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Toward nationhood and the eradication of Puerto Rico’s colonial status

Opinion by Federico Subervi, Ph.D. Retired professor


The people of the United States face a hopefully brighter future with the Democratic victories in the presidential and congressional elections, including the senatorial wins in Georgia. The future is not so bright, however, for the people of Puerto Rico because the archipelago’s political status with the U.S. remains colonial and overwhelmingly unfavorable for its economic recovery, its autonomous economic and political development, and for its national cultural identity.


While stories about the outcome of the local November 3 elections (and the ill-conceived, manipulated plebiscite) may have trickled into some U.S. news media, the ongoing colonial status and the crises that that status generates most certainly remain unknown and beyond comprehension in American public opinion. Two key points about those elections: First, a pro-statehood governor won, but with barely one-third of the votes cast; 67 percent of the voters rejected him. Had there been a run-off, he most certainly would not be the governor. Second, barely 52 percent of the voters opted “yes” to the plebiscite question “statehood: yes or no.” Those who champion that outcome neglect to mention that the pro-statehood propaganda was characterized by false promises, misinformation and even outlandish lies. It was also held when the majority of Puerto Ricans on the Island are still suffering from the consequences of the local government’s fiscal bankruptcy and operational corruption, the devastation of the September 2017 hurricanes, the early January 2020 earthquakes, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Such conditions contributed to many voters believing—very mistakenly—that statehood would bring immediate relief to all the misery and fiscal crisis. The false promises are even more baseless because the plebiscite was not even sanctioned by the U.S. Congress, which therefore has no obligation to take action on the minimalist and misguided outcome.


When the new U.S. Congress convenes this year, the issue of the future of Puerto Rico’s political status might gain attention in some congressional committees and/or other governmental circles. If those discussions are to be most efficiently and properly directed, the elected and appointed officials as well as other participants in the deliberations should keep in mind that a core issue of the Island’s status debate is one of Puerto Rican national values and self-determination. Therefore, policy decision-makers must take into consideration the historical contexts of U.S. foreign intervention and colonialism.


The United States emerged thanks to the people’s opposition to British colonial rule. Unfortunately, the U.S. soon emulated the former ruler’s imperialist policies and subjugated numerous foreign countries, including Puerto Rico dating back to 1898. Colonial powers such as Belgium, Britain, France and Portugal have recognized that their centralized control over foreign territories was detrimental to the inhabitants of those lands and albeit slowly and with limited outcomes nevertheless acted to promote the independence and enhance the economic development and inalienable cultural values of their former colonies.


It is imperative for the U.S. to do the same starting by relinquishing constant and continued control and manipulation of government and public opinion that primarily benefits U.S. corporate and political interests. It is precisely that control and manipulation—with the complicity of corrupt members of the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista and pro-status quo Partido Popular Democrático, the two parties that have dominated Puerto Rico’s governments since 1948—that has contributed to the economic bankruptcy and the deterioration of Puerto Rican institutions and inalienable cultural values. As documented in my book The News Media in Puerto Rico: Journalism in Colonial Settings and in Times of Crises, that control and manipulation has also taken place with the collaboration and acquiescence of Puerto Rico’s corporate media that in turn benefit from the colonial status.


Those of us who steadfastly believe in Puerto Rico’s national sovereignty and self-determined political and economic development are urging the public as well as political and community leaders to better understand the reality of the archipelago’s colonial status and its consequences. We also urge the American public to not be persuaded by misleading, deceptive and ill-conceived public relations efforts claiming Puerto Rican’s desire to become a state.


This call is especially to progressives who erroneously believe that Puerto Rican statehood is a cause to advance because it would enhance Democrats’ power in Congress. While that might be the case, promoting statehood overlooks the imperialist genesis of Puerto Rico’s colonial condition that for over 122 years has undermined its Puerto Rican-centered development. Statehood is definitively no justification to exacerbate the decline of Puerto Rico’s nationhood causing greater assimilation and loss of its remaining inalienable rights and distinct cultural characteristics, including language, traditions and the cherished participation in international sporting events among others. Statehood would also not solve the fiscal crises or bring fundamental relief to people who’ll face greater tax burdens, including at the federal level.


The macro-economic disadvantages for Puerto Ricans would also be insurmountable. On the one hand, there would soon be local fewer employment opportunities upon the rapid loss of manufacturing companies and business that would promptly leave the “tax haven” territory. On the other, there would be a continuation and exacerbation of the loss of local archipelago-based businesses and commerce, which will have to compete even more unfairly with stateside companies and franchises that not only undermine Puerto Rican-based development but also primarily enrich the coffers of companies that leave little behind for local infrastructure, education and the Island’s society at large.


In essence, statehood would be the culmination of a major colonial and imperial imposition with a terrible price and setback for Puerto Rican identity, nationhood, culture and collective economic and political development. Anyone who truly values decolonization, self-determination, people centered democracy and economic development must now more than ever work together to push back against the political opportunism that would benefit at best a U.S. political party, a few opportunist politicians on the archipelago, but certainly not the majority of the people of Puerto Rico.


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Federico Subervi, Ph.D. is originally from Puerto Rico, but a long-time resident of Austin, TX. Currently he is Co-Editor-in-Chief, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Communication, Honorary Associate/Fellow of the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-author of The News Media in Puerto Rico: Journalism in Colonial Settings and in Times of Crises (Routledge, 2020).

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(Picture above is by by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo / AP and was originally published at https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/puerto-ricos-loud-and-fervent-days-of-protest-ricardo-rossello).

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