Opinion – Latinoamérica21: Puerto Rico seeks to overcome its territorial-colonial condition

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In 1898, in the context of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico ceased to be a colony of Spain to become one of the 16 territories of the United States. Of these, only five are inhabited: Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Puerto Rico, which is the only one with the constitutionally required political structure to try to transcend its territorial situation.

On December 15, the United States House of Representatives passed, by 233 votes in favor (217 Democrats and 16 Republicans) and 191 against (all Republicans), the Puerto Rico Status Act. HR 8393. This is a bill introduced by Puerto Rican Congressmen and Democrats Nydia Velázquez of New York and Darren Soto of Florida, through the Commissioner of the Government of Puerto Rico in Washington, Jennifer González Colón. The latter is allied with the New Progressive Party, which governs Puerto Rico, and the United States Republican Party. The law is also endorsed by 59 other congressmen.

This legislation orders the celebration of a plebiscite in Puerto Rico for its 3.2 million inhabitants, American citizens, which was endorsed for the first time in history, explicitly and directly by Congress (before there were consequent consultations, but without that aval), to resolve and establish its definitive status in its relationship with the United States.

The consultation options exclude the current territorial-colonial status called the Free Associated State (ELA), which was established in 1952 and declared fiscally bankrupt since 2017. In macroeconomic terms, Puerto Rico, starting from the ELA regime, has a per capita income of about US$32,000 annually, which is less than half the average of the 50 states (which also have stronger and more competitive private sectors), but with living costs and tax burdens, in many cases, comparable or higher.

The Territories: models of economic and citizen inferiority.

North American constitutionalism establishes two main categories of political organization: the states, in which its citizens enjoy full rights, socioeconomic subsidies and privileges, and the territories, in which there is no such optimization.

The American Constitution of 1789, very advanced for the time, but framed in times of geographic expansions and slavery, in its Article IV Section 3 (Territorial Clause), establishes that “Congress may dispose of, and enact all rules and regulations in with respect to territory and other property belonging to the United States”. This stipulation is plenipotentiary in nature and provides the basis for the Constitution itself to selectively discriminate against US citizens residing in the territories —for example, they cannot vote in US elections but are recruited, including compulsorily if necessary, as has already occurred, to serve militarily in the Armed Forces. Paradoxically, citizens of territories acquire full rights if they move to one of the 50 states.

The project

Project HR 8393 is the first step for Puerto Rico to overcome its territorial/colonial status. It provides that the plebiscitary consultation will include three non-territorial options, considering that any of them is more dignified and effective than the current status: A) Independence or total separation. B) Free Association, a variant of Independence, which for 25 years would maintain American citizenship for those born in that period, and metropolitan transfers of economic resources. C) State, which means full integration, with permanent US citizenship and a greater incorporation of the Puerto Rican economy into that of the United States than is currently the case. Puerto Rico now receives approximately $22 billion annually in government transfers, a substantial amount but notably less than the roughly $40 billion received by states with populations comparable to Puerto Rico, such as Connecticut or Arkansas. The state won the three most recent plebiscites, in 2012, 2017 and 2020.

Derivations

While Bill 8393 was not discussed in the Senate, and technically fell short of immediate effect at the end of the congressional term in December 2022, its proponents, backed by the Biden administration, will push it again. And although the political process is difficult and may induce adjustments, there are possibilities for success in a House now led by Republicans, but by a smaller majority than the previous margin of approval. And if this time it gets to the Senate long enough, that body is in the control of the Democrats.

At the moment, the greatest support for the project comes from the Democratic Party, among other reasons because within the Republican Party there are voices that argue that Puerto Rico would be a democratic state. This is an apocryphal thesis, because throughout history Puerto Rico has elected candidates from both parties. Moreover, electoral conduct is always variable.

In addition to this false theory, the bipartisan debate in the United States on issues of immigration and multiculturalism reverberates in Puerto Rico. For example, on the domestic front, among opponents of State status, the Puerto Rican independence movement stands out, a minority but influential one, whose nationalist ideological profile equates it, among other political currents, with Catalan separatism in its demands for assimilation culture of a nation “oppressed by a foreign, invading, centralist and imperialist force”.

These arguments, which resonate with the Trumpist xenophobic far right and its fringes, are historically, anthropologically and legally wrong. The United States is a markedly multicultural country, with more than 60 million Spanish speakers —and growing—, and the Constitution, as recognized in project 8393, does not establish a single official language, leaving that power to each state, from so Puerto Rico would keep Spanish and English.

Whatever happens in the short term in Congressional scenarios and power plays, the passage of HR 8393 is a historic success and a new, positive trigger for Puerto Rican politics.

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