With the stress of midterms and the depressing New Haven cold and rain, I long to return to a special little island in the Caribbean. On this island, the sun blazes and reflects off the bright blue water, and you can almost swear that you see the next closest land mass in the distance. It is an island that seems strangely familiar, and yet it possesses an identity all its own. I recall walking along the sand with my closest friends, sipping pina coladas, walking the paths of the rainforest, getting lost on the streets of the historic areas and learning about this island’s special relationship to the United States. The islanders call their home the “Land of Enchantment,” and it takes less than five seconds after arriving to understand why.
The island of which I speak is Puerto Rico. But from my all-too-short visit and from Professor Lillian Guerra’s “Colony, Nation, and Diaspora: Cuba and Puerto Rico,” I have learned that the grip of U.S. colonialism overshadows the beauty that is the island. Yet, the American public mindset tends to ignore the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, and even worse, we forget that on Nov. 2 and for future presidential races, the people of Puerto Rico will account for the largest number of disenfranchised citizens in our country.
If liberals here at home are serious about breaking the back of U.S. imperialism and believe that democracy should prevail in all societies, they must look beyond Iraq and recognize that in our own backyard, a major obstacle stands in the way of reaching that goal. Granting Puerto Rico statehood or independence would be a major step forward.
Content with the status quo, both Puerto Rico and the United States are to blame for the current state of affairs. During the 1998 Puerto Rican election, the people of the island said no to statehood. As the Puerto Rican businessman my friends and I had the luxury of chatting with in Senor Frogs pointed out, Puerto Ricans have the best of both worlds. They are afforded the protection of the United States government, investment from U.S. capital and some federal benefits in terms of welfare, and yet they do not have to pay any federal taxes. The businessman went on to state that “Democrats make Puerto Ricans lazy.” An exemplar of the Puerto Rican contentment with the status quo, the concept of citizenship seems to have evaded him. It was at this point that we decided the conversation should end.
From the U.S. perspective, according to a discussion I had with Professor Guerra, Yale’s resident expert on the Caribbean, Puerto Rico will never become a state while Republicans control Congress since Puerto Ricans would vote Democratic, a legitimate and well-known presumption. As for granting Puerto Rico independence, the United States benefits economically from its investments in the island and militarily, as many of its residents join the U.S. Army. Sadly, partisanship and U.S. self-interest defeats the prospect of real U.S. or Puerto Rican democracy.
While a strong majority are in favor of the status quo, Puerto Ricans should want and deserve the full rights of citizenship under the United States or under an independent Puerto Rico. To deny Puerto Rico independence or statehood is to deny the people of the island the dignity of what it means to be a citizen, whether it be a citizen of the United States or a citizen of Puerto Rico. It seems unjust to have those who are allowed to fight for a U.S. cause not have the right to vote; after all, isn’t that why the voting age was lowered to 18? More importantly, to call the people of the island citizens but continue to disenfranchise them and silence their sole representative in the U.S. Congress — who is not allowed to vote on or bring up legislation as pertains to Puerto Rico — is hypocrisy at best.
Of the two options, it is more likely that Puerto Rico would be granted its independence over statehood. However, some, including some of my classmates, fear that independence would impoverish Puerto Rico and it would become another Haiti. This need not be the case. John D. Ingram, a professor of law at John Marshall Law School, has argued and believes that gradual sovereignty could be granted to Puerto Rico. Gradual sovereignty resonates well today when the dilemma of Iraq pervades the American mindset. Just as many of our elected officials recognize that we have a duty to help clean up the mess we started there, the same holds true for Puerto Rico. It was through U.S. action that the limbo state of Puerto Rico was created, and so it should be the duty of the United States to help ensure a smooth transition and aid Puerto Rico in reaching economic stability as a sovereign nation.
The Latino population is expected to have a significant impact on this year’s election, and I only hope that when Puerto Rican-Americans cast their votes, they do so remembering those family members on the island who are not afforded the same rights despite their supposed citizenship. Still, I have the greater hope that liberal activists and public officials who discuss American democracy remember that Puerto Rico is an important component in achieving it.
Alicia Washington is a senior in Trumbull College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.