The Importance of Diaspora Activism in Puerto Rico’s Sovereignty Movement
Updated: Aug 31
By Javier A. Hernández*
With the upcoming “Statehood: Yes/No” status plebiscite in Puerto Rico, pro-sovereignty advocates within the Puerto Rican diaspora have risen to support the massive and coordinated “NO to Statehood” campaign in Puerto Rico and in the United States. This major uptick in diaspora activism in support of defeating the YES option has led to some calls by other Puerto Ricans, namely statehooders, that such diaspora Puerto Rican activists have no place in opposing statehood for Puerto Rico. Those statehooders believe that the pro-sovereignty diaspora Puerto Ricans should mind their own business and not meddle in such important Puerto Rican affairs since they don’t live in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, those same statehooders that abhor and ridicule any support for Puerto Rican sovereignty coming from the diaspora, principally those in the United States, enthusiastically support the participation and opinions of non Puerto Rican pro-statehood politicians that have zero connection with the archipelago, as well as the pro-statehood views of some diaspora Puerto Ricans.
In essence, statehooders --including so called progressive and liberals actively militating in the Democratic Party of Puerto Rico-- only want pro-statehood diaspora Puerto Ricans to have and share their opinions about Puerto Rico’s future, while pro-sovereignty voices and advocates (supporters of independence and free association) must be muzzled, just like the by-gone days of the Gag Law and colonial persecutions. For statehooders in Puerto Rico and in the United States, the increased support that sovereignty and freedom have within the Puerto Rican diaspora, particularly Boricua youth, is alarming, threatening, and must be silenced and ignored. Although statehooders argue that the diaspora has no standing when discussing the future status of Puerto Rico, history proves them wrong time and time again.
Statehooders also fail to connect the dots as to why so many Puerto Ricans are even living overseas in the United States and other countries. Let’s not forget that this mass exodus has happened under U.S. tutelage and sovereignty. The political and economic failures of corrupt colonial rule in Puerto Rico, supported by statehooders and colonialists, has had the largest impact on why many Puerto Ricans live outside of Puerto Rico.
Historically, diasporas have proven to be very important and essential in the decolonization process and liberation struggles of many nations, Puerto Rico being no different. All nations that have struggled for freedom from colonialism have counted on external backing by patriotic diasporas and supporters to back, fund, and mobilize their pro-sovereignty movements. Let’s consider several examples:
During Ireland’s resistance to British rule, thousands of Irish-Americans in the United States supported, funded, and helped mobilize the Irish resistance and the eventual founding of the Irish republic. Ireland’s first president, Eamon De Valera, frequently travelled to the United States to seek support and funds to keep the Irish revolution going. In the United States, De Valera received the help and support of many Irish-Americans, many of whom had families who were directly impacted by British colonial rule, laws, and violence. De Valera even sought and received help from Puerto Rican Nationalist leader Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos to raise funds, support, and review the draft of the new Irish constitution. No country has ever asked a Puerto Rican statehooder to review any draft constitution of any kind.
Eamon de Valera, Pedro Albizu Campos, Boricua Diaspora in D.C., View of Modern Dublin, Ireland.
During India’s struggle against British colonial rule, thousands of Indians in the United Kingdom and other territories and countries supported Gandhi and India’s independence movement. Their activism and lobbying efforts in London helped secure support, resources, goodwill, and further pressured the British government to “Quit India,” as Gandhi proposed. India’s massive and active diaspora was essential in securing that country’s freedom.
In regards to Puerto Rico, Dr. Ramón E. Betances organized and launched the Grito de Lares in 1868 from the Dominican Republic, aiming to free Puerto Rico from Spanish rule. Dr. Betances advocated for Puerto Rico’s freedom as an exiled diaspora Puerto Rican in Paris. These early patriotic diaspora Puerto Ricans advocated for Puerto Rico’s freedom in Europe, the United States, and Latin America.
The modern Puerto Rican flag was designed and adopted in New York City in 1895 by patriotic diaspora Puerto Ricans. Yes, Puerto Rico’s national flag was created by Antonio Vélez Alvarado, a diaspora Puerto Rican in New York City, not in San Juan or Ponce. Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, while studying in the U.S., supported Puerto Rico’s independence and spoke out at many meetings and conferences. Even after serving with the U.S. Army as a Second Lieutenant in World War I, Dr. Albizu Campos supported independence and returned to Puerto Rico to build the new Nationalist movement in the 1930s.
In the 1700s, the American diaspora was also important for the future United States. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was a diaspora American living and working abroad in London and Paris advocating for and supporting American interests and independence. Even John Adams went to France and the Netherlands to help the cause of American independence by securing French support. If Benjamin Franklin could support and advocate for his country’s freedom in faraway London and Paris and Adams can represent American interests in France, then so can diaspora Puerto Ricans support and advocate for Puerto Rico’s freedom in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Orlando or anywhere else in the world.
Just like the Irish had to deal with the pro-British Unionist Irish, and the Indians had to deal with the pro-British Colonial Indians, and the American patriots had to deal with the pro-British American Tory Loyalists, and the pre-1898 patriotic Puerto Ricans had to deal with the pro-Spanish Puerto Ricans, so do today’s modern pro-sovereignty Puerto Ricans (in Puerto Rico and the diaspora) have to deal with and resist the Puerto Rican statehooder loyalists that use corruption, fear, terror, poverty, and violence to promote statehood and Puerto Rican subservience to colonial rule.
As in many countries, the Puerto Rican diaspora is essential to Puerto Rico’s freedom movement since they help secure and mobilize people, funds, and resources to Puerto Rico during emergencies; represent and defend Puerto Rican interests in the United States; and most importantly, the diaspora shows the United States that Puerto Ricans are a strong, proud, resilient, and unassimilable nation that is constantly resisting colonial rule. Statehooders also fail to connect the dots as to why so many Puerto Ricans are even living overseas in the United States and other countries. Let’s not forget that this mass exodus happened under U.S. tutelage and sovereignty. The political and economic failures of corrupt colonial rule in Puerto Rico, supported by statehooders and colonialists, has had the largest impact on why many Puerto Ricans live outside of Puerto Rico.
While statehooders like to say that these Puerto Ricans “chose statehood with their feet”, the reality is that many Puerto Ricans had to flee Puerto Rico for economic and political reasons and the lack of professional opportunities, not because they want “statehood”. In fact, as they live in the United States, these diaspora Puerto Ricans experience life in an independent republic, learn about freedom and independence, embrace their Puerto Rican culture and national identity, and yet suffer the indignities of racism by some Americans. Far away and free from the fear and control of the statehood and colonialist parties of Puerto Rico, these diaspora Puerto Ricans in New York, New Jersey, and Florida are free to learn about Puerto Rican history and culture, particularly its patriots and the long history of Puerto Rico’s freedom and sovereignty movement.
These experiences and knowledge about Puerto Rico shape the attitudes of many pro-sovereignty diaspora Puerto Ricans. The statehooders and colonialists in Puerto Rico fear these pro-sovereignty diaspora Puerto Ricans because they do not fear Americans, are raised in a republic that cherishes freedom and independence, and are beyond their political control to scare and manipulate. For statehooders, these diaspora Puerto Ricans are a threat to the entire notion, concept, and ideal of statehood, which would forever annex Puerto Rico into the United States.
Again, while many statehooders despise patriotic diaspora Puerto Ricans and seek to limit their rights and voices, they do not seem to mind when statehooders in the U.S., particularly corrupt former governors and politicians residing in Virginia and Florida, support statehood and the destruction of the Puerto Rican nation. Even after all these years of fear and terror, statehooders cannot fathom that many Puerto Ricans in the diaspora support freedom and sovereignty for Puerto Rico.
Of course, many of these statehooders want the monetary and welfare benefits of statehood while living in Puerto Rico where they would not have to interact with actual English-speaking Americans. Statehood feeds off and depends on the continuous poverty of Puerto Ricans. The more poverty and dependence on federal funds, the more the people will support statehood as a way not to become Americans, but to secure more welfare funds from American taxpayers. Pro-sovereignty Puerto Ricans and many Americans know this, thus understand that statehood is a fantasy that will never be accepted by the United States.
Many Puerto Ricans and Americans, echoing the words of U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo, at a 2018 meeting of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission regarding Puerto Rico, believe that those in Puerto Rico that believe they are American and wish to vote for the US President “are free to move to the United States if they want to participate in US elections”, allowing those that wish to remain Puerto Ricans to have a country of their own.
Just like many Irish-Americans supported a free Ireland and many diaspora Americans in London supported the freedom of the Thirteen Colonies, so too do many diaspora Puerto Ricans support and defend Puerto Rico’s aspirations to freedom, democracy, and nationhood in the world.
* Javier A. Hernández is the author of “PREXIT: Forging Puerto Rico’s Path to Sovereignty.” He is a Puerto Rican writer, linguist, and small business owner based in New Jersey. He specializes in international relations and security, decolonization issues, nation-building strategies, and diplomacy of small states, and can be followed on Twitter @PRexitBook, Facebook, and at: PRexitBook.com.