In 1997, the Gingrich Republicans had the brainstorm of addressing the GOPs burgeoning "Hispanic problem" by easing the path of Puerto Rico toward statehood. In the end, their bill barely passed (most rank-and-file Republicans voted against it). Then the islands voters confounded the issue by rejecting the statehood option in a referendum, narrowly opting for the status quo of commonwealth. If the GOP gained any Hispanic votes from this venture, it was hardly apparent in the 1998 elections.
Then it was Hillary Clintons turn to stumblewhen she backed away from her husbands clemency for the FALN terrorists, thus managing to alienate virtually every Puerto Rican politician in the city. Still, there are positive signs in the raising of these questions. As George Szamuelys forceful piece here last week demonstrated, non-Puerto Rican writers no longer feel that the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. is something only Puerto Ricans are allowed to state an opinion about. (At the New York Post, I tried, without evident success, to establish this point.) Still, among mainstream elected officials, the debate has a long way to go.
Szamuelys piece aside, absent from the recent talk about terrorists, clemency and how Puerto Rico affects American elections is any real discussion of Puerto Ricos statusthe very issue that has preoccupied the islands intellectual and political leadership throughout a century of American control. Indeed, many observers were shocked by the fact that so many Puerto Ricans rallied to support clemency for the FALN fighters.
If Puerto Ricans really rejected independence (and less than four percent voted for that option at last years referendum), why did they demonstrate in the streets of San Juan to support clemency? Why did elected officials in New York speak with warmth and respect for men and women ready to murder the innocent in support of their aims?
The answer is that great injustices have been perpetrated by the other (American) side as well, that Puerto Rican independence is not a dead cause and in principle is anything but a ridiculous one. Until the 1940s independence was the majority political sentiment on the islandthe natural goal toward which most of the islands political leaders oriented themselves. During World War II and the subsequent Cold War, Puerto Rico suddenly loomed as strategically vital for U.S. defense planners, and independence sentiment was vigorously suppressedthousands of its supporters were jailed under flimsy pretexts. Simultaneously the United States began to undercut nationalist sentiment by a kind of bribery: For submerging aspirations for nationhood, Puerto Rico was flooded with food stamps and other federal benefits. The rise of transfer payments from the United States exacerbated social problems: as independence advocate Ruben Berrios Martinez writes, treat a nation like a ghetto and it will behave like one.
Advocates for statehood, the option that has made the most progress in recent decades, present their solution as a way of continuing the bribery deal under better terms. Statehoods chief spokesman, Carlos Romero Barcelo, openly touts the option as a way for Puerto Ricans to get more welfare and other benefits from American taxpayers. Meanwhile, in a sop to nationalist sentiment, statehood advocates tell Puerto Ricans that becoming a state would not threaten the status of Spanish as the islands official language.
Though outgunned by the resources available to both the statehood and status quo parties, much of Puerto Ricos cultural and intellectual elite still remains nationalistfeeling, as Berrios Martinez puts it, that "Puerto Ricos heart is not American. It is Puerto Rican." While they are hardly ready for an armed struggle for independence, the warmth Puerto Ricans displayed for their recently released kinsmen is evidence enough that such sentiments are widespread.
Moreover, unless Puerto Rico could become a state without undergoing any cultural assimilation, joining the Union as kind of an American Quebec, independentista passions would surely be provoked. The fact that independence parties now fare poorly in the ballot box may turn out to be no more relevant than the fact that IRA-linked politicians seem to do poorly. Until it happens, Americans have no way of knowing how difficult swallowing Puerto Rico would be, what kind of independence forces would be stirred against it or how harsh the measures to suppress them would have to be. But looking at the havoc that committed nationalist minorities can wreak, from Belfast to Chechnya, why would Washington want to find out?
Meanwhile, other small states with populations as well-educated as Puerto Ricos have managed well after decolonization. If Americans were to look beyond the headlines about terror, clemency and their local elections, they would see Puerto Rico as a vestige of their own colonialism, a place best set free in the most cooperative and generous way possible.
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