[Column] Is Puerto Rico a ‘US colony’?
The ubiquitous word in Puerto Rican politics has been “colonialism.” Never more than now. And it has muddied the always difficult Puerto Rico-U.S. relationship. And never more than now.
So is Puerto Rico a “U.S. colony?”
Offended by the question itself, Puerto Rican political leaders may respond:
Hello. Where have you been? Haven’t you heard of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico?
I have. When Congress and the President created Promesa, the Fiscal Board with the power to overrule the Governor and the Legislature of Puerto Rico, for most political leaders – statehooders, independentistas and even many commonwealthers – it finally unmasked what they have always said – that Puerto Rico is today what it has always been – a “U.S. colony.”
And I know that Commonwealth status has what some call “a democracy deficiency,” that Puerto Rico is subject to the laws of Congress, without voting representation in Congress, subject to the President, without voting for the President. If this isn’t colonialism, what is?
And I know that the U.S. government now refers to Puerto Rico as a “territory.” And isn’t this the American euphemism for “colony”?
But still there is a problem with saying that Puerto Rico is a “colony.”
Colonialism is universally seen as a very bad thing. Especially since World War II, it is condemned as the domination, suppression, exploitation of a people by another. Including here in Puerto Rico, it is denounced as the modern form of slavery.
Colonialism has a purpose. European colonial empires believed that their high standard of living depended on their colonies.
So my first question is: What is in it for the Americans? Why would the 324,385,585 Americans who live in the richest, most powerful nation in the world, indeed in human history, want to oppress as a “colony” the nearly 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living on this small island?
Obviously the American standard of living does not depend on Puerto Rico? The argument that island was strategically important was valid in the past, but no more, especially after Puerto Rico forced the removal of the naval base in Vieques and Roosevelt Roads.
So how does the U.S. benefit from Puerto Rico colonialism?
Well, one can turn the question around and ask: If there is no benefit to the U.S., and if Puerto Rico has been an enormous drain of American tax money, why do they do it?
Good question. Puerto Ricans are of course American citizens. But seeking a rational explanation may be futile.
It is always a mistake that many Puerto Ricans as well as Latin Americans make to think of the Americans as one rational, thinking entity – an Uncle Sam that makes rational decisions. The U.S. government and decision-making process is so enormously complex that it’s extremely difficult to understand how it works, much less why it does what it does. And it makes mistakes.
Historians have never found, I believe, a rational reason why in 1898 the U.S. decided on independence for Cuba and eventually for the Philippines, both of huge colonial benefit, but decided to keep Puerto Rico. Luis Muñoz Marín, for one, concluded that it was simply a “mistake.”
By the late ’30s, when President Roosevelt’s costly New Deal efforts to lift Puerto Rico from squalor had essentially failed, due mostly to bad Puerto Rican politics, bad American governors, and Puerto Rican anti-American violence, many Americans began to believe that it had indeed made a big mistake in 1898, and began to offer Puerto Rico independence.
An offer Puerto Ricans declined.
And I would guess that today many in Washington feel the same today.
Take the Fiscal Board. Almost in one voice, Puerto Rican leaders are denouncing it as flagrant “colonialism.” To exaggerate, as if the U.S. had sent the Marines to take over the Capitol Building and La Fortaleza.
So the reaction in Washington may well be: Just a minute. You, Puerto Rico, came up here desperately asking Congress and the President to keep you from drowning in the fiscal and economic mess you created for yourselves. We responded with the Fiscal Board.
Is this what you call “colonialism”?
And you are always coming up demanding more federal funds, accusing us of discrimination because in some programs we send less than what we send to the states.
But you seem to ignore that through the years we have sent hundreds of billions, and you pay no federal taxes, and look at the result – the mess you have created?
Is this “discrimination”? Is this what you call “colonialism”?
And if the Commonwealth has no representation in Congress and the presidential vote, it’s not because we want to oppress you as a “colony.” Doesn’t it make sense that if you pay no U.S. taxes, it’s not right that you should participate in imposing taxes on the rest of the American citizens.
Yes, the word “colony” has, and does, muddy the U.S.-Puerto Rican relationship.
So is Puerto Rico a “U.S. colony”?
There is another problem. How Puerto Ricans act.
If the Puerto Ricans really believe that they are the victims of the evil of American “colonialism,” if the U.S. has made clear since the ’30s that if Puerto Rico asks for independence, it will have it, why have they, in recent decades almost unanimously, said no?
In fact, in opinion polls through the years, asked what are the problems that most concern them, the Puerto Rican people placed “political status” near the end of the list, or not at all.
The “problem” is that Puerto Ricans, with few exceptions, don’t act as if Puerto Rico were a “colony.” And the reason must be that they don’t believe that it is.
I know. Some will say: Ignore what Puerto Ricans do, what they believe. A colony is a colony.
No, don’t ignore. For to say that Puerto Rico is a “colony” is not only to denigrate the Americans, but more so, the Puerto Ricans.
And, above all, because they are right.
–A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist with the San Juan Star, executive editor at El Mundo, and editor and publisher at El Reportero.