(H.R. 900, The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007 proposes that the island decides between statehood or independence in a plebiscite that must take place no later than December 31, 2009)
In April 1991, Governor Rafael Hernández Colón made Spanish the sole official language of Puerto Rico.
Hernández´s message was directed to two obvious audiences; on one side was the US, its colonial master since 1898, who scarcely took notice of it, and on the other, the Hispanic world of which Puerto Rico has never ceased to be part. While Washington tended to see the act as nationalistic and provocative, Spain was so excited that the Madrid government awarded the prestigious Príncipe de Asturias Award for Letter to the “Puerto Rican People” that same year.
This accomplishment —which was undermined two years later with the reestablishment of English as co-official with Spanish—can be seen as a significant example of the day-to-day tension that exists within the island in its quest for of identity and in the elusive process of decolonization from the mammoth mainland presence. While in the letter of acceptance for the Spanish award, Hernández Colón praised the United States for allowing the island to maintain its Spanish heritage, the letter also stated, “Our relationship with the United States of America is based on mutual respect and on each other’s freedom to be oneself.”
It is a fact that Puerto Rico has never been an independent country. Existing as part of the Spanish colonial empire until 1898, the island had only lived an agonizingly short and ill-fated moment of self-government in 1898, when the Carta de Autonomía of 1897 finally allowed the island to become more autonomous than the desire alternative –being a “province” of Spain. The Carta gave enough legal autonomy to decide on international affairs, hold elections for a bicameral assembly, as well as to send sixteen elected deputies and three senators to represent Puerto Rico in the Spanish Cortes (Parliament). Unfortunately for its timing, the Assembly of Puerto Rico, and the government of Luis Muñoz Rivera were established in March, only five months before the July US invasion of the island, as part of the 1898 Spanish-American war. In spite of this interruption, this short experience with autonomy provided Puerto Ricans with a taste of self-governance and allowed them to believe that American liberation would respect, at least, the already achieved level of self-determination, and bring them a step closer to real independence.
The new dominance of the U.S. on the island and the hope that the history of its democratic values would be reflected in the new realities to be faced by the island under U.S. rule, soon overshadowed the Carta de Autonomía of 1897, despite the fact that the Puerto Rican political elite had tenaciously fought for it since 1867. However, after the Treaty of Paris of 1898 was signed, the island remained under U.S. military rule for two years. Later, in 1900, the US approved the Foraker Act, which basically legalized a new colonial status for Puerto Rico. This measure specifically made no allowances for islanders to elect their own governor, cabinet or even Supreme Court judges, with all of them to be appointed by the president of the U.S. The island would be permitted to have a resident commissioner in Washington, but with no vote. After much political maneuvering, Muñoz Rivera became the resident commissioner and was able to gain Puerto Ricans both US citizenship, and the right to elect a bicameral government with the passing of the Jones Act of 1917. However, these new U.S. citizens were not fully protected under the Constitution and could not, for example, vote for the president of the U.S. Under this new status quo, Puerto Ricans became de facto second-class U.S. citizens.
Puerto Ricans had to wait until 1950 for the approval of Public Law 600 which granted them the right to author their own constitution, with the years that followed witnessing the island becoming what today is known as Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) or “Commonwealth”. Yet, the limitations of this new level of political autonomy have made some Puerto Ricans invoke the memory of the Carta de Autonomía. In 1997 Alexis O. Tirado Rivera published in El Nuevo Impacto newspaper “La Carta de Autonómica de 1897: A cien años” (The Autonomous Act of 1897. A Hundred Years Later”) where he concluded that with the Carta Puerto Rico “…gained wider political and economical freedoms. Today we must remember that deed to help us define the aspiration of the majority of the people of the country.”
Although it is impossible to know what the Carta would eventually have meant for the future of Puerto Rico, the truth is that the ELA has allowed its people to vote on their destiny on three occasions: 1967, 1993 and 1998. On all of these, Puerto Ricans have supported the Commonwealth status quo. Furthermore, the independence option has never received even 5% of the vote.
If plebiscites are reasonable indicators of a people’s will, Puerto Ricans are quite comfortable being part of the US, even under non-statehood status. It would seem as if, given the chance, Puerto Ricans would maintain this arrangement indefinitely. However, H.R. 900, The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007, can change all this, finally making the island decide between statehood or independence by plebiscite that must take place no later than December 31, 2009. The bill, although scheduled to be considered by the House as a whole, has yet to be formally discussed.
Therefore, Puerto Ricans are about to face what may be their last chance to determine their future. Will a territory that has never been recognized as an independent nation, but has held strong nationalistic feelings since the nineteenth century, choose independence? Is statehood the only reasonable path to both maintain the fiscal and non-financial benefits of belonging to the most powerful country on the globe while still bearing its own flag, as Texans do? Could Puerto Rico decide that, despite the almost one hundred years of US citizenship, it is better to be free and independent than maintaining what many consider a privileged relationship? We need to take note that today Puerto Rico is an island with a population divided into backing one of the two competing political almost equal size, and a very small pro-independence party. Puerto Ricans have held U.S. citizenship since 1917, and they now can vote in U.S. presidential primaries, but not in the general election for president. Although still bearing their own Olympic flag, Puerto Ricans are so abundant in New York that they have their own ethnic name, nuyoricans, and the population residing on the U.S. mainland is so large that it now outnumbers the Puerto Rican population on the island itself. What is more, the growth rate of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. is also much higher than on the island, making the present numerical gap widen in favor of those born and raised on the U.S. mainland, a group which may feel ultimately more attach to the U.S. than the island. This situation not only divides the population physically, but also tears at their hearts, minds, and pockets, making the status quo the easiest method of dealing with these divides. Although each case of national self-realization differs, we have witnessed in recent European conflicts how pro-independence movements can be conditioned by cultural and economic ties that surpass nationalism, breaking down otherwise peaceful societies.
In the final words of his acceptance speech at the 1991 Príncipe de Asturias Award, Hernández Colón, while pressing the U.S. to adopt an explicitly multilingual and multicultural policy, stated that Puerto Rico’s current status is the right option for the island’s ultimate self-realization. He highlighted the thesis that “Puerto Rico had the foresight to neither become federated nor separate from the United States. In order to shed its colonial status, Puerto Rico created its own self-governing political space, the Free Associated State, which provides the strength of political and economic union but also allows for the vigor of its own separate cultural identity.”
If HR 900 is finally approved, we will be at the doors of the final chapter of the decolonization of Puerto Rico, La Isla del Encanto.