Since the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico on July 25, 1898, American politicians and officials have been involved in the centuries-long debate regarding Puerto Rico’s final status, be it statehood, independence, or most recently, sovereign free association. The most recent attempt by Congress to resolve this issue, via the Puerto Rico Status Act of 2022 (H.R. 8393), seems destined to die in Congress like many other bills before it.
Most Puerto Ricans and many in Congress are adamant that only non-territorial status options should be considered, such as statehood, independence, or free association, not the current territorial “commonwealth” status that, along with being an embarrassing colonial relic, has led Puerto Rico to bankruptcy and failed economic development.
Americans and Puerto Ricans must also consider that not only is statehood decreasing in support, but that despite decades of fear, repression, and persecution, pro-sovereignty and pro-independence sentiment and support are on the rise in Puerto Rico, particularly with the younger generations. Today, pro-sovereignty sentiment is mainstream and present in the leadership of four of the five political parties in Puerto Rico. Also, the rising support for the Puerto Rican Independence Party and other pro-sovereignty leaders and legislators from other parties is being noted in Washington and policy circles.
As more pro-statehood leaders are arrested for corruption and pro-statehood bills are ignored in Congress, more Puerto Ricans (in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora) are waking up to the fact that statehood is a dead end and that sovereignty—either independence or free association—are Puerto Rico’s only viable options for the future. Change is coming to Puerto Rico, and Americans, particularly members of Congress and the national security community, better get on board now.
Due to changing geopolitical conditions after the Cold War and the rise of a multipolar world, some political leaders and analysts in Washington believe that the time has come to reset and reformulate Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States into one based not on colonialism, but on sovereignty, cooperation, and partnership. In a world where the commonwealth is a colonial relic of the past and statehood has never been desired by the United States, Puerto Rico’s sovereignty is the only viable and beneficial road to decolonization in the 21st century.
Thankfully, more Americans and Puerto Ricans are realizing this.
According to documents published in Puerto Rico by noted professor Jaime L. Rodríguez Cancel, President Jimmy Carter began a process in the late 1970s to explore decolonization options for Puerto Rico, particularly after pressure and specific United Nations resolutions calling for Puerto Rico’s self-determination and independence.
In 1977, Robert Pastor, head of Latin American Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), informed Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor at the time, that the United States was facing major problems at the United Nation’s Committee on Decolonization, particularly by various Puerto Rican leaders and representatives publicly calling Puerto Rico a “colony.”
As one could imagine, American calls for democratization and freedom in other countries, especially those under communist governments, were continually undermined when various countries at the United Nations mentioned Puerto Rico and its struggle against U.S. colonial rule. It would be like an abolitionist preaching to others about the evils of slavery, yet having a slave chained in his basement. Due to changing geopolitical conditions and increasing calls to decolonize Puerto Rico, some in the Carter administration thought that the time had come to finally reformulate Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.
In July 1978, Robert Pastor and Henry Richardson drafted a document stating the United States government would reaffirm its commitment to Puerto Rico’s self-determination. This draft document supported the idea of a plebiscite in 1981 between the three UN-approved decolonization options of “Independence,” “Free Association,” and “Integration” (statehood). Soon after, the NSC established a committee to review and study the various Puerto Rico status options, particularly how they would affect U.S. national interests and security. From this study, recommendations would be sent to Brzezinski in December 1978.
According to the NSC found that independence was the best political status option for Puerto Rico and that the United States should begin preparing and taking all the necessary steps to prepare the Puerto Rican people for these changes. The NSC study was not made by a group of Puerto Rican nationalists, but by dedicated and impartial American national security analysts concerned with defending and advancing U.S. interests. Thus, according to these NSC analysts, independence was the best status option for Puerto Rico and U.S. interests.
In December 1980, the NSC’s recommendations were sent to President-elect Ronald Reagan’s Transition Committee, which subsequently canceled the proposed 1980 plebiscite and shelved the entire study, ignoring the recommendations.
Of course, at the time, and in true smoke-filled backroom fashion, Puerto Ricans were unaware of the NSC study and Reagan’s cancellation of a proposed 1980 plebiscite.
One wonders why President Reagan would shelve and ignore these recommendations for the NSC and abort a process of decolonization and independence for Puerto Rico. It was no secret that President Reagan’s 1980 campaign received large donations and support from Puerto Rican statehooders—particularly New Progressive Party founder and former governor Luis Ferré, whom he knew personally—and local colonialists.
Also, Howard Hills, who supports Puerto Rico statehood, served in the Reagan Administration’s White House National Security Council and was lead counsel on territorial status affairs.
Did Mr. Hills and others downplay, ignore, and help sideline the NSC study that supported and recommended independence in order to protect and advance their own pro-statehood agenda?
For President Reagan, it seems, large donations from statehooders, the statehooder “equality” narrative, and Hills’s opinion trumped actual national security recommendations, denying Puerto Rico a chance at freedom in the 1980s. Due to such backroom colonial machinations, we Puerto Ricans have had to endure more decades of corrupt, inept, and undemocratic colonial rule.
As history shows, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have never actually advanced nor cared about the statehood agenda. The statehooders and colonialists did a great job in aborting the decolonization process in 1980, ensuring that Puerto Rico remained a powerless U.S. colony for decades to come just to placate their own political and economic interests.
Today, we see the disastrous results and consequences of such actions and policies. The territorial commonwealth is bankrupt, ruled by an unelected junta, led by a colonial governor with only 32 percent of support, steeped in dependency and poverty, and unable to advance economically due to the very limitations of colonial rule. Statehooders are decreasing in support, yet, unfortunately, they have managed to set up corruption and electoral fraud schemes, promote dependency, and fleece the commonwealth for decades to such an extent, that even the FBI is currently investigating and arresting their leadership—including a former pro-statehood governor.
The United States cannot continue to kick the colonial status can down the road, nor put up with the failed corrupt statehooders for another decade. We must confront and deal with this issue now so that future generations are not burdened by further calls for decolonization.
To put it bluntly: Puerto Rico is a failed colonial state that is costing American taxpayers billions a year to keep afloat in poverty while sullying American prestige on the world stage.
As a sovereign nation—under independence or free association—Puerto Rico will finally be able to rule itself and promote its own political, democratic, and economic development. If the U.S. supports Puerto Rico’s transition to sovereignty, Puerto Rico would become a major U.S. ally, a strategic economic partner, and a friendly government in the region. Isn’t that what U.S. national security and foreign policy advocates are always looking for? Sovereignty would make this a reality.
Puerto Rico’s pro-independence leadership has already stated to U.S. officials and members of Congress that they would support a “Treaty of Friendship & Cooperation” establishing excellent relations between the Republic of Puerto Rico and the United States. With sovereignty, the U.S. would relinquish its failed, bankrupt, poor, embarrassing, and corrupt colony for a new sovereign, democratic, and prosperous nation—a true regional ally.
As was true in the 1970s is still true today: Puerto Rican decolonization and sovereignty are in the national, geopolitical, economic, and diplomatic interests of the United States.
As sovereignty continues to be considered by more folks in Congress regarding Puerto Rico’s future, more needs to be done to help such congressional leaders and administration officials to see the light of freedom and push the ball forward by truly supporting and standing up for Puerto Rican decolonization, sovereignty, democracy, and economic development. Those who stand for decolonization and freedom will always be on the right of history.
Sovereignty is in both nations’ national interests.
Featured image by Pat McDonald/CC BY-NC 2.0