[Column] What is the Puerto Rico reality?
Former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón, in a July 23, 2017 speech commemorating the 65th anniversary of Commonwealth status, quoted Albert Einstein on the blessing of a crisis in the life of a person or a country, for it can give birth to invention, discovery, progress.
Crisis should do something else: It should make us face reality.
That’s a big word: “reality.” Some people see the word as a mean-spirited weapon to puncture the world we live in, like puncturing a beautiful balloon at a party.
And, of course, as students of philosophy know, this is precisely the question that has bedeviled Western thought from the Greeks to today: What is reality? Where is it? Who are you to say what it is and what it isn’t?
But let’s try to answer the question: What is Puerto Rico reality?
For a growing number of Puerto Ricans, it is that Commonwealth status is “dead.”
Statehooders and independentistas have always said Commonwealth is a “myth.” And now a number of leaders of the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP) are saying it is obsolete.
There is no question that Commonwealth has taken a juridical beating in the U.S. Government. From strong support as a new status that removed the island from “territorial status,” since late 1980s the federal government has been saying that no, Puerto Rico is still a “territory.” In Puerto Rico this translates into a “colony.”
Commonwealth supporters point out that a juridical battle was won in the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent Sánchez Valle decision, when it rejected the administration’s argument, sustaining that Commonwealth is, like a state, out of territorial status.
But at the same time, Congress and the President gave the 2016 PROMESA Fiscal Board the power of ultimate federal control of the island’s government finances, based precisely on that Puerto Rico is a “territory.”
Politically, Commonwealth is also taking a beating. The pro-sovereignty segment of the PDP leadership agrees that Commonwealth is “colonial.”
And the official policy of the current Government of Puerto Rico is to not recognize the very existence of Commonwealth status. To prove that it really means it, it has eliminated the official July 25th Commonwealth anniversary.
So, is Commonwealth status “dead?” Let’s go back to Puerto Rico reality.
The political reality is that in the general elections over 95 percent of the Puerto Rican voters reject independence. The reality is that independence is politically impossible.
The economic reality is that since the U.S. took Puerto Rico in 1898, it has been evident that full federal taxation would crush the island economy. Today, if anyone has any doubt, we know what has been the result of the pro-statehood government going to Congress in the mid-1990s to eliminate Section 936, a vital tax incentive that was incompatible with statehood.
The statehooders did it believing they were taking a giant “step towards statehood.” Instead they ruined the economy. The consequence is today’s economic and fiscal crisis.
The reality is that statehood is economically impossible.
The sovereignty movement wants Puerto Rico to become independent and thus fully sovereign, then negotiate “as equals” with the U.S. a treaty that would include retention of U.S. citizenship and benefits Puerto Rico now enjoys and others.
This is obviously unreal.
So what is the Puerto Rico reality?
It is, as Hernández Colón pointed out, that Puerto Rico would not have emerged from centuries of extreme poverty without using the Commonwealth relationship to the U.S.
Today the reality is the same. The current government defeats itself. Puerto Rico cannot pull itself out of the crisis if the government destroys the only means, the Commonwealth relationship, to revive economic growth. Even the PROMESA Fiscal Board, Hernández said, in the end will have to accept this reality.
The 80-year-old, three-time governor, titled his speech “Triumphant Commonwealth” to counter pessimism among its supporters. He has dedicated his long political career to extol Commonwealth status around the world, in the U.S., and to seek to improve Commonwealth in the U.S. Congress.
He has lived most of his life in a world where Puerto Rico and the U.S. were deeply proud of Commonwealth. Now he and his generation see that world crumbling as they face the growing rejection of Commonwealth.
But he expressed optimism for one fundamental reason: reality.
Of the hundreds, if not thousands of speeches he has given on Commonwealth this may be the shortest and I think the best. He could have titled it: “Reality will triumph.”
Because it does.
Commonwealth is not a myth. It is what exists.
Yes, Commonwealth is battered. But it is not “dead.” If independence, statehood and “sovereignty” are unreal for Puerto Rico, and they are, as far as one can see into the future, it is what will exist.
This is the Puerto Rico reality.
–A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist for The San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and editor and publisher of El Reportero.