Law in Contemporary Society

Crossroads of Destiny: Puerto Rico's Search for its Future

-- By JorgeRosario - 23 Feb 2024

“We, the people of Puerto Rico in order to organize politically on a fully democratic basis, to promote the general welfare, and to secure for ourselves and our posterity the complete enjoyment of human rights, placing our trust in Almighty God do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Commonwealth which, in the exercise of our natural rights, we now create within our union with the United States of America.” These words mean more than a mere formality to Puerto Ricans living on the island. They represent an assertion of freedom, of self- determination, even if it is in a very limited sense. They embody the pinnacle of cross-cultural immersion. As Morales Carrion puts it “Puerto Rico stands as a vivid and tangible example of the possibilities of inter-american friendship and understanding.”

While Puerto Rico has been able to import American ideas and methods to strengthen its democratic processes and to wage an implacable fight against hunger, disease, poverty and ignorance, the fruits that the island enjoys today was not always the case.

The American colonialism project has sped up Puerto Rico's development ten-fold. Educational programs, medical care, and rural electrification have become commonplace in an island that used to be able to only sustain a traditional agrarian society. This reality of economic prosperity clashes with the difficult truth that Puerto Rico is still a colony. The language of the insular cases ringing loud in the mind of the common Puerto Rican, “belonging to but not a part of” igniting a feeling of indignation across the island.

The United States, in turn, has to balance its lists of contradictions: “testing of both its altruism and national egoism; its capacity to understand in its proclivity to misunderstand, its mature worldview and its self-centered parochialism.” Being the beacon of democracy while subjugating Caribbean Americans becomes a hard balancing act to maintain, undermining its governance and legitimacy.

It is under this backdrop of development at a cost, that the Puerto Rican people face political hardship that permeates representation and constitutional rights. Citizenship for the “negroes and of mixed blood [that had] nothing in common with [mainland Americans] and were impossible to assimilate” was granted under the Jones-Shafroth Act. While this allowed Puerto Ricans to move freely between the continental United States, it also gave the federal government license to use Puerto Rico as an oil well of bodies to send overseas and fight for American exceptionalism. From WWII to Korea, enough Puerto Rican lives were claimed that one would think equal treatment and protection under the law would naturally follow. This proved not to be the case. Injustice towards Puerto Rico has been propagated since then and comes in various forms that are impossible to overlook such as inability to vote for president and have federal laws apply differently to the island (logically violating the Equal Protections Clause, but technically not under the Insular cases).

So what is the solution, when the status quo requires a drastic shift? Should the island fight for its independence such as Haiti did from the French, ending colonialism and starting anew with the support of our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean or should Puerto Rico assimilate to the national power and join the democratic Union? This question is one that unravels into a sea of nuance and complexity within the island.

The viability of the independence prospect would have to be addressed by looking at comparable Caribbean nations that have been successful in their voyage to independence and have remained afloat in the sea of debt and instability. Nations like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic instantly come to mind with their similar GDP and population. Both of these countries after liberation from colonial powers were able to cultivate their own economy through three major industries: tourism, manufacturing, and agriculture. Given Puerto Rico’s comparable history of building an infrastructure predicated on the fruits of the land and its potential for tourism, the sugarcane and cruising industry could begin to chip away at the massive debt in the island. However, this would come at a cost of the years of transition that will likely be characterized by both social and economic upheaval as the unprecedented liberty from colonialism opens a menu of options and opportunities that are bound to breed violence and resentment, as seen in other post-colonial nations. The vacuum left by the departure of the United States’ rule would result in large-scale fighting between the remaining pro-statehood advocates and the new independence ruling class. The post-Haitian Revolution period’s violence and instability paints a stark reminder of the cost of independence, and that the price may be collected in spilled blood from dull machetes.

While the larger consequences of independence would remain confined within the island’s borders, statehood would cause reverberations emanating from the island all the way across the ocean to the mainland. Statehood would not only signify the culmination of over 100 years of colonization, but also a restructuring of the federal government’s legislative branch. As soon as a 51st star is added to the flag, the transformation of the United States political landscape would be immediate. The new state would receive two senators, which would most likely be Democrats given the island’s left leaning ideals. These two senators would tip the balance of the Senate in favor of Democrats, likely leading to the passage of social welfare reforms such as carbon emission restrictions and DACA recipient resolutions. Furthermore, Puerto Rican statehood would have a massive impact on the Electoral College and would greatly influence the presidential elections. The island would likely receive seven electoral votes based on its 3.2 million population, which would prove decisive in close races. Puerto Rico has the potential to be a linchpin of the United States’ future, with a degree of influence that is likely to shift both social reform and political outcomes.

Morales Carrion expresses it best when he writes "understanding the island involves transcending the confines of American nationalism in an effort at empathy and insight. Only through mutual understanding and respect will the United States and Puerto Rico face with hope and creativity the many baffling and thorny issues of the present." Though the United States has massively aided in the development of the island, it has reached a point where the Puerto Rican people require a decisive future. Whether that be independence or statehood, the island’s future prosperity hinges on fostering inter-American relations, crossing colonial boundaries, and beginning to level the perceptions playing field.

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r3 - 20 Apr 2024 - 03:59:34 - JorgeRosario
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