“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity”
- William Butler Yeats
While Americans voted in a presidential election Puerto Ricans who are American citizens but can’t vote in US elections were contending with their own “plebiscite” on the “status issue” of their homeland, the US colonized island of Puerto Rico. For those who don’t know, Puerto Rico has been a colony of the US since 1898. Since then the “status” of Puerto Rico has been a political game of hide and seek in which the US tries to hide the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony and Puerto Rico seeks a way out of it’s colonial past and into it’s independent future.
You may find it strange that Puerto Rico is a colony of the US, but it’s all a part of an elaborate deception to confuse the issue of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty… or lack of it. Puerto Rico competes in the Miss Universe pageant, the Pan American games, the World Baseball Classic and the Olympics as a nation, alongside other nations and Puerto Ricans are proud to compete in these contests but it creates a false sense of Puerto Rican sovereignty in the eyes of the world, which is exactly what the US wants. It’s the illusion of autonomy disguising the reality of colonialism and it’s been a political limbo for Puerto Rico for over half a century.
There are two main things that make Puerto Rico a US colony. The US can strike down any Puerto Rican law it finds disagreeable and Puerto Rico can only trade with the US, trade with other nations is forbidden. Puerto Rico is a “territorial possession” of the US and the colonization of Puerto Rico couldn’t be plainer than with these so-called “plebiscite” that are held every few years without rhyme or reason. These “plebiscites” are elections in which Puerto Ricans can vote for “Statehood”, “Commonwealth” or “Independence”. One of the major problem with these “plebiscites” on the “status” of Puerto Rico is that they are non-binding. What does that mean? It means that Puerto Ricans can vote to their heart’s content but the results of that election mean nothing because the US Congress has final say on the “status” of Puerto Rico. Let’s say for argument’s sake that all Puerto Ricans wanted to be incorporated into the US by becoming the 51st state or that all Puerto Ricans voted for independence, it would mean nothing. The will of the Puerto Rican people is not important enough to take into consideration because the power of Puerto Rico’s future lies in the hands of the US Congress. Is it becoming clearer now, how Puerto Rico is a US colony?
There are have been three previous “plebiscites” on the “status issue” of Puerto Rico, 1967, 1993 and 1998. None of these plebiscites have been mandated by the US Congress, they have all been initiated by the colonial Puerto Rican government by those who either prefer the status quo or statehood. Independence has never had a fair shot in any of these “plebiscites”. Independence organizations have stated that no plebiscite should take place until the US relinquishes all political and economic power over to Puerto Rico for a five to ten-year period so that Puerto Ricans would have a clearer understanding of what independence might be like. These demands have fallen on deaf ears by both the colonial government in Puerto Rico and by the US.
As a result of the political theater that these “plebiscites” have become many people who believe in independence refuse to take part in them, since they amount to nothing more than an opinion poll. As a result, the tally for independence has always been very small with the rest of the vote being split in favor of “Statehood” or “Commonwealth” with “Commonwealth” always coming out slightly ahead. So what’s the reasoning for having a “plebiscite” in Puerto Rico on the “status issue”? It’s a clumsy and flawed process to find a way out of the fractured political limbo that inherently comes with colonialism.
This latest “plebiscite” was organized by the PNP the New Progressive Party which supports statehood and was in power at the time of the “plebiscite”. The ballot was designed in two parts. The first part of the ballot asked if Puerto Ricans were satisfied with the current political status, which is described as Commonwealth. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the US, a Commonwealth territory of the US. If they expressed their dissatisfaction with Commonwealth in the first part of the ballot then they would go on to the second part of the ballot which gave Puerto Ricans three choices for change, Statehood (full incorporation into the US), Free Association (a kind of partial autonomy), or Independence.
The first part of the ballot had 54% of Puerto Ricans were unsatisfied with the current Commonwealth status. The second part of the ballot is where everything gets interesting and in typical Puerto Rican fashion, confusing. Of the 54% of Puerto Ricans who voted their dissatisfaction with Commonwealth status, 61.5% of the vote went for statehood, at least that’s how the PNP, statehood party, did the math. The PDP the Popular Democratic Party which favors Free Association (a kind of quasi autonomy) with the United States asked their supporters to use their vote to protest the whole process feeling that this plebiscite favored statehood. Free Associated State garnered 33% and Independence garnered about 5% of the vote on the second part of the ballot. On the surface it seems that Puerto Ricans would want statehood, but beneath the surface lies another story. A much more fractured story. Many Puerto Ricans voted their dissatisfaction with Commonwealth but never filled out the second part of the ballot. If you factor in the ballots that were intentionally left blank, then the vote for statehood only comes to about 45%.
The reason this is all so confusing is because the statehood party, the PNP, is trying to claim a victory in the face of a massive ousting of the statehood governor and many PNP members of the Puerto Rican legislature. The statehood party in Puerto Rico has closely aligned itself with right-wing neo-conservative austerity measures that have included the firing of government workers in massive numbers. These austerity measures made the former PNP, statehood governor Luis Fortuño so popular with the Republican Party in the US, that he was a featured speaker at the Republican nomination of Mitt Romney. When Puerto Ricans went to the polls to vote they let it be known that Luis Fortuño and his austerity measures which were carried out by his party, which held a majority in the Puerto Rican legislature were not the kind of direction Puerto Rico needed to go in. The Pro-Commonwealth Party, the PDP, won the governorship. The PNP is using the “victory” of their “plebiscite” to make up for their loss of political power on the island. It’s a schizophrenic politic but one that is indicative of the Puerto Rican existence. The PNP, statehood party, is declaring a victory for themselves in a plebiscite that seemed to be rigged to their benefit while they are being voted out of office by a furious Puerto Rican electorate that finds their brand of governance intolerable.
The real tragedy here is that Puerto Ricans are being asked to decide the future of their nation with one arm and one leg tied behind their backs. In the 1930’s and 40‘s the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico led by Don Pedro Albizu Campos became the largest independence organization on the island. The US government took this challenge to their authority with arrests, imprisonments and assassinations of Nationalist’s. Albizu replied by openly advocating revolution against the US. In order to stem that revolution and to keep Puerto Rico off the United Nations list of colonized nations, the US government decided to allow Puerto Rico to create a Constitution of their own and give Puerto Rico a measure of self governance. Albeit a level of self governance that was and continues to be approved by the US congress, which essentially built a stage for a new kind of absurdist political theater called Commonwealth.
For over 400 years the governor of Puerto Rico was appointed. When Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony the King of Spain appointed the governor. When Puerto Rico became a colony of the US in 1898, the President appointed the governor. In 1948 the US allowed Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor. In 1952 the creation of the Commonwealth status was crafted by the US in a brilliant piece of legislative complexity that creates the illusion that Puerto Rico is a self-governing nation while the US continues to be a colonizing force on the island. This kept a potentially full-blown revolution from happening on the island in the 1950’s and kept Puerto Rico off the United Nation’s list of colonized nations. A list that independence advocates have been trying to get back on since then.
The problem with this illusion of Puerto Rican self governance is that the independence movement has consistently pulled back the curtain to reveal the naked machinations of colonialism. It can even be argued that the greatest challenges to this illusion were done by those independence groups and organizations that took a more militant stance against it. The Nationalists, CAL (Armed Commandos of Liberation), MIRA (Independent Armed Revolutionary Movement), the EPB (Popular Boricua Army) also known as Los Macheteros, and the FALN (Armed Forces Of National Liberation) took up arms against US imperialist designs in both the US and in Puerto Rico and these actions are a constant reminder that Puerto Ricans are not free. The greatest difficulty in completely destroying the illusion of this self governance is the continued participation of Puerto Ricans within the illusion. This is the nature of colonialism, to divide and conquer.
The illusion of self governance is what’s keeping Puerto Rico from being free. The reason more Puerto Ricans aren’t confident about independence is that the illusion is ever-present, that Puerto Ricans are self-governing… Despite the constant and continued actions of those in the independence movement and the long and rich history of struggle for freedom that Puerto Rico has, the grip of this illusion remains strong. Puerto Ricans are afraid of becoming an independent nation because they believe that they are governing themselves now and that governance has never ever really served the needs of Puerto Rico. It can’t serve the needs of Puerto Rico, because it was never intended to, it was designed to serve the needs of US colonialism. This illusion of self-governance is designed to erode the confidence of Puerto Ricans so that we lack the faith in our ability to govern ourselves into prosperity. Not a financial prosperity but a spiritual, psychological and physical prosperity.
Puerto Ricans have always been forced to exist, not on the edges or at the fringes but in the center of things. Puerto Rican existence has always been one of pluralities, one of being neither here nor there, or being here and there all at once, a sense of being between this and that, or not this and not that, of being in between everything and nothing all at once. It’s a fractured, schizophrenic, existence. The only thing that this “plebiscite” proves is that we have learned to live not WITH our contradictions but WITHIN our contradictions. However it’s an existence that’s been manufactured by over 500 years of imperialism. The saddest part of all this is that Puerto Ricans don’t have the confidence to believe that their independence will free them not in terms of a homeland or governance but in terms of an existence that will take them out of a center that cannot hold and into the frontier of our potential that exists only the fringes, on the edges, at the borders of an imagination unencumbered by something as small and as silly as colonialism.