Op-Ed: Independence Wins in Puerto Rico

in Politics by

With turnout at a mere 23 percent, Puerto Rican voters quashed any hope of the island nation becoming the 51st state when Puerto Rico’s anti-statehood coalition successfully boycotted Sunday’s referendum, causing the lowest turnout rate by far of any of the island’s plebiscites on its status in the past 50 years.

That’s how the news should’ve read this morning. Yet instead we read headlines like this one from the Associated Press: “Puerto Rico upholds statehood demand in contentious vote.” The article, written by someone named Danica Cotto, features a large photo showing Puerto Rico’s new pro-statehood colonial governor, Ricky Rosselló, with a big smile on his face, his left thumb in the air and his right arm around Puerto Rico’s new pro-statehood resident commissioner, Jenniffer González, who waves the Red, White and Blue.

“From today going forward, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico,” the governor told a few hundred supporters gathered at the pro-statehood New Progressive Party’s headquarters in San Juan last night. “It would be highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world, and not respond to the legitimate right to self-determination that was exercised today in the American territory of Puerto Rico.”

As an estadista (literally “statesman,” but, in this context, a “statehooder”), Governor Rosselló favors the imposition of U.S. democracy on his homeland. And, as an advocate of U.S.-style democracy, Rosselló believes it isn’t the opinion of the majority that matters, or even the opinion of the majority of voters; all that matters is winning. Never mind that only 518,000 voters bothered to show up yesterday — about 1.3 million less than the last time Puerto Rico voted on its status, in 2012.

And never mind the millions of other Puerto Ricans living on the mainland and elsewhere, who would be living in their homeland were it not for the periodic economic crises caused by the island’s colonial status. U.S. colonialism gave birth to the Puerto Rican diaspora, and yet those in the diaspora are never allowed to weigh in on the status question. It’s tough to know, in fact, how much of the drop in turnout is due to the tens of thousands who have escaped in the past five years. “They’ve voted with their feet,” goes the popular saying, but fleeing economic slavery and cultural persecution isn’t voting as much as it is surviving.

Very few people willingly emigrate from Puerto Rico, “la isla del encanto.” Most are refugees.

To account for the low turnout, the president of the colonialist Popular Democratic Party, Héctor Ferrer, says eight out of 10 eligible voters simply “went out, went to the beach, to the river. They didn’t pay any attention to the referendum.” Understanding why they paid no heed is key to understanding not only why “statehood and Rosselló lost,” as Ferrer argues, but why independence won.

It seems pretty clear that if, as Ferrer claims, an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans who could’ve voted on the island’s status chose instead to go to the beach, then it’s because either they support statehood but realize the current Congress, which holds supreme authority over the island and has the power to admit new states, would never respect the results of a referendum demanding statehood, or an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans don’t support statehood, period, and, therefore, chose not to participate in a referendum organized by the pro-statehood governor hoping to inch Puerto Rico toward statehood.

Of course, it could very well be that a majority of Puerto Ricans reject both statehood and independence and instead favor the current colonial status, known officially and euphemistically as “the Commonwealth.” If so, then I’d argue that a majority of those favoring the current status either don’t realize Puerto Rico is actually a colony or don’t fully understand colonialism; if they did, they’d understand that colonialism isn’t an acceptable option — for Puerto Rico or anyone.

Then there are those Puerto Ricans — far too many, in my view — who understand the evils of colonialism and still cling to Puerto Rico’s colonial status by arguing either that Puerto Rico isn’t really a colony but something a little better (the Commonwealth), or that Puerto Rico is a colony but that colonialism is the best, most realistic option for Puerto Rico at the moment. Such boricuas remind me of slaves in the antebellum South who, fearing the economic and political hardships that came with emancipation, as well as the reprisals that would follow their public demands for freedom, clung to slavery as the best and most practical option for black people, arguing that their masters were much more benevolent than the Abolitionists described.

Just as slavery wasn’t a defensible option for enslaved blacks, the current status isn’t a defensible option for colonized Puerto Ricans.

That’s why I say independence won on Sunday. But Governor Rosselló and fellow estadistas like Resident Commissioner González baldly ignore the implications of yesterday’s vote and will carry on their campaign to bring Puerto Rico into the Union using the so-called “Tennessee Plan,” which would force Washington’s hand one way or the other. Because it’s never been about what’s best for the people of Puerto Rico or what they want; it’s always been about what’s best for the colonial government, King George, and London bankers — I mean Congress and Wall Street.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico remains, as ever, stuck between a rock and a hard place — namely, $120 billion in debt and U.S. colonialism. Its only lifesaver is a Common Sense solution.


Featured image: Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Ricardo Mangual/Flickr)

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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