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Statehood, Independence, Or The Status Quo? Puerto Rico’s Past, Present, And Future

Puerto Ricans are going to the polls this November to vote on statehood. Should it pass, they will petition the United States for entrance into our union. Unlike three similar referendums in the past, this time the U.S. Congress and both political party candidates have signaled a willingness to consider the petition and accept whatever the Puerto Rican people choose to do. We will be running  a series of articles in our history section on the Puerto Rican commonwealth, their history, their current status as a territory of the United States, and the long-term ramifications should their people vote for statehood and be accepted.


On November 6, 2012, eligible voters on the island of Puerto Rico will go to the polls to vote on a referendum that has the potential to change their lives forever. In this historic plebiscite, Puerto Ricans will be asked to answer two important questions: first, are they happy with the island’s current status as a territory of the United States; and second, if this relationship were to be changed, what kind of change would they prefer to see?

All voters, regardless of how they answer the first question, will be asked to choose from among three options when they answer the second:

  • Independence
  • Statehood
  • Nationhood in free association with the United States (a form of independence that would maintain a negotiated “special relationship” between the two countries)

This is actually the fourth time since 1967 that Puerto Ricans have been asked to choose between preserving the status quo and opting for change, but this referendum is considered to be something different from the others because the U.S. Congress, the President of the United States, and his opponent in the upcoming general election have all signaled their inclination to accept whatever decision the Puerto Rican people make. In past referendums, U.S. political leaders had never made their thoughts or intentions clear, and each time Puerto Rican voters chose to preserve the status quo rather than venture into the unknown.

While Puerto Rican citizens (who of course are also American citizens) are being offered three options for a change of status, in reality this referendum will produce one of two results: Puerto Ricans will either vote for statehood, or they will choose to leave things they way they are and remain a U.S. “commonwealth” (this term is essentially a euphemism for territory or colony). If they decide for the former, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in the U.S. House will introduce a bill petitioning Congress to accept Puerto Rico as the fifty-first state, and if this legislation were to be passed by first the House and then the Senate, at that point the world’s most populous territory would be just a presidential signature away from officially becoming a part of our Union.

Theoretically, this situation is essentially no different than it was in 1967, 1993, and 1998, when the previous referendums on Puerto Rico’s future were held. But this time, it appears the Puerto Rican people may finally be ready to consider changing the nature of a relationship with the United States that has existed without fundamental alteration for the past 114 years.

1898: The United States Becomes A Colonial Power

Until the late nineteenth century, the United States had always refused to get involved in the game of empire building. While the likes of Great Britain, Spain, Belgium, and Germany were actively attempting to spread their power and influence by colonizing indigenous peoples and resource-rich lands all over the globe, the U.S. concentrated on extending its borders steadily westward, exploiting the North American continent’s natural bounty to fuel its phenomenal rates of economic expansion and population growth. But the American frontier had essentially ceased to exist by the late 1890s, and those who believed our nation must continue to expand if it expected to prosper in the future began trumpeting the idea that the United States should finally enter the fray and begin competing for colonies with the European powers, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A combination of national outrage over the mysterious sinking of the battleship Maine in the Havana harbor, legitimate hemispheric security concerns, and the growing desire for empire probably explain the U.S. decision to go to war with Spain in 1898. Whatever U.S. intentions were at the start, when the conflict was over, it had truly arrived as a colonial power, as it suddenly found itself in possession of the former Spanish territories of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. It then sought to manage these possessions as dictated by the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States” (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2).

In 1900, Congress passed the Foraker Act to deal specifically with Puerto Rico. This legislation called for the island to be run by a governor appointed by the U.S. president, a non-elected Executive Council, and a popularly elected House of Delegates that would have less power than the other two actors in this triumvirate. Just two years later, Congress gave Puerto Rico a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which would be filled by a democratically elected Resident Commissioner who would be allowed to sit in on legislative sessions even though he would not be permitted to cast any actual votes. This situation has not changed in the past 110 years, as Puerto Rico still enjoys only symbolic representation in the U.S. Congress.

The Insular Cases

The type of government set up by the Foraker Act was clearly designed to put the island of Puerto Rico firmly under U.S. control, and a series of Supreme Court decisions that came to be known as the Insular Cases helped clarify the political status of the island and its residents over the following years. In perhaps the most significant of these rulings, Downes v. Bidwell (1901), the Court invented a new categorical distinction designed to separate Puerto Rico and the other Spanish-American War territorial acquisitions from previous U.S. territories that had eventually become states, and whose citizens had been fully protected under the U.S. Constitution even before statehood had been granted. Because the government had no intention of ever bringing these new territories into the Union, the Court argued, they could be officially classified as “unincorporated” and therefore distinct from the “incorporated” territories that had once been a part of our greater western frontier (i.e., Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, etc.). This meant that the people of Puerto Rico, while totally under the control of the U.S. government and its newly established puppet regime, could not expect to enjoy the complete protection of the Constitution. According to the Court, only those amendments in the Bill of Rights that were considered “fundamental” would be extended to Puerto Rican nationals, and it was up to the Court to decide which of these rights actually fit this vague description.

While it has never been made clear just exactly what distinguishes a fundamental right from a conditional one, the Courts were later to rule that the Sixth Amendment, which states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed” was not one of the fundamental rights. In the coming decades, this conclusion proved to be quite significant because it gave colonial authorities and their police representatives broad leeway in prosecuting and persecuting Puerto Rican nationals who chose to involve themselves in the movement for independence.

In 1917, Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act. Seemingly quite progressive for its time, this legislation granted full U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans, gave the territory its own Bill of Rights, and replaced the non-elected Executive Council with a popularly chosen Senate. But according to the logic of the U.S. Supreme Court, these moves proved nothing. In Balzac v. Porto Rico (1922), which was essentially the final Insular Case, the Court claimed that turning Puerto Rican nationals into American citizens did not mean the island had been put on the path to statehood, even though the Court had ruled exactly the opposite in 1905 when Alaska was classified as an incorporated territory after Alaskans had been granted citizenship status.

The 1930s To the 1950s: Rebellion And Repression

In the first three decades of its rule over Puerto Rico, the policymaking of the U.S. government and its colonial representatives followed the usual pattern, as corporate agricultural and business interests were allowed to move in and take control of the island’s most fertile lands and its abundant natural resources. None of this was enough to provoke open rebellion among the Puerto Rican people, who, after all, had gotten used to the realities of colonization through their experiences with the Spanish, but when the Great Depression arrived and the economic situation got significantly worse, a movement calling for independence finally arose among the Puerto Rican people.

Curiously, it was not impoverished peasant farmers, sharecroppers, and common laborers who initiated the push for independence, but rather the middle classes, who suffered a loss of both income and status during the worldwide calamity that followed the crash of the American stock market. While they may not have started the independence movement, however, the poorer classes of Puerto Ricans were inspired enough by the impassioned rhetoric of the independentistas to quickly join them in significant numbers, and the outbreak of a wildcat strike among desperate and angry plantation workers in 1934 inaugurated an era that was to be marked by violence, rebellion, and heavy-handed oppression by Puerto Rican police operating under the direct command of representatives from the United States military.

Between 1934 and 1950, Puerto Rican political life was defined largely by the ongoing struggle between the independence movement and colonial authorities. While the police acted swiftly to suppress and control the activities of the Nationalist Party, which had been founded in 1930 in response to the growing sentiment in favor of independence, the agitation of those who sought an end to colonial rule was enough to convince the Truman Administration to make two moves designed to quell the rising popularity of Puerto Rican nationalism.

First, it was announced in 1947 that the United States would no longer be appointing territorial governors. From now on, the people of Puerto Rico would be free to choose all of their own leaders, with no outside involvement or input from the U.S. government. When President Roosevelt had appointed General Blanton Winship as governor during the 1930s, it had been in response to calls from U.S. corporate interests located in Puerto Rico who wanted order restored and the independence movement crushed. But the repressive and bloody reign of Winship and his hand-picked police commissioner, Colonel Francis Riggs, had proven so unpopular that it had brought discredit to the United States government in the eyes of the Puerto Rican people, and the U.S. was really left with little choice but to permit the direct election of governors from that point on.

The second move made by the Truman Administration in the attempt to steal the thunder from the independence movement occurred on July 4, 1950 (the symbolism of the date was quite intentional), when the president signed a law authorizing the Puerto Rico government to draw up its own unique and comprehensive Constitution, which the U.S. promised to honor and respect once it had been ratified (which it was in 1952). In coordination with this pledge, however, the U.S. also launched a secret covert campaign that was designed to destroy the Nationalist Party and stop the spread of its influence once and for all, and they secured the full cooperation of colonial governor Luis Muñoz Marin in this endeavor.

In response to the arbitrary arrests and police attacks that were carried out under the auspices of this program of organized repression, over a three-day period in October/November of 1950 the nationalists fomented a series of armed rebellions in several cities across Puerto Rico. But this strategy of retaliatory violence only played into the hands of the U.S. government, who sent in the National Guard to help the Puerto Rican police and military decisively suppress these desperate efforts by the nationalists to provoke a wider revolution. Over 3,000 nationalists and other supporters of independence – including those who had rejected the use of violence as a tactic to achieve their ends – were arrested following the three-day revolt, and from that point on, the Nationalist Party ceased to be an effective force for change in Puerto Rican politics.

There was one final postscript to the story that helped cement the nationalist crusade’s status as a lost cause. In the most publicized event in the history of the Puerto Rican independence movement, on March 1, 1954, four hardcore nationalist supporters opened fire from the gallery of the U.S. House of Representative in Washington, D.C. while Congress was in session. This last gasp attempt to draw the world’s attention to the cause of Puerto Rican independence naturally backfired, as it further discredited a movement that had become increasingly associated with violence and terrorism. Even on its own terms this attack was a miserable failure, as only five Congressmen were wounded and none were killed. The perpetrators of this pathetic and self-destructive act served a total of twenty-five years in U.S. prisons for their crimes, before their sentences were commuted by President Carter in 1979.

The 1950s Through The 1980s: The Post-Independence Era And The Campaign For Statehood

Ironically, as anti-colonialism swept the world in the 1950s and 1960s, the push for Puerto Rican independence largely faded into oblivion. The Puerto Rican Independence Party, which replaced the Nationalist Party as the standard bearers of the independence movement in the 1950s, only managed to garner a meager 12 percent of the vote in national elections in 1952 and 1956, and by 1960 their support had fallen to just 4 percent and has never risen above the 6 percent level in any of the elections or referendums held over the past fifty years. To be sure, the passion and commitment of the most committed modern independentistas remains intense, but the independence movement’s flirtation in the 30s, 40s, and 50s with violent revolution and radical Marxist politics ultimately doomed it to irrelevancy.

Actually, it would not be entirely accurate to suggest that the waves of anti-colonialist fervor that swept the planet in the 50s and 60s had no effect on the Puerto Rican people. But in the case of the United States’ most populous territory, the desire for a change in its status led to the birth of a vigorous movement that decided to push for statehood as an alternative to independence. While the idea of becoming the fifty-first state appealed to many Puerto Ricans, however, the long-term connections between the United States and the island, combined with the passage of time that obscured the origins of the relationship and the various reforms that had given Puerto Ricans more political autonomy over the years, were enough to convince a broad swath of the population that a continuation of the status quo was a desirable thing. It may seem difficult to fathom how so many Puerto Ricans could be satisfied with a netherworld territorial existence that was neither free nor equal, but the reforms that had taken place over the years that had given Puerto Ricans greater control over their political system and the workings of their society and economy were enough to convince many that staying the course was the best way to go.

The most powerful Puerto Rican political party in the 1950s and 1960s was the Popular Democratic Party. These supporters of the status quo were led by Luis Muñoz Marin, who became the nation’s first popularly elected governor in 1948. While the party was actually founded in the late 1930s by socialists who originally favored independence, as time progressed and the party began to win seats in the legislature, they became more conservative and reform-oriented, and once they became the dominant party in the nation, Muñoz Marin and other PDP leaders began to cooperate quite closely with the United States. The PDP partnered with the U.S. government in its ongoing campaign against the nationalists, and it also collaborated on a 1950s economic development project called Operation Bootstrap that helped to modernize and industrialize the Puerto Rican economy and separate it from its agricultural past.

As Puerto Rico entered the 1960s, it was fairly easy for its citizens to conclude that greater prosperity might result from remaining aligned with the United States than would likely be found if an independent path were to be pursued. But if alignment were the way to go, many were beginning to ask, then what about statehood? More and more Puerto Ricans began to imagine that this option was a legitimate possibility, and from the time of the 1967 referendum on it was the New Progressive Party that came to represent Puerto Ricans who hoped to make this idea into a reality.

Even though it was highly unlikely the U.S. Congress would have approved adding Puerto Rico to the Union at that time, the statehood option still managed to capture 39 percent of the vote in the 1967 referendum, which was highly impressive considering the fact the NPP’s rival pro-statehood party, the Republican Party of Puerto Rico, called on their supporters to boycott this landmark plebiscite. As a result of this action by its older rival, the NPP got all the credit for the sudden emergence of the statehood movement, and this proved to be an enormous boon to a party that had not even existed one year before the 1967 vote was held.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the cause of statehood was pushed somewhat into the background, as the PDP and NPP vied for power and control on the domestic political front. Meanwhile, the radical faction of the pro-independence movement actually made something of a comeback during this period, as a militant pro-independence organization called Los Macheteros carried out a series of guerilla-style raids, robberies, and terrorist attacks both in Puerto Rico and in the United States against targets they associated with U.S. imperialism. Active from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, most of the Los Macheteros were eventually taken into custody and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and the quaint and outdated extremist politics that had hindered the Puerto Rican independence movement for so long basically went into permanent abeyance from this point forward.

From The 1990s To The Present: The Era Of The Referendum

When NPP candidate Pedro Rosselló was elected governor of Puerto Rico in 1992, it was the penultimate achievement for a party that had been experiencing a steady growth in its level of electoral success since its founding in 1967. Rosselló was a strong backer of the Puerto Rican push for statehood, and he quickly arranged for a series of locally sponsored plebiscites to be held to poll the Puerto Rican people on the question of the island’s future.

The 1993 referendum was extremely close, with the status quo eking out a close 48 percent – 46 percent victory, and when you add in the 4 percent of the vote that was cast in favor of independence, it means that the percentage of Puerto Ricans who were in favor of a change of status at this time was actually greater than those who preferred to remain a commonwealth, i.e., a colony. Rosselló sponsored another plebiscite in 1998, and while the statehood option actually improved its showing by 1 percent from 1993, the campaign of the PDP against it was still strong enough to prevent it from emerging victorious (the five options offered on the ballot were statehood, independence, nationhood in free association with the United States, commonwealth, or none of the above, the latter of which managed to outpoll statehood by 4 percent).

In the twenty-first century, the PDP and the PNP have continued to share power in relative equality, although the PNP had to survive a corruption scandal that brought Rosselló and the party into temporary disrepute. In the most recent elections, however, the PNP has been gaining the upper hand, and that may explain why pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuño and the Puerto Rican legislature have chosen this particular time to schedule another referendum on statehood. Pre-plebiscite polls have so far been contradictory and inconclusive, so at this time it is still very difficult to handicap the outcome of the vote that has been scheduled for November 6.

While the outcome of the plebiscite is uncertain, there is one ominous sign that does not portend well for the pro-statehood forces. While it is true that the statements of political leaders in the United States have seemed to indicate that all would take a Puerto Rican request for statehood quite seriously, President Obama and others have emphasized that they would like to see the statehood option win a clear majority in the referendum before taking any steps to make that option into a reality. This demand may be more than a little unrealistic, given how closely divided Puerto Ricans have been over the question of statehood vs. the status quo in the past.

Based on statements such as these, many are speculating that the promises of elected officials in the U.S. to take the will of the Puerto Rican people seriously is more for political show than anything else, and that all of the pro-Puerto Rican statements that have been coming out of the mouths of U.S. politicians are primarily intended to win the favor of Hispanic voters in the mainland U.S., who have been growing in number and influence. By claiming they need to see a clear majority before they will really believe Puerto Ricans want statehood, Democrats and Republicans alike may be leaving themselves a convenient out if the idea of Puerto Rican statehood proves to be unpopular with the American public at large (which seems likely, given the fact that full statehood for the island would make its residents eligible for all of the same taxpayer-funded government benefits as citizens who reside in the other fifty states). So even if Puerto Ricans do ultimately decide that they are finally ready to petition the U.S. government for admittance to the Union as the fifty-first state – which everyone agrees is a distinct possibility – the outcome of such a petition is far from assured, and there would no doubt be extensive debate in Congress and among the American people as a whole before a final decision on the matter would be rendered.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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