Two Wings of the Same Bird (Part II):
In his most recent end of the year address, President Obama pledged to “leave behind the legacy of colonialism” in Latin America. Based on the actions taken in the past few months this promise is being upheld by the United States’ diplomatic efforts in Cuba. However, this unprecedented action by the United States in Cuba is disparate to their stance towards colonialism in Puerto Rico.
For the last six decades the United States has remained reluctant to any type of change in Puerto Rico’s status quo, despite thirty-two resolutions by the United Nations’ decolonization committee advocating for Puerto Rico’s independence. The United States has shielded itself by saying that the Puerto Rican people have not explicitly asked for a change in its political status. The claim became null and void, when through a non-binding referendum, fifty-two percent of voters expressed in 2012, their desire to change Puerto Rico’s status. Without a doubt, discontent with the current colonial status is on the rise given the economic depression that has been strangling Puerto Rico for the past nine years.
At the moment large sectors of the local population are in favor of maintaining a political association with the United States either through statehood or commonwealth. Nonetheless, there is huge misinformation of the implications and shortcomings of the aforementioned systems and there is immense fear of independence. This fear stems from the repressive policies of the gag laws implemented in 1948 by the government of Luis Muñoz Marín and spans to other extraneous factors like the myth of the necessity of permanent ties with the United States to maintain a stable economy.
Ever since Commonwealth status absolved the United States from submitting yearly reports on colonialism in Puerto Rico to the United Nation’s Decolonization Committee, indifference has been the policy of choice from the United States’ government towards Puerto Rico. The minute changes that have occurred since 1952 have all been made exclusively to favor American interests in the island.
If the United States really wishes to end colonialism immediate action must be taken in Puerto Rico to give its people more political freedom. The US Congress needs to evaluate the alternatives that could be presented to the Puerto Rican people for a referendum. If Congress does this, statehood may not be among the options, because it has never been a politically palatable option neither for the US government nor the US public. As the Governmental Accountability Office’s 2011 report on Puerto Rican statehood shows, statehood would actually prove detrimental to the economic well-being of Puerto Ricans in the island. Certainly, independence should unquestionably be an option in accordance with the right of all peoples to self-determination, but there are also all the options that lie between these two extremes, where Puerto Rico would be given various degrees of increased autonomy.
A binding process of federal legislation ought to take place to effectively give Puerto Ricans their right to self-determination. The creation of a Puerto Rican Constitutional Assembly should be a requisite to set forth the framework for each of the decolonizing options, whatever they ultimately may be. When this process is finished, a broad political campaign must be set in motion so that Puerto Rican voters understand their options before voting on them in a binding referendum. At the moment, there is no pressure on the United States to carry out these democratic reforms; it is now up to the Puerto Rican people to demand this process. As the United States embarks on a long overdue restoration of its relationship with Cuba, it is only fitting that the United States perform a long overdue reevaluation of Puerto Rico, and give the island’s people the rights that have been denied to them for too long.
On April 10 of 2015, for the first time in history all thirty-five sovereign states of the Americas will partake in the Summit of the Americas. This meeting, which will be hosted in Panama, will be the first attended by Cuba after it was reincorporated in the OAS in 2009 following forty-seven years of absence. Dignitaries from the entire continent will develop regional policy to promote security, economic stability and democratic governance. The conference’s’ emphasis on democratic governance will strongly revolve around Cuba and the expansion of liberties promised by the Cuban government. Economic policy will be influenced by the recent economic downturn in Venezuela and, to a lesser degree, in Argentina. Given the strong influence of drug cartels in the continent, cooperation agreements to crackdown on these criminal organizations will also be important. Even though Puerto Rico would potentially benefit from the agreements that will be enacted in this regional summit, the island is forced to look from the sidelines as a result of its colonial status. Meanwhile, the rest of the continent becomes further integrated as a product of globalization.
Despite the century that has separated the once intertwined history and political situations of Cuba and Puerto Rico, small steps have been taken to rebuild bonds between these two sister nations. Puerto Rican Secretary of State, David Bernier, has been in talks to open touristic cooperation between Cuba and Puerto Rico, given the proximity of the islands and the allure that visiting both islands in one trip provides. There are plans to charter dozens of direct flights to Cuba from Puerto Rico starting this summer. Talks about developing economic relations have also surfaced as a product of the new policy changes. Puerto Rican officials and entrepreneurs are set to visit Cuba this May to explore economic prospects. Moreover, although there is no specific date as of now, an agreement in principle to welcome Cuban officials to Puerto Rico for diplomatic talks has been reached.
The recent developments are uplifting, to say the least, but history must not be forgotten. Puerto Rico’s international relations exist in name only, as evidenced by the insubstantial “agreements” reached with the Dominican Republic. The visit by Dominican President, Danilo Medina, to Puerto Rico last January was no more than a political ploy, given that nothing more than a state sponsored student exchange program between local universities was developed. Even though only eighty miles separate Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic the trade barriers make it seem as if though they were in opposite corners of the globe.
Puerto Rico’s colonial status has limited bilateral agreements with many countries in the past. In 1986 for example the US balked a proposed agreement between Puerto Rico and Japan that would have provided strong tax incentives for Japanese companies to invest in Puerto Rico. If no meaningful change takes place, it is impossible to deny that Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth status will pose a significant obstacle to any sort of treaty with Cuba.
As protestors amassed in front of La Fortaleza last on March 5th, it became evident that Puerto Rico is currently at a crossroads. Unlike Cuba, which has been slowly growing economically as a result of its gradual openness to liberalization, Puerto Rico has been amassing public debt for decades. Thousands of Puerto Ricans expressed their discontent at the recent reforms to the Puerto Rican tax system aimed at repaying Puerto Rico’s huge public debt. It is undoubtedly true that Puerto Ricans do understand the economic implications of the moment in relation to their daily lives. Yet few are able to grasp that this is the largest economic crisis in Puerto Rico since the Great Depression.
Shrouded by the issues at hand, Puerto Ricans are yet to notice how their growing isolation in regards to the international community has brought the island to its current economic debacle. Well-prepared Puerto Rican professionals are fleeing in hordes searching for employment opportunities that are simply unavailable in the island, leaving Puerto Rico devoid of human capital. Resources like the Port of the Americas in Ponce, in southern Puerto Rico, are left unproductive by the restrictive nature of Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status. Whereas Puerto Rico could potentially be the center of commercial trade union linking the Americas and the Caribbean with the rest of the world, most Puerto Ricans firmly hold yesteryear’s belief that remaining tied to the United States gives Puerto Rico the “best of both worlds”. If the status quo in Puerto Rico continues, the current crisis will be harder to surmount and the political and national distance between Cuba and Puerto Rico could even be broadened. Cuba will not only become a direct competitor in the Caribbean region but will also have an advantage by having all the powers of a sovereign nation while also partaking in the flourishing agreements that are being developed in this twenty-first century in Latin America and the rest of the world.
Change is inevitable; whether or not Puerto Rico will benefit from the recent changes to politics in the Caribbean region will soon be determined. The confluence of colonialism and complacency has led to the current state of affairs on the island. The benefits the United States derives from maintaining commonwealth status and the lack of political will in the island have coalesced to distance Puerto Rico from Cuba and the rest of the world.
In light of the recent developments, it is important that the United States remains loyal to its commitment to eliminate colonialism in Latin America and that the Puerto Rican people remind the US government to adhere to their rhetoric. Only an unwavering mandate to establish Puerto Rico as nation with equal political and economic standing to the rest of the world will ensure the well-being of the Puerto Rican people and the reconstruction of the lost bond with the Cuban people. It is imperative that the recent agreements between Cuba and the United States positively impact Puerto Rico as well. It is up to the Puerto Rican people to decide whether or nor they will eventually follow the same path as Cuba and complete a Latin America free of colonialism. One hundred twenty years after Lola Rodríguez de Tió wrote her emblematic poem Cuba and Puerto Rico have the possibility of again being two wings of the same bird.