Decolonizing Puerto Rico

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On July 15, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources that outlines a process for the Puerto Rican people to decide their political status and future in a binding referendum that would obligate the U.S. Congress to accept the decision of Puerto Rico’s voters. The bill, the Puerto Rico Status Act (HR 8393) would ultimately require a plebiscite among Puerto Rico’s voters on November 5, 2023, that would change their colonial and territorial relationship with the United States.

The Puerto Rico Status Act came about after weeks of closed-door “consensus” negotiations between the sponsors of two competing bills: the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, introduced by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and other Democrats, which proposed a Status Assembly to negotiate the terms and conditions of the three non-territorial options; and the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, sponsored by pro-statehood advocates, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (R-PR), and Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL), which seeks to make Puerto Rico a state as soon as possible. 

Although the Puerto Rico Status Act has Democratic support on the Committee, it faces stiff opposition from most Republicans, who were not only ignored and not consulted during the entire negotiation process, but stated that they will not support the bill. Led by Bruce Westerman (R-AR) in this committee, the Republicans also said that they will introduce amendments and have pointed out that U.S. Senate leadership has already said that even if the bill is approved in the House of Representatives—very unlikely—the bill will not even be considered by the Senate, which views the bill as stacked for statehood. 

History has shown, and many have said—particularly pro-independence and pro-sovereignty leaders and organizations in Puerto Rico—that any status bill that contains “statehood”—the poison pill—as an option is destined to die in the U.S. Senate. Why? Well, as many Puerto Ricans already know, the United States does not want Puerto Rico as a state, simple as that. Yet statehooders still try to impose statehood on the United States and the American people. The U.S. Senate knows this and blocks all such bills, particularly a bill with a binding referendum that effectively takes away from Congress its right to have the final say on the admission of new states. 

Republicans and many Democrats have also stated that approving statehood for Puerto Rico—a decision that would dramatically impact the U.S. politically, electorally, and economically forever–should require a super-majority vote of support from Puerto Ricans, not just a mere 50+1 plurality. Also, despite Puerto Rico statehooders ridiculously claiming that a future “State of Puerto Rico” will be able to maintain its current national Olympic Committee—which would violate the federal Amateur Sports Act of 1978—Congress needs to remind such statehood advocates that U.S. states do not have Olympic teams, as all Americans participate under the banner of Team USA. 

The three options under the proposed referendum of HR 8393 are Statehood, Independence, and Sovereignty in Free Association. The conditions and terms of a future Compact of Free Association would be negotiated later between Puerto Rico and the U.S. delegations. The United States, which currently has Compacts of Free Association with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, is the country that boasts the most experience negotiating such compacts with sovereign Freely Associated States (FAS). 

Americans must understand that, although a November 2020 referendum in Puerto Rico showed that 53 percent of voters favored statehood, while 47 percent opposed it, when one considers the entirety of registered voters, only 27 percent actually came out to support statehood—hardly a mandate, especially when the introduction of the Puerto Rico Status Act effectively negated the supposed 2020 “mandate for statehood.” Also, in the 2020 general elections, 67 percent of voters did not vote for the pro-statehood governor, who ultimately won the governorship with a meager 33 percent of support—permitted due to an anti-democratic policy in Puerto Rico that prohibits electoral alliances.  

Now that the Puerto Rico Status Act has been introduced, the bill’s mark-up in committee is scheduled soon, during which time important amendments by Republicans and Democrats will be considered and debated before the bill is voted on in committee. 

In my view, even if the Puerto Rico Status Act is not passed in the House or Senate, the important issue to keep in mind is that this bill sets a precedent for future status bills and decolonization negotiations because, for the first time, Sovereignty in Free Association was listed as a viable option for Puerto Rico. Both sovereignty options—independence and free association—considered separate options under international law, actually came out pretty well in the bill, even when pro-statehood negotiators tried to discredit and derail both options by trying to deny them favorable terms and conditions regarding citizenship and economic assistance. In the end, despite the statehooders’ attempts at monkeywrenching, both independence and free association still came out on top regarding the issues of transferring U.S. citizenship to future generations, federal economic transition assistance, and free transit, among other issues. 

Although the Puerto Rico Status Act could have done better with regards to transparency, diaspora participation, addressing official language and other cultural issues, plus the lack of public hearings, the proposed bill did accomplish including Free Association as a viable status option, presenting both sovereignty options in a very favorable light concerning citizenship and economic assistance issues, presenting new language related to tax law for each option, and creating a framework where future status bills and negotiations can use to advance Puerto Rico’s decolonization. 

Despite statehooder lobbyists and operatives saying otherwise, Americans need to realize that Puerto Rican patriotism and pro-sovereignty support are strong and growing in Puerto Rico, particularly the option of Sovereignty in Free Association, which is the option with the largest growth margin in Puerto Rican history. In the 2012 plebiscite, both sovereignty options combined totaled almost 40 percent. The option of Free Association, without being defined, was supported by 33 percent. 

Today, with the favorable terms, conditions, and benefits described in the Puerto Rico Status Act as introduced, the option of Free Association will grow in additional support because it allows Puerto Rico to become a sovereign nation—to protect its language, culture, and national identity; safeguard and expand its international representation; establish foreign relations and accord beneficial treaties; and develop a strong national economy—yet also maintain important aspects of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, not as a colony or a subordinated state, but as a sovereign and equal ally and trading partner.

According to the bill, even with full independence, Puerto Ricans would be able to maintain and transfer their U.S. citizenship to their offspring and travel freely to the United States. Those Puerto Ricans that do not want nor need U.S. citizenship will be allowed to renounce said citizenship and remain Puerto Rican citizens. Whether one maintains or renounces one’s U.S. citizenship will be a private and personal choice.     

Unfortunately, yet not surprising, statehooders are not happy with the favorable conditions, terms, and benefits afforded to both sovereignty options, particularly Free Association, which Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood party, the New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish), sees as its main threat. The PNP, when not dodging federal corruption investigations, has mounted a misinformation campaign aimed at scaring Puerto Ricans about the “evils” of freedom, sovereignty, and economic development. Their tactics are quite understandable when you realize that the statehood party depends on fear, colonial dependency, and pro-poverty policies that aim to extract as much federal funds as possible from American taxpayers under its banner of “equality.”

In a recent article for The Federalist, some even decry the possibility that “Puerto Ricans will maintain both their U.S. and Puerto Rican citizenship. They will continue to reap financial benefits—funded by taxpayer dollars—without having to pay any taxes to the United States government.”

For such people, how dare Puerto Ricans wish to maintain U.S. citizenship—which was imposed on all Puerto Ricans in 1917 without our consent—and also secure an economic transition package after the United States has extracted and benefitted inestimably from Puerto Rico’s colonial subordination over a period of 124 years? While some don’t mind and stay silent as the U.S. continues to extract wealth from its colony—extraction that has impoverished our country for over a century—they do mind and are offended at the possibility that the U.S. may want to help its former colony transition towards a prosperous sovereign future. 

Under both sovereignty options, Puerto Rico’s economy will immediately improve, since it will finally be free of the Jones Act of 1920 and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, policies and limitations which effectively limit the growth of Puerto Rico’s economy, increase the cost of imports by up to 20 percent, and prevent Puerto Rico from protecting its native industries and strategic economic sectors. With sovereignty, Puerto Rico would be free of these colonial shackles and could finally establish a strong and diversified national economy. A sovereign Puerto Rico, in full control of its customs and ports of entry, and with a fair tax on multinational corporations, would be able to generate approximately $17.6 billion in national revenues, which is twice the budget of the current colonial and dependent Commonwealth.    

The economic transition assistance package within HR 8393 would help Puerto Rico transition from a U.S. colonial, corrupt, poor, and dependent economy towards a national economy based on production, exports, investments, and internationalization. It’s in the U.S.’ own interest to support a stable, democratic, and prosperous Puerto Rico, rather than give in to the “be free and suffer” attitude of a few that want to punish Puerto Ricans economically for having the audacity to secure their freedom and build a strong national economy. 

For statehooders and others that wish to sabotage Puerto Rico’s chances at freedom and a prosperous economy for petty and partisan purposes, such basic economic assistance as described in the bill is considered an “overly gratuitous combination of independence plus U.S. dollars and citizenship”. Yes, those sums of money may be too much for some to fathom for Puerto Rico, but the U.S. Congress has already shown that it is willing and able to support and engage a sovereign Puerto Rico, despite the efforts of statehooders and decolonization obstructionists. 

Also, as stated in the bill, U.S. citizens in the 50 states and in a sovereign Puerto Rico, as occurs for U.S. citizens residing overseas, will have to pay federal income taxes, of course, unless the United States and Puerto Rico negotiate a special tax treaty to exclude dual U.S.-PR citizens residing in a sovereign Puerto Rico from said policy. But, of course, it would be up to the United States to decide that. I believe that those that enjoy the benefits of U.S. citizenship should also embrace its obligations, and that includes paying federal taxes. Of course, Puerto Ricans who are solely Puerto Rican citizens—and enjoying the rights and obligations that said citizenship entails—would not have to pay U.S. federal taxes, only Puerto Rico taxes.   

All in all, the introduction of the Puerto Rico Status Act, despite its flaws, is still an advance and a major step in the right direction to help Puerto Rico decolonize and achieve its freedom and sovereignty as a free, democratic and prosperous nation. Puerto Ricans will see that both sovereignty options, as presented in the bill, are viable, are recognized by Congress, would establish Puerto Rican citizenship, would allow Puerto Rican U.S. citizens to maintain and transfer said citizenship to their children, would recognize the Puerto Rican people as sovereign in their own nation, would secure Puerto Rico’s international relations, and would secure free transit for Puerto Ricans to travel to work, study, and reside in the United States without visa restrictions, among other benefits. 

National sovereignty is the only viable path for Puerto Rican decolonization that would be accepted by the United States. As was recommended by a former U.S. ambassador in 2018, Puerto Rican statehooders—who believe they are Americans, wish to vote for president, and live with their “fellow Americans”—can always move to any one of the 50 states and enjoy the benefits statehood. If the United States is the country of the statehooders, where are the bulk of anti-statehood, pro-sovereignty Puerto Ricans supposed to go if Puerto Rico becomes a state? 

Statehood would essentially eliminate Puerto Rico as the homeland of Puerto Ricans, and there’s no second Puerto Rico where Puerto Ricans can go. Today, Native Hawaiians are nine percent of the population of Hawai’i. Most live in poverty, and they are also a “stateless nation.” Boricuas must heed the warning of Hawaiians: “Don’t become a state! Look what happened to us!”

Puerto Ricans don’t have a plan B in regards to relocating or acquiring a piece of land from some other country so that they can finally have a free country of their own. We Puerto Ricans only have Puerto Rico, our beautiful and blessed Caribbean homeland. Puerto Ricans, who under statehood would essentially become another “cultural minority” in the U.S. and remain a “stateless nation” like the Kurds, are not going to willingly hand over their country, aspirations, and freedom to the United States nor the local colonial collaborators who profit from colonial rule. 

Statehood, as I’ve said before in other writings, will guarantee not only the economic collapse of Puerto Rico and entrench chronic dependency on taxpayer federal funds—as detailed in Congress’ Government Accountability Office report in 2014—but will also bring forth decades of civil strife and anti-colonial and anti-assimilation defiance campaigns that will bring more dire problems to the United States. Does the United States really want a tropical Northern Ireland or Caribbean Kosovo on its hands, on top of all the myriad domestic and international problems it already has? Of course not.

With sovereignty, Puerto Ricans will secure their nation—their homeland, Puerto Rico—while the statehooders will not lose their nation. Statehooders will be able to reside in a free Puerto Rico if they so wish, or reside in their nation, the United States. Sovereignty would allow Puerto Rican to secure the freedom and existence of their Boricua homeland forever for all future generations of Puerto Ricans who value and cherish their Puerto Rican culture and national identity. 

With the growing demise of the statehood and commonwealth options in Puerto Rico and the continuous “No means No” from Congress regarding statehood, the time has come to realize that either of the two sovereignty options—independence or free association—presented in the Puerto Rico Status Act are the only viable and dignified options for the Puerto Rican nation. We cannot and should not allow the statehooders to keep holding our Puerto Rican nation hostage in political colonial limbo as they continue to humiliatingly beg year after year for statehood while Congress continues to slam that door in their face. How many rejections of statehood are we as a people supposed to tolerate and put up with until we realize that the United States does not want a Boricua state? 

If the door to statehood has been slammed shut to Boricuas for 124 years and the broken door of continued colonialism won’t open, it’s time to consider looking at the doors of independence and free association. These are the only options that Congress would actually consider and support for Puerto Rico. Remember: Any status bill with the word “statehood” in it will die in the U.S. Senate.

Boricuas, it’s time to stand up, break the chains of colonialism, and open and walk through the door of freedom and sovereignty. We deserve it. 


Featured image by Joshua Siniscal Photography/CC BY-ND 2.0

Javier Hernandez is a Puerto Rican writer, linguist, small business owner, pro-sovereignty activist. He is the author of 'PREXIT: Forging Puerto Rico’s Path to Sovereignty' and 'Puerto Rico: The Economic Case for Sovereignty.' He is also a collaborator of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora and other pro-sovereignty organizations in Puerto Rico.

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