’s conflict with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 would create a revolutionary socialist state with Fidel Castro at its helm. Whereas Cuba was economically strangled by the 1962 embargo, Puerto Rico received large amounts of investment and support from the United States.
Yet ultimately Puerto Rico’s political status remains a colonial one. Although local statesmen drafted the Puerto Rican Constitution, it was drastically revised by the US Congress to restrict Puerto Rico’s autonomy. Puerto Rico is also subordinate to the laws of the US Congress as stipulated in the Territorial Clause of the US Constitution. Second, Puerto Rico only has one non-voting resident commissioner in Congress. Moreover, Puerto Rico cannot enter trade agreements or join international bodies without the approval of the US Congress. This not only bars Puerto Rico from bodies like the United Nations or the Organization of American States but also from regional trade agreements like Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
Furthermore, Puerto Rico is also subject to fiscal policy restrictions that limit the island’s economic performance. Puerto Rico’s government cannot engage in deficit spending since must maintain a balanced budget at all times, and it must prioritize its debt obligations to bondholders before any other spending. Further, the Cabotage Laws ratified by the Jones Act of 1917 oblige all of Puerto Rico’s seafaring trade to be carried out by the United States Merchant Marine regardless of whether or not the product comes from the United States. According to research sponsored by Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, the Cabotage Laws increase the price of Puerto Rico’s imports by 40%, which harms Puerto Rican consumers and discourages commerce with the island. Puerto Rico also uses the US dollar as its currency, which might be beneficial in terms of the dollar’s reliability, but also takes monetary policy out of the hands of the Puerto Rican government.
When comparing Cuba and Puerto Rico, many point to Cuba’s Human Rights record as a flaw that vindicates Puerto Rico’s neocolonial status. Cuba has an undeniably poor track record in allowing its citizens political rights. Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are significantly curtailed, and the state’s arbitrary detentions, as well as its severe prison sentences against political dissidents, are reprehensible. However, Cuba has taken steps to improve these problems; the Cuban government has begun a gradual process of political liberalisation since Raul Castro took the reigns in 2006. Political prisoners have been released in waves since 2010 and civil groups have gained recognition as well. Moreover, since the economic embargo on Cuba has also played a massive role in enabling the Cuban regime to institute repressive policies in the name of defending Cuban sovereignty, as these sanctions against Cuba are removed the civil liberties of the Cuban people should be expected to improve. The path for a better Cuba has already begun.
On paper, Puerto Rico has a better human rights record than Cuba. Puerto Rico’s Constitution is one of Latin America’s most progressive documents with respect to securing civil liberties and human rights. A plethora of vocal civil groups play an active role in the development of the island. Yet the liberal leanings of Puerto Rico’s constitution belie, the fact that it is subsumed by the hegemony of the United States is a violation of Puerto Rico’s right to self-government. Puerto Rico’s political status is founded on an antidemocratic relationship with the United States, as signalled by the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. Additionally, the Puerto Rican government has historically had its own human rights issues, including the crackdown on separatists through the 1948 Gag Law, which made opposing Commonwealth Status valid grounds for incarceration. Even now, police brutality, overcrowded prisons, and judicial partiality on the basis of wealth have become widespread problems in Puerto Rico. A 2012 Department of Justice report stated that between 2004 and 2010 there were 24,700 complaints by civilians of misconduct by police officers. While a recent reform to the Puerto Rican Penal Code has started a new process of transparency for these complaints, there have been no changes whatsoever to the essential neocolonial status of Puerto Rico.Thus both nations have issues of human rights to ameliorate.
Yet Cuba alone has the upper hand when it comes to autonomy in international relations. Cuba is a founding member of both the UN and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and has had an active role in international and regional policy making, which Puerto Rico pointedly lacks. Economic agreements like ALBA and PetroCaribe have allowed Cuba to develop exchange programs between the Cuban service sector and Venezuelan raw material markets. Notwithstanding its Commonwealth status, Puerto Rico is excluded from the preferential trade agreements that the US has developed with countries across the globe. The initiation of NAFTA in 1994 removed the comparative advantage Puerto Rico possessed in its free access to the US market. Cuba is in the midst of a third round of negotiations with the European Union, with the High Representative of the EU Federica Mogherini scheduled to visit Cuba on March 24, 2015. Considering the success of the agreements Cuba has already brokered with Spain, there is potential for Cuba to serve as a trade link between Europe and the Caribbean. Longstanding agreements between Cuba and China already amount to nearly $1.5 billion USD of trade a year, demonstrating how Cuba has become increasingly intertwined with the rest of the world, despite US sanctions. If relations between Cuba and the United States continue to thaw, Cuba will be poised to develop into an economic powerhouse in the Caribbean.
Whereas Puerto Rico is limited to a relationship that is unilaterally beneficial to the United States, Cuba is developing its global interdependence. The fact that Puerto Rico has been deprived of playing a role in an increasingly interconnected world is one of the contributing factors to its eight-year streak of negative growth. There are no signs of an economic boom either, as more direct investment is being withdrawn from Puerto Rico. Without an end to its neocolonial status, Puerto Rico will continue in slow decline, looking from a distance at Cuba’s growth. The distance between Puerto Rico and Cuba has never been as accentuated as it is today.