Puerto Rico: Statehood and Strike

The Spanish American War ended in 1898, but one aspect of the conflict remains unresolved: the status of Puerto Rico. Despite the importance of the issue, it is rarely an agenda priority in the continental United States. Recently, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2499 (“The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010”), a bill sponsored by Puerto Rico’s Representative Pedro Pierluisi. As the Act awaits its fate in the Senate, however, the White House refuses to voice its opinion on the matter. The Obama administration seems to be stalling until October, when the Presidential Task Force is scheduled to release its official report on the status of Puerto Rico.

While the administration remains tight-lipped pending the release of the Task Force Report, unrest in Puerto Rico may speed up the tempo as to when the international community will take an interest in the island. This spring’s student strikes at the Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR) threaten to shut down the public university system, and the strife has become multi-generational as unions and students’ relatives join the ranks of the protestors. The scale of the UPR strike and the goals it advocates are effectively bringing light to very serious economic problems that must be addressed. The strike began as a protest against government plans to cut the university’s funding by more than $100 million, a devastating budget reduction that would considerably reduce the scope of financial aid available to students. The announced budget cut follows a number of other unpopular austerity measures implemented by Governor Luis Fortuño since he began his term in January 2009.

Although the strike began as a movement against the UPR administration, the demonstration, which has been carried out by thousands of students and sympathetic Puerto Rican workers, highlights tensions in Puerto Rico that will not be easily resolved. As Congress and the Presidential Task Force individually work to resolve Puerto Rico’s future status, they must take into account the economic problems and political issues facing the island. An honest assessment of the island’s status must take into account its historical, contemporary situation. Any change in the island’s status—be it a move towards statehood, independence, or an expanded commonwealth relationship—will come with its share of difficulties and conundrums. However, the price of inaction is a continued and intolerable neo-colonial relationship that benefits neither Puerto Rico nor the mainland United States.

A History of Colonialism

Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico in 1493, and the native inhabitants of the island were soon enough replaced—by conquest, disease, and violence—with Spaniards and imported African slaves. The island remained a Spanish colonial possession, making small but significant progress towards independence until the Spanish American War. In July 1898, the United States invaded the island; Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines and Guam, were ceded to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris, signed by the U.S. and Spain at the conclusion of the war in December of that year. As Pedro Albizu Campos, a leading figure in Puerto Rico’s independence movement, explained, the U.S. was “interested in the cage, not the birds.” The U.S. wanted control of the land, but had little interest in the inhabitants of the island. The United States was already invested in the idea of constructing a canal through Panama, and securing the Caribbean was a key component of the U.S.’ plan.

The U.S. military ruled the island until the Foraker Act (also known as the Organic Act) was passed in 1900, which established Puerto Rico’s civilian government. The Foraker Act and subsequent Jones-Shafroth Act (1917) established separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches to handle Puerto Rican local affairs, while the island continued to follow U.S. federal laws. Notably, Puerto Rico received a non-voting representative in Congress (the Resident Commissioner) and a Governor to head the executive branch. The Jones-Shafroth Act also granted legal American citizenship to Puerto Ricans. In the 1950s, Puerto Rico’s status as a “commonwealth” was officially established. According to Richard Pildes, professor of Constitutional Law at NYU, the commonwealth status initiated in the 1950s represented a “creative intermediate structure” between independence and statehood that was designed to give self-governing autonomy to Puerto Rico and move it away from a colonial status. Public Law 600, passed in 1950, empowered Puerto Rico to directly elect their Governor as well as to draft a constitution (based on the United States’), which was ratified in 1952. Because of its status as a commonwealth, the island receives transfer payments from the U.S. government—including welfare and federal grants. Puerto Ricans also routinely serve in the U.S. military.

United States’ Vision for Puerto Rican Status

As almost any nation in Latin America can attest, Washington’s foreign policy priorities often take precedence over the interests of the region’s inhabitants. In the case of Puerto Rico, U.S. interests motivated the invasion of the island and played a determining role in influencing the outcome of the island’s independence movement. Prior to the United States’ invasion during the Spanish American War, Puerto Rico was on the path to autonomy. The Autonomic Charter, approved by Spain in 1897, represented a step towards independence and local government. Given that Puerto Rico experienced partial autonomy for the first time since Columbus’s arrival and then had it revoked in less than two years as a result of the American invasion, the independence movement was quite popular in the early twentieth century. The Union Party, Puerto Rico’s majority party in the early 1900s, cited autonomy and independence as its major goals.

Regrettably, a number of factors jeopardized Puerto Rico’s early independence movement. The United States’ involvement in World War I increased the importance of the Caribbean as a U.S. regional stronghold, making Puerto Rico strategically significant. During the same time period, the Union Party divided into the Nationalist Party and the Socialist Party, while the Great Depression was an additional curse on the Puerto Rican economy. U.S. policies made small-scale farming unprofitable and promoted a resurgence of the sugarcane industry, an industry that benefited large landholders and a plantation-style economy while further crippling small-scale farmers. In the 1940s, the Nationalist Party grew increasingly violent in advancing its demands for independence, with huge numbers of independentistas (as the Nationalists were known) taking part in anti-U.S. protests.

The 1940s and early 1950s would prove to be an important turning point for U.S.-Puerto Rico policy. U.S. authorities were doing everything in their power to diffuse the independence movement. Prominent Nationalist leaders were imprisoned in 1936, and police engaged in violence-suppressing techniques against the Nationalists that came to a bloody climax in the Massacre of Ponce, in which twenty peaceful demonstrators were killed and hundreds were injured. The Ley de Mordaza (“Gag Law”) of 1948 provided legal justification for imprisoning Nationalist leaders. This pattern of violence reached its apex on November 1, 1950, when two independentistas attempted to assassinate President Truman on the streets outside of Washington’s Blair House in protest of the United States’ policy towards Puerto Rico. One security guard and one activist were killed. Increased violence helped to justify a severe crackdown on the independence movement.

In addition to resorting to repression, the United States worked to associate the Nationalist Party—and the entire independence movement—with Puerto Rico’s economic problems. Although U.S. policy was the underlying cause of Puerto Rico’s booming sugarcane industry (one that singularly benefited large land holders but devastated small-scale farmers), the U.S. implemented new programs to diversify the economy of the island. Programs similar to FDR’s New Deal made their way to the island in the form of the Puerto Rican Reconstruction Administration (PRRA). “Operation Bootstrap” was another economic reform project that aimed to bring industrialization to Puerto Rico in the 1950s: the project encouraged the growth of industry and provided U.S. companies with incentives to invest on the island. Washington emphasized its role in promoting Puerto Rican prosperity while discrediting independentistas. The onslaught of a Cold War ideology also played an important role in diminishing support for independence.

Political developments accompanied the unrest that became increasingly evident throughout the 1940s. Luis Muñoz Marín, a former advocate for independence, helped to establish a new political party called the Partido Popular Democrático de Puerto Rico (PDP) and framed the issues at stake. Although the party increasingly cited Puerto Rican autonomy as one of its objectives, it advocated doing so through a commonwealth relationship with the United States. By 1948, the island held its first popular election for the governorship. Muñoz Marín won the election with a solid majority. Under his leadership, Puerto Rico’s official status as an “associated free state” was affirmed by the Puerto Rican Commonwealth Act, which was signed by President Truman in October 1950. The Act allowed Puerto Rico to draft its own constitution, which it did in 1952. The Independentistas, purged from the PDP in 1946, formed the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP). Today, the PIP routinely receives support from prominent Latin American political figures, including ex-President of Panama Martín Torrijos and the Cuban government as well as authors Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel García Márquez. However, the PIP receives only a few percentage points of the vote in the elections it has contested.

Recent Plebiscites and Proposed Solutions

Since the 1950s, a number of plebiscites held in Puerto Rico have raised the question of the island’s status. The first, held in 1967, showed that 60% of Puerto Ricans favored commonwealth status, compared to 39% who preferred statehood and 1% independence. The results of a 1993 plebiscite were similar, with 48.5% preferring the commonwealth, 46% statehood, and 4.5% independence. In the most recent plebiscite, held in 1998, 46.5% voted for statehood. Leaders of the PDP, who favor commonwealth status, encouraged their voters to vote “none of the above,” which received 50.3% of the vote, to protest the wording of the commonwealth option. The independence option, which the majority of Puerto Ricans supported up until the 1940s, when the island’s status as a “commonwealth” was proclaimed, received only 2.5% of the vote in 1998.

Currently, H.R. 2499, sponsored by Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, has proposed another plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status. Passing the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, as the measure is known, would mark the first time that the U.S. Congress has actively supported a plebiscite on the island’s status. Since Congress must approve any change in the island’s status, a measure originating in Congress represents an important first step in this direction. The proposed legislation calls for two plebiscites: the first would ask Puerto Ricans to choose between “[continuing] to have its present form of political status” or simply “a different political status.” If a majority votes for continuing present status, Puerto Rico would be authorized to hold plebiscites every eight years. If a majority votes for the second option, voters will be presented with four options: “independence”, “sovereignty in association with the United States” (free association), “statehood”, or “commonwealth”. H.R. 2499 was introduced May 2009 and passed the House on April 29, 2010. The measure recently had a hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy on Natural Resources.

Implications of H.R. 2499

Unfortunately, H.R. 2499, whether it passes the Senate or not, is unlikely to fundamentally change the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. In an interview, Pildes summarized H.R. 2499 as containing some “unfortunately vague” language; in his view, “the last thing the people in Puerto Rico need is confusion over what they’re voting for when the current status of Puerto Rico is already so complicated.” Critics, including Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), who is from Puerto Rico, assert that the legislation is biased towards statehood and “has no business being on the floor today.” During the bill’s hearing in the House in May, Congresswoman Velázquez stated:

[The bill] was prepared in a biased manner — with a predetermined outcome in mind. Let us be clear: this legislation is designed to push the statehood agenda, regardless of whether that agenda is the best solution for the island, or even popular among the people… Instead of dealing first with the very real concerns of how the people of Puerto Rico survive day by day, we are telling them our priority is to debate a status bill that will not become law. This is a disgrace.

She points out that statehood has always been an option in plebiscites, but it has failed every time it has been put to a vote. The potential for statehood to “sneak” its way to victory in the election makes many islanders wary of the current legislation.

However, many Puerto Ricans hold a contrasting position and are pleased that Congress has taken up the issue. While plebiscites have been held in the past, they were initiated on the island itself and were unlikely to change U.S. policy towards the island. While the measure currently on the docket does not require the United States to alter its relationship with Puerto Rico in accordance with the results of the plebiscite, it at least acknowledges that Congress must play a role in addressing the status of the island. Although neither H.R. 2499 nor the Task Force Report bind the U.S. Congress to take action, there is potential for “significant movement on the issue starting in the fall” as the issue of Puerto Rico’s status receives more attention, according to Pildes.

Current Issues in Puerto Rico

As Representative Velázquez rightly points out, there are a number of “very real concerns” facing the people of Puerto Rico that must be addressed in conjunction with the upcoming debate on Puerto Rico’s status. As the recent student strikes in Puerto Rico illustrate, the island is facing serious economic problems, and civil unrest is becoming more common. While the UPR strike is very specific in the goals it advocates (more transparency in the University’s budget, no tuition increases, and preserving tuition waivers), the movement has found resonance in the community at large. Pablo Navarro, a professor at Lesley University in Boston, has written extensively about UPR student uprisings. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Navarro explained that “the strike has so many factors converging that reflect the social crisis Puerto Rico is living at this time: a financial crisis that is very deep, an unemployment rate that is very high, and add to that the proposed changes that would affect the scholarships of athletes, artists, chorus and high honor students.” A large number of honors students at UPR receive tuition wavers, while nearly 70% receive some sort of financial aid.

UPR students have long been known for their activism; the university has been the site of protests and strikes since its founding. A former dean and professor from UPR, José Luis Méndez, articulated the difference between the current UPR strike and previous student protests in an interview with the Miami Herald: “in the past, the strikes were almost always ideological… The parents would be telling the kids: ‘You stay home!’ Now this time, you have parents and grandparents climbing fences to bring their kids food.” UPR, which has been described as a “microcosm” of Puerto Rican society , faces the same problems as the Puerto Rican society at large. Governor Fortuño has implemented a number of austerity measures over the course of his administration, which began in January 2009. As Governor, Fortuño has sizeable control over the island’s domestic affairs, but economic and fiscal matters are still generally controlled by the United States. For that reason, he is limited in his ability to make substantial progress in solving the island’s economic problems. Parents and union workers understand the students’ arguments because they too are facing job cuts and economic instability.

The economy of Puerto Rico is overwhelmingly dependent on the United States. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Puerto Rico “raises its own taxes, but these only fund 60% of annual spending. Another 30% is accounted for by U.S. federal grants, and the remainder is financed by borrowing.” The population of the Puerto Rico has expanded dramatically, while employment opportunities are limited. Because of the United States’ political and economic connection to the island, the U.S.’ slide into a recession has had a devastating impact on the Puerto Rican economy. U.S. industry is still a large presence on the island because of vestiges of “Operation Bootstrap.” The Puerto Rican economy’s reliance on exports, particularly to the United States, contributes to its instability.

As the student strike continues into the summer, it would be wise for decision makers in both Puerto Rico and the United States to take students’ concerns seriously. Currently, the police have militarized its response to the students, and student leaders received summons to court for their actions. Response to the strike has stagnated as the university term concludes for summer. Of course, something must be done to re-open all, or at least some, of ten of eleven campuses of UPR that have been shut down since late April. It is essential that the students’ legitimate concerns are not ignored in the process.

The United States’ Obligation

Tom Perelli, co-chair of the President’s Task Force on the Status of Puerto Rico, stated on March 3, “the President strongly believes that the status question is a significant one. He also believes that Puerto Rico’s status must be based on self-determination by the people of Puerto Rico.” Ultimately, the people of Puerto Rico must decide between independence, statehood, or a continued commonwealth option: a decision imposed by the United States will only continue the U.S.’ imperialistic rule of the island. However, the contemporary situation must be understood in the historical context, and critics from the U.S. as well as Puerto Rico must be prepared to acknowledge that the United States has played no small role in suborning the Puerto Rican independence movement and complicating the island’s economy.

Since 1898, the people of Puerto Rico have been denied the opportunity of self-determination. The U.S. government, along with the people of Puerto Rico, must be prepared to work together during this tumultuous time, not only to provide a short-term solution to the social unrest springing from the UPR strike, but also to resolve the fundamental problem of Puerto Rico’s status so that it is adequately prepared for its future.