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Why the delay over Puerto Rican self-determination?

When presidential candidates get on stage and say they support self-determination for Puerto Rico one can’t help but wonder what they are talking about. Puerto Ricans have been clamoring for self-determination for over a century. If we’re on the same page then what’s been holding up the issue?
6 Feb 2020 – 04:07 PM EST
Puerto Rico's Capitol building. Crédito: Getty Images

In the political history of Puerto Rico, nothing has been more constant or more hollow than empty promises of self-determination, by both major U.S. political parties - Republican and Democratic.

It’s easy to think the just and democratic stance consists in leaving it to us, but if this were true the United States wouldn’t still be holding territories in 2020. The rhetoric of 'self-determination' doesn’t actually avoid controversy with the people of Puerto Rico. On the contrary, it masks and maintains a political inaction that breeds far more conflict.

When a politician claims support for Puerto Ricans’ choice, they falsely wash their hands of any responsibility in the matter. In reality, the issue isn’t in Puerto Rico’s hands. Puerto Rico could democratically reject being a territory tomorrow and Congress could simply ignore the issue. How do we know? Because it’s not a hypothetical. In 2012, close to 54 percent of Puerto Ricans rejected the current territorial status in an island-wide referendum.

While the ballot was controversial, this self-determined rejection of the status quo is not up for debate. And yet nothing has changed because, despite presidential candidates’ assertions to the contrary, Puerto Ricans do not possess the basic right to self-determine their future.

But of course Puerto Ricans are used to empty words.

Since Hurricane María, Puerto Ricans expect very little from the federal government. Empty words are used to paper over the slow and discriminatory aid that barely trickles down to Puerto Rico still years after the Hurricane. Amid the shattered homes, cracked churches and powerless hospitals, a morbid cynicism envelops Puerto Rico after recent earthquakes.

The mental pictures are seared in our minds: a President throwing paper towels, complaining about the cost of helping us and lying about how much help we received. This treatment serves as a painful reminder of Puerto Ricans’ second-class participation in the American national experiment. Puerto Ricans are stuck in a political status quo that grows more and more untenable every day.

Yet despite decades of clamors for a change, Puerto Rico isn’t any closer to becoming a state, an independent nation or any other status of its own choosing. Many referenda, local resolutions and petitions across the years have expressed Puerto Rican desires for a change in their political status. Yet they have mostly been met with indifference or half-hearted attention in Washington D.C..

When presidential candidates get on stage and say they support self-determination for Puerto Rico one can’t help but wonder what they are talking about. Puerto Ricans have been clamoring for self-determination for over a century. If we’re on the same page then what’s been holding up the issue?

It’s this: When candidates say they support 'self-determination' they obscure the underlying power imbalance that exists between Puerto Rico and the United States. Because Congress is sovereign over Puerto Rico, the island, by definition, doesn’t have the freedom or power to self-determine. Congress has the freedom to ignore Puerto Rican’s determinations. And Congress has continually exercised that freedom.

Throughout history, many have delayed addressing Puerto Rican self-determination. Initially, racial concerns prevented Puerto Rico from being heard. Later military and defense concerns made keeping Puerto Rico as a possession vital to U.S. interests. Later still, Puerto Rico’s tax haven status provided powerful economic incentives to large corporations. Thus any requests to decolonize Puerto Rico were met with the desire to put other priorities first. “Well, maybe after the economy improves,” ignoring the fact that all US territories are by far poorer than the poorest states and that federal policy plays an undeniable role in that economic hierarchy.

“Well what about the corruption in Puerto Rico?” This argument presupposes either that corruption is slim to none in the states or that Puerto Rico is just so far above the states in corruption. None of these are supported by data and reflect an underlying bias. In fact, studies have shown Puerto Rico is not even in the top 10 US jurisdictions with most convicted officials per capita. If this logic holds, should we give less aid to natural disaster victims in Alabama or Kentucky? Absolutely not! But corruption doesn’t seem to offend as much until it’s done by the other.

More importantly, these arguments are rarely given in good faith. These supposed obstacles don’t justify delaying the basic democratic rights of more than three million people. Even granting some astronomical level of corruption, it is not the United States’ job to decide our fitness to exercise our right to self-determination.

In sum, when politicians claim to support self-determination, without clearly stating how they will empower Puerto Ricans to exercise it, they hide a fundamentally colonial relationship of power. It’s disingenuous and doesn’t move the issue along in any way.

A true commitment to self-determination for Puerto Rico implies committing to a process that originates in Congress to negotiate the future with Puerto Rican leaders and allows Puerto Ricans to make a free and binding choice on their political future. Politicians need to shift their talk from supporting to empowering. It’s not enough to support self-determination.

Many have suggested a variety of options that allow Puerto Ricans of all stripes to be heard – a congressionally-binding referendum on status options, a constitutional assembly or some combination of processes.

Regardless of the path forward, candidates for President, the Senate and the House need to know that, from now on, it is no longer acceptable to simply support self-determination or a particular option like independence or statehood. Politicians need to take responsibility for their power and concretely state what process they’ll support for the ultimate decolonization of Puerto Rico . Only through a binding process that gives Puerto Ricans a meaningful voice can we end a system where Puerto Ricans currently go without one. Anything less and we risk 120 more years of government by the people for some other people.

(Edoardo A. Ortiz is a Master of Public Policy Candidate, University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy)