Fifty years ago, West Side Story jetted and sharked its way into the
hearts of America. Half a century later, what does the average U.S.
citizen know about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans? I'm guessing much of
it has to do with sandy beaches, Marc Anthony and J-Lo, the island's
success in Miss Universe competitions and international athletic
events, and, of course, the star-crossed Maria and Tony.
But I'm betting that most Americans don't know that Puerto Rico is, at
best, a fledgling democracy -- and that US. .control over the island is
the main reason why Puerto Rico hasn't successfully developed a
legitimate democracy. The first step on the road to democracy is
self-determination, but Puerto Ricans living on the island have never
had the chance to exercise that right. What's more, the U.S. has had
over a century to grant Puerto Rico that right, but it hasn't.
As a Puerto Rican, I find it amusing when the U.S. tries to instruct
other nations in the practice of democracy (See: Libya and Iraq).
Before the U.S. instructs other nations on the practice of democracy, it
must re-think its policy in Puerto Rico.
A bit of background: In 1897, after decades of struggle against
colonial rule, Puerto Rico secured autonomy from Spain, but it was
preempted from achieving full-fledged autonomy when the island became
an official territory of the U.S. a year later. From the start of their
relationship, the U.S. kept a colonial-like grip on the island's
governance. It took 50 years for the U.S. to grant islanders the right
to elect its own governor. In 1951, the U.S. loosened its grip a bit,
granting the island the right to craft its own constitution and to
fashion a "new" status as a commonwealth. In terms of self-governance
Puerto Rico had finally made it back to where it was in 1897, but it
remains a U.S. territory, which seems like "colony lite" to me.
I can hear the voices of dissent: that Puerto Rico should be nothing
but grateful, and has received numerous benefits from its arrangement
with the U.S. Take U.S. citizenship. Since 1917, Puerto Ricans on the
island have acquired US citizenship as a birthright. Certainly, the
power of the U.S. passport and the freedom of movement it affords is no
In truth, Puerto Ricans are second-class citizens who have not been
able to exercise the full spectrum of their voting rights. The
contradictory nature of Puerto Rican citizenship is best illustrated
in the grave responsibility of military service. Like stateside
citizens, Puerto Ricans on the island are subject to military duty,
yet they have no direct representation in Congress, which sanctions
wars, and they cannot vote for the commander-in-chief.
Second-class citizenship mirrors the island's showcase "sovereignty."
During the Cold War era, the U.S. strategically attempted to use Puerto
Rico as a model in the practice of democracy and economic prosperity.
But the island has never been able to pursue its own path in
intergovernmental or economic relations with other countries without
the approval (read: control) of the U.S. The dominant mantra in
international politics today is that democracy and economic
development go hand-in-hand. It's a model that the U.S. promotes around
the globe -- yet it's one that Puerto Rico has never had a chance to try
out at home.
Puerto Rico's smoke-and-mirrors "democracy" continues to wrestle with
high rates of poverty and stagnant economic development. In a 2008
report by the World Bank gauging 215 nations in terms of economic
growth, Puerto Rico had the dubious distinction of ranking 211th, in
the same range as the Palestinian territories and Zimbabwe.
Unemployment and poverty in Puerto Rico exceed levels in the 50
states. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau pegged the island's poverty rate
at 45%; double that of Mississippi, which had the highest poverty of
any state (22.4%).
Does the political status of Puerto Rico have anything to do with
Puerto Rican poverty? As Richard Figueroa, a Republican-leaning
attorney and former diplomat in the U.S. Department of State admitted in
a November 12 opinion piece in El Nuevo Dia, "The ambiguous nature of
the political relationship of Puerto Rico with the United States is
part of the main root of the economic and social problems of the
Both Congress and the White House have had ample time and opportunity
to resolve the U.S.'s ambiguous political relationship with Puerto Rico.
On December 23, 2000, President Bill Clinton established the
President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status. Its goal is to
recommend options for Puerto Rico's path to self-determination. Eleven
years later the Task Force still exits and Puerto Rico's status
remains the same.
The Puerto Rico Democracy Act was introduced in Congress first in 2007
by Congressman José Serrano (D-New York), and again in 2009 by Puerto
Rico's Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, the island's non-voting
member of Congress. The bill sought to "provide for a federally
sanctioned self-determination process for the people of Puerto Rico."
It died in the Senate when the 111th Congress closed.
In a March, 2011 report released by his Task Force on Puerto Rico's
Status, President Obama said that he is "firmly committed to the
principle that the question of political status is a matter of
self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico."
The very last lyrics to the finale of West Side Story are
"somehow...some day!" So, get on with it. When do we get to the final