Statehood is Colonialism: The Case for Puerto Rican Independence

“Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico” has become an all too familiar mantra touted by our liberal friends in recent years; a statement that seems to make sense at a surface glance, but which fails under scrutiny, particularly when you have an understanding of the history. Because despite what the statement would have you think, the cases for statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico are radically different; Puerto Rico has relatively little in common with D.C., and much more in common with those other colonial territories (Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands and American Samoa) that often go completely unmentioned. The District of Columbia is made up of territory which has been part of the US since its founding, formerly having been part of Maryland (additional territory from Virginia was returned to the Commonwealth in the 1840s). While all the land in the US is stolen land, the only argument against statehood for D.C. is the argument for the complete abolition of the United States which is somewhat outside of the scope of this article.

In contrast to that, Puerto Rico was a colony invaded by the United States in 1898 as part of the Spanish-American war, following a period of blockading the San Juan Harbor, ceded to the US along with Guam and the Philippines (I don’t hear many people arguing that the Philippines should be a state of the US, but maybe I’ll get surprised after publishing this piece). The solution to more than 120 years of colonialism isn’t the US government deciding that Puerto Rico is now a state, it is giving the act of self-determination to the Puerto Rican people. Beyond simply that, we must all reckon with the bloody history of the US’s involvement in Puerto Rico to truly understand what statehood would represent. Most people in the US, I believe, have little understanding of the history of US involvement with Puerto Rico, never mind the present day politics of the island.

It was just three years after Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States that the Supreme Court would debate Downes v. Bidwell, a case which would determine that while Puerto Rico and any other territories controlled by the US which were not incorporated by states were subject to control by the US, they were not considered part of the US for the purposes of the constitution, essentially creating the status where these colonies belong to the US, but are not truly considered part of the US. In the majority opinion, the court states “If those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.” 21 years later, just five years after Puerto Ricans had been granted citizenship rights by the Jones Act, the case of Balzac v. Porto Rico found that the constitution didn’t fully apply in Puerto Rico, although claiming that fundamental rights still applied, without really clarifying exactly what those were. Chief Justice Taft, who as President had instituted the policy of dollar diplomacy aimed at forcing Latin American dependency on the US, and had previously served as governor of the Philippines, wrote that “Congress has thought that a people like the Filipinos, or the Porto Ricans, trained to a complete judicial system which knows no juries, living in compact and ancient communities, with definitely formed customs and political conceptions, should be permitted themselves to determine how far they wish to adopt this institution of Anglo-Saxon origin, and when.” It was, and still is, the official stance of the Supreme Court, and thus the United States as a whole, that the United States is an Anglo-Saxon nation, and that becoming a state means submitting to Anglo-Saxon culture, customs and rules. As such, Puerto Rican statehood means Puerto Rico becoming Anglo-Saxon as far as the US government is concerned. It would not be the end of the colonization of Puerto Rico, but the completion of it.

Away from the public eye of the Supreme Court, there’s an even darker history concerning the treatment of Puerto Ricans by the US. It’s estimated that between the 1930s and 1970s roughly one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized by the US government. This may seem like a shockingly high amount, especially considering this is something never talked about in the US, but it was very much a reality of Puerto Rico in the middle of the 20th century. These actions were tied up in Operation Bootstrap, a series of projects aimed at transforming Puerto Rico’s economy and moving it away from a sugar based monoculture. Luis Munoz Marin and the Partido Democrata Popular (Popular Democratic Party or PDP) came into power in the 1940 elections on the basis of this plan, and sought to bring in US private capital as a means of developing Puerto Rico into an industrial power. In practice, this involved US corporations flocking to Puerto Rico to take advantage of cheap labor and an exemption from paying any taxes for 10 years, and began employing primarily women in their manufacturing factories. Naturally, these corporations were looking for a stable workforce who wouldn’t be leaving work due to pregnancy, and they were stepping into a ready made environment for those needs. 67 birth control clinics had been introduced into Puerto Rico in 1934 using federal funds from the Puerto Rican Economic Relief Fund; privately funded clinics would follow soon after. Sterilization quickly became the accepted form of birth control advocated by doctors in these clinics, as the US government advocated for the idea that in order for Puerto Rico to be economically viable it must reduce its population size. The promotion of migration to New York during this time period was another part of this plan. Even public hospitals in Puerto Rico were carrying out these sterilizations, often without consent. It was a policy during the 1950s that any woman who gave birth and already had two children must have her tubes tied afterwards. This would even be checked afterwards by another doctor to ensure that the procedure had been carried out. In 1949, 17.8 percent of all hospital deliveries were followed up with sterilization. These hospitals were substantially financed by the US, the training was carried out by US doctors, and many of the doctors themselves were from the US. This policy of forced sterilization was nothing short of genocide carried out by the US against Puerto Ricans, all in the name of economic development. In addition, during the 1950s and early 1960s women in Humaco were being used as guinea pigs for testing an experimental birth control pill, many of whom were recruited from the poorest areas in door to door campaigns. These same pills, which the women weren’t informed they were being used as test subjects for, were later linked to heart attacks, blood clotting and fatal strokes.

The story of the US using Puerto Rico as its testing ground doesn’t end there however. Before Agent Orange became famous for its deadly use in Vietnam, the United States was testing it down in Puerto Rico. Between 1956 and 1968 the Department of Defense was testing the efficiency of Agent Orange on the foliage in the El Yunque Rainforest, conducting nuclear radiation experiments, as well as performing other chemical experiments on plants throughout the island. The chemicals being tested on the island’s vegetation were found to cause diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, Leukemia, Alzheimer’s and more. Considering the way these tests have been hidden from the public, it is impossible to know the full effect they had on the people of the island. The coverup has continued even into the modern era. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission even attempted to remove El Yunque from the list of locations where nuclear radiation experiments were conducted in 2006.

And perhaps nowhere has the hand of the US been felt more keenly against Puerto Rico than in the economic warfare they have waged against the island, little different in devastation from the sanctions waged against countries like Cuba or Venezuela. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (often referred to as the Jones Act) required all imports to be made by US made ships, flying the US flag, something which costs Puerto Rico somewhere near $500 million every year and continues to cause tremendous financial burdens on Puerto Rico to this day. In the 90s and 2000s Puerto Rico began being hit with extensive privatization on top of that, something which devastated the health care system, along with many others as the government began selling off hospitals and other public systems to private hands. The number of doctors on the island fell by nearly 40% over the next two decades. Today, 72 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities face unmet health care needs according to federal data. Then, in 2016, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), a law which created a board to manage Puerto Rico’s $129 billion in debt, a staggering amount of money that has been heavily exacerbated by the aforementioned Jones Act. This insistence on forcing the debt to be repaid is another example in how the US does not treat Puerto Rico like it is part of it, but rather subjected to it. Once created, the PROMESA board immediately jumped to action by cutting pensions, education budgets and health care in Puerto Rico, paving the way for just how devastating Hurricane Maria would be the following year. While Donald Trump’s inaction certainly exacerbated the problems, it was the austerity forced upon the island in the name of repaying debt that had put it in such a vulnerable place to begin with.

The US has also deployed a firm hand in crushing the independence movement in Puerto Rico, which was once much stronger in the early and mid parts of the 20th century. The FBI was deeply involved in the surveillance and arresting of independence activists in Puerto Rico, with the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico being one of their primary targets, particularly after the party had led a labor strike in 1935. Over the course of many years they would infiltrate labor organizations and student unions as part of their efforts to ensure they crushed any resistance to the colonial project. In 1948 it became law that anyone who spoke of independence or owned a Puerto Rican flag would get a mandatory 10 year prison sentence. The US went even further than that in the 1950s, deploying the National Guard to Puerto Rico and dropping bombs on Jayuya and Utuado. The bombing of citizens shows once again the view that the US Government does not consider Puerto Ricans to be citizens of the country, but subjects who must be kept in line.

As we can see, it has long been the view of the US Government that being part of the US means submitting to the values of the United States (what the Supreme Court Justices termed “Anglo-Saxon values” 100 years ago), and that Puerto Ricans, as well as the residents of the other colonies the US possesses don’t fit the government’s view of what the US is. In truth, Puerto Rico’s present situation has relatively little in common with the contiguous 48 states, who even prior to formal statehood already possessed those values. English as the default language (even if it isn’t the “official language”), protestant as the default religion, and the cultural values assumed to go along with those. The state Puerto Rico most resembles is another island, that of Hawaii. Hawai’i was an independent Kingdom in the Pacific before the US destabilized their government and then annexed it against the wishes of the native Hawai’ians. But In the years since Hawai’i became the state of Hawaii, the Kanaka Maoli, the native Hawai’ians, have represented a shrinking portion of the state’s population, seen their language and cultural traditions become increasingly unknown to younger members of their society, and represent a disproportionate amount of the poorest strata in Hawaii. While wealthy mainlanders turn Hawaii into their vacation home, Air Force members look at the state as a dream spot to be stationed, the Kanaka Maoli have been struggling against a telescope being placed at Mauna Kea, with independence becoming a topic discussed more and more openly. Is this the fate anyone wants for Puerto Rico?

But what do Puerto Ricans want? If you passively receive political news in the US you might be under the belief that all Puerto Ricans long for statehood. The truth, however, is far more complicated. Plebiscites held in 1967, 1993 and 1998 saw statehood lose. A 2017 plebiscite saw statehood win with 97% support, but only because all opponents to statehood (both those supporting the status quo as well as independence supporters) boycotted the vote. The 2012 plebiscite is a more complex one with two different questions being voted on. Part 2 did see statehood win about 61% support, but there 400,000 fewer valid votes compared to the first part of the vote concerning whether the current status should continue or not (with 54% saying no). And what of the vote that was held just last year? Didn’t statehood win that one? Well, yes, about 52% of voters in 2020 voted for statehood. That’s about the same percentage as British voters who supported Brexit, which obviously makes it the unshakable will of the people that we should respect, right? But things get even murkier the more you dig into them. There were fewer votes cast on the statehood question in the 2020 race than for governor. Obviously these people are not statehood supporters or they would have voted for it. In total a little over 650,000 people voted for statehood, out of a population of a little over 3 million. This was the third non-binding vote held on statehood in the last 8 years, and the results are murkier than ever. The Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP or New Progressive Party), the “pro-statehood” party on the island has been pushing for these votes more and more as a cynical way to hang onto power.

The PNP and PDP (who represent the status quo more broadly) have been trading power in Puerto Rico since the constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established in 1949 (prior to that governors had been appointed by the US). The Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Independence Party, or PIP) has been the other notable party on the island, but has been long away from the trappings of power due to the stifling of the independence movement. Despite the belief by realpolitik understanders that Puerto Rico would be a guaranteed Democratic stronghold if admitted as a state, the situation is a lot more complex. The PNP includes both Democrats and Republicans, and two of the last 3 Resident Commissioners (Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of the House of Representatives) have been registered Republicans. In addition to being an unholy union (or perhaps just a more honest representation of where these parties’ true loyalties lie than on the mainland) of Democrats and Republicans, the PNP has proven itself time and time again to be utterly corrupt. In the summer of 2019 this situation became even more apparent, when Puerto Ricans rose up all across the island after leaks displaying the corruption, racism, and general contempt for poor people on the island from then governor Ricardo Rossello as well as other members of his government, eventually leading to Rossello being the first Puerto Rican governor to ever resign. Is it any surprise, then, that having been so thoroughly embarrassed and had their corruption laid bare, the PNP made sure that the next gubernatorial election was held along with a vote on statehood? Even with that, it was still barely enough for the PNP to hold onto power. In addition to a resurgence in support for the PIP (gaining nearly 14% support, nearly 7x what they had gotten in 2008, the last time they had official recognition on the gubernatorial ballot), a new party called the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizen’s Victory Movement, or MVC) was formed and also picked up around 14% support themselves. While the MVC wasn’t an explicitly independence focused party like the PIP was, they were very focused on ending corruption, taking on the established order and ending the colonial system, whether by independence or statehood. The result was that the PNP got only 33% of the vote in 2020, down 8% from 2016, with the PDP falling 7% themselves. The bipartisan consensus is breaking, and more and more people are starting to look at independence as a real option again.

But what would it look like? Could Puerto Rico stand alone without support from the US? Keep in mind that no nation is ever truly alone, and as I hope I’ve demonstrated here, Puerto Rico hasn’t so much been supported by the US as it has been drained by the US. A truly independent and debt free Puerto Rico (and the wiping out of all of the unjust debt would have to be a core part of any decolonization project) would be able to trade as equals with its neighbors in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Puerto Rico is closer to Venezuela geographically than to the continental United States, yet it is currently party to the unjust sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the US Government. The same is true of Cuba, located nearby Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. Imagine an independent Puerto Rico having its crumbling health care system being rebuilt with the help of Cuban doctors, and forming friendly trade partnerships with Venezuela and Bolivia. It may sound like just a pipe dream to some, but this world could be possible. It was the late Fidel Castro who said “We have sacred historical, moral, and spiritual bonds with Puerto Rico. And we’ve told them [Washington] that as long as there’s one Puerto Rican who defends the idea of independence, as long as there’s even one, we have the moral and political duty of defending the idea of Puerto Rico’s independence.” This is not the only path an independent Puerto Rico would have available to it, but it is one of many that are currently closed off to it.

As someone not from Puerto Rico, I recognize that my opinions on this matter are of less importance than the people who live there. I cannot myself offer the solutions. In the past I took that to mean that I should just support self-determination and leave the rest up to Puerto Ricans to decide for themselves. But I’ve realized that is just cowardice. To say that you are not from a place so you shouldn’t speak on what is right would be viewed as insane if someone said it about Irish reunification or about the West Bank. I have looked over the history and morality and concluded that I must support Puerto Rican independence. It is the only moral path forward. My opinion is worth less than that of any Puerto Rican, but I believe all of us who live in the US have a moral duty to support our Puerto Rican comrades who struggle for independence.

Last summer while eulogizing John Lewis, former President Barack Obama referred to Puerto Rican statehood as a “civil rights” issue. That sounds nice. Who would say no to civil rights? But civil rights for whom? To Barack Obama, whom I’m sure will never read this, and all others who share this belief, whether out of a misguided view that making Puerto Rico a state will guarantee them two new Democratic Senators, or just out of a belief that everyone should be a US citizen I say this: Puerto Rico not being independent is a human rights issue. We must end all colonies immediately and grant independence to everyone subjugated by the US Empire. Too many people use the language of ending all national borders to argue that we don’t need more independence movements. But though we may want to end all national borders we must also recognize that national borders cannot be ended unequally. The subjugation of Puerto Rico to the US isn’t a step towards ending national borders, but towards continuing them. All of us on the left must consider freeing Puerto Rico from the shackles of US rule a project of the same importance as freeing Palestinians from Israeli rule and from freeing wage laborers from capitalist rule. If we can’t recognize the existence of every struggle for freedom in the world, then we recognize the existence of no struggles for freedom in the world.