PUERTO RICO needs to be "placed" afresh in the United States mind--placed not just geographically, but economically, culturally and juridically, so that the deeper political meaning of its relationships can be seen in new and correct perspective. Puerto Rican affairs have been moving full-steam ahead. The island is no longer a liability but a credit. It also is beginning to loom a little larger than its mere geographical size would indicate because it is beginning to contribute to the outside world--especially to the United States--something that is valuable and scarce today: understanding and good-will. Because of all this Puerto Rico has become politically interesting in eyes that until recently passed it over as geographically invisible.

To bring the picture into focus, the following facts must be established at the start: Puerto Rico is not asking for statehood. Puerto Rico is not demanding independence. Puerto Rico is deadset against colonialism. In other words, Puerto Rico is developing a new pattern of political freedom.

The island is a political mutation--perhaps a cultural mutation too--unique in the American system, whether by "America" one means the United States or the hemisphere. It is a Latin American country composed of good citizens of the United States. How good they are as citizens is shown by their record in Korea, where a large percentage of casualties were Puerto Ricans, and by the fact that most Puerto Rican soldiers are volunteers. It is shown by the quick and effective way in which the people and the Government of Puerto Rico come forward to refute Communist propaganda that depicts the United States as an "imperialist colonial Power." It is shown by the fact that 81 percent of the voters of the island have declared that they do not ask independence. It is shown, finally, by the vigor with which both people and Government repudiate the handful of Nationalist fanatics that occasionally fire real bullets into the real world from the bastions of their utter fantasy.

How Latin American a country it is, is shown by its basic Spanish racial stock and creole population, its Spanish language and literature, its production of fine Spanish poetry, its rural folkways, its folk-wisdom and the fact that it is not for statehood--federated statehood, that is--by 84 percent of the vote. Its position as a cultural frontier makes it a community of obvious use to the cause of freedom: apart from doing its duty to itself, it can advance understanding throughout this part of the world. There is no place south of Florida and the Rio Grande where the American from Maine or California feels more at home. And Puerto Rico is chosen by many Latin Americans who are exiled from their own countries as a residence well-suited to the spirit of a free man. A great republican poet of Spain, Pedro Salinas, who spent two years teaching at the University of Puerto Rico, wrote in his will (many years after leaving the island) that he wanted to be buried in Puerto Rico. Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean Nobel Prize winner, has said that Puerto Rico is the land where the stranger feels most at home.

The people that have given to others this gift of themselves have had a tough time economically. They have been whiplashed by poverty, almost defeated by a sense of hopelessness; and now they are having what some observers consider an almost miraculous awakening.

Puerto Rico has always been very poor. As its population increased by leaps and bounds through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it became a place of little land, few natural resources, crowds of people. For a while the population growth was sustained by gradually bringing uncropped land into use. As the United States régime on the island got under way, the sugar industry expanded tremendously to supply the tariff-protected market of the United States--a free market for Puerto Rico almost from the very beginning of the relationship. The increase in production brought by this and other--but very few other--developments did not do much more than increase the numbers of the poor. It added somewhat to the size of the middle class, however, and brought upon the scene the first few millionaires. Such improvement as there was in the standard of living of the general population resulted mainly from the greater attention paid to education and public health.

Puerto Rico did have the great free market in the United States, and it did not have to pay federal taxes. It could not hope to reach even the most modestly decent standard of living without drawing upon these two advantages; yet until the 1940's neither imagination nor energy was applied to using them--except for the benefit of sugar. But in the late thirties and early forties there was an awakening. A people that had been floundering in hopelessness began swimming towards the shore. Hope, indeed, became one of the natural resources of the people, and dedication to the salvation of the country an attitude not too unusual. Voters stopped selling their votes. Compliance with political pledges began to be something that could be really demanded of successful candidates for office. And there began to be a feeling that there was strength in the people that made hardship a training for abolishing hardship, rather than an illustration of the need to bow to ineluctable fate. The idea that something could be done by workers and businessmen and farmers and political leaders and teachers besides waving for help from a raft lost at sea began to catch on.

II

At least one of the causes of this great release of democratic energy was the fact that the incubus of the uncertain political status of the island was lifted off the public mind for the time being. For years the controversy over the contrasting objectives of independence and statehood had throttled economic and social thought--and political thinking also--for both the older and the newer generations. Both abstractions were inimical to the solution of Puerto Rico's many other problems. So the perennial issue presented to the people was tantamount to asking them the following obscure question: "What is your favorite way of preventing the solution of the vital problems of Puerto Rico?" With independence the free market would disappear. With statehood the federal tax collector would appear. But the premise was that aside from independence or statehood there was only the indignity of colonialism. Would you choose to eat your bread in shame or proclaim your dignity in hunger? The burden that that choice, assumed to be inexorable, put upon the soul of a decent, kind and proud people cannot easily be exaggerated.

The Popular Democratic Party, which came on the scene in 1938 with an economic and social program, realized that the vital day-to-day problems that Puerto Rico faced could not be tackled so long as this question of political status divided all economic and social groups. The new party therefore declared, early in the electoral campaign of 1940, that it would not consider the question of political status an issue in the elections. It would not interpret votes cast in its favor as a mandate either for independence or statehood, but would take votes cast for the party simply as support for its specific economic and social proposals. To the degree that the dilemma of independence versus statehood was obsolete, this was realistic; although in another sense it was artificial, since the principles and relationships on which a people base their political freedom are of real spiritual as well as economic importance to them. To make the dilemma entirely obsolete a new kind of political pattern, based on economic and cultural realities as well as on human dignity, had to be created.

Many continued to argue that only by choosing one kind or the other of political status could the question be removed from political life. We of the Popular Democratic Party agreed that a choice would have to be made, but it need not be limited to those two alternatives. Some of us had begun to see that neither independence nor statehood would be an adequate expression of the Puerto Rican people, so that although it was true that the best way of ending the controversy over status was by solving it, the familiar dichotomy offered no solution, economically or culturally. Economically, there would inevitably remain the question of payment of federal taxes if statehood were chosen, and the question of the loss of the free market if independence were chosen. Cultural problems were no less difficult in this narrow framework, because of the different heritage and traditions of the Puerto Rican people, easily assimilated when they got into the great melting-pot, but not as a solid group in their densely-populated homeland. And independence was contrary to a deep current of non-isolationist feeling--which is also a cultural fact--that runs through Puerto Rican history; Puerto Ricans are capable of believing in almost any kind of free political expression of the brotherhood of man.

Thus the decision to detour around the roadblock of political status seems to have released the energies of the people--young and old--and to have turned them upon the achievement of the deep if less dramatic freedoms gained by self-reliance, education, security, economic fairness, administrative skill, productivity. Eventually it brought forth the political inventiveness Justice Frankfurter had called for many years before when he said: "One of the great demands upon inventive statesmanship is to help evolve new kinds of relationship so as to combine the advantages of local self-government with those of a confederated union. Luckily, our Constitution has left this field of invention open."

On the platform of "No political status now; let's get to work on everything else," the Popular Democratic Party won the elections of 1940, the first in which it had participated, by a very slight margin in a three-cornered contest. In 1944 it triumphed by a large margin in a two-sided contest. In 1940 it had been supported by 38 percent of the voters; 64 percent supported it in 1944.

By then the economic program was well under way. There was (and still is) a big job to be done, but the modern instruments to do it with had been fairly well developed. An ambitious begining had been made in industrialization, with five governmen-towned factories, not because the government wanted to go into the manufacturing business, but because private capital, with very few exceptions outside of sugar, did not seem to want to. Electric power had a model management organization and was increasing at a good rate. The landless jíbaro (countryman) was receiving his parcel of ground and with it freedom from the servitude of a squatter on another's land, and from some small part of his great poverty. A flexible minimum-wage law had been put into operation. The eight-hour day was a reality. Water was about ready to be supplied to town and country on an island-wide basis, instead of by tiny local aqueducts. New agricultural patterns, on an experimental commercial scale, were planned. (This began to be successful only later.) A low-cost housing program, largely on federal-guaranteed credit, was trying to make dents in the slums. Health was improving, life expectancy increasing. Up-to-date planning, budgeting, accounting and civil service procedures had been established and were in continuous process of improvement.

The result was that, though it had been realistic to keep the question of status dormant as a political issue in 1940, it was no longer realistic to avoid it by 1945. It was not possible to insist that a civilized people, with a Western tradition and a well-defined cultural pattern within that tradition, should permanently ignore the question of where they stood in the world, and on what moral basis; or that they could without detriment to their self-respect permanently recognize the validity of laws unauthorized by them, or the control by others of the policies that they might wish their government to follow. Obviously, the people of Puerto Rico, ruled by executives (no matter how able some were) appointed without reference to their will, by local laws subject to veto by that executive, and by multiple laws of a Congress remote and not responsible to their democratic authority, could not consider (no matter how fair that Congress had practically always been) that the question of status had been more than temporarily ignored.

III

But what political status? A creative job, and a tough one, was ahead for Puerto Rico.

A political form had to be developed to fit the economic facts, the cultural realities, the free and yet non-nationalistic ideals of the people. It also had to meet the legitimate economic and military interests of the United States, as well as the broader interests implicit in the relationship. It had to demonstrate to the world the significance and the sincerity of the attitude of the United States in its dealings with this underdeveloped, civilized and freedom-loving community of the Latin world in the American hemisphere.

I have sought to make plain the truth that throughout its history Puerto Rico has been neither separatist nor assimilist. It was never so in Spanish times; and what it was then it is now. It endeavors to keep its own personality, its collective sense of itself, and it retains its loyalty to a broader political system, which is also, as I have indicated, a way of being loyal to a conception of the brotherhood of man. The position can perhaps be described as autonomist, as distinguished from both separatist and federalist.

Out of this tradition the commonwealth status evolved, the base and seed of it contained in Act 600 of the 1950 Congress, which fully recognized the principle of consent and approved that principle in a compact subject to agreement by the people of Puerto Rico. This status was originally a Puerto Rican creation, then it became a joint enterprise undertaken by the Congress of the United States and the people of Puerto Rico--imperfect in detail, as any first attempt at an arrangement must be which requires the agreement of a busy Congress and a remote electorate--but sound in principle, full of the sap of growth, destined to bring still a greater credit both to the big country and the small island.

The most significant aspect of the new status lies in the recognition that the arrangement is indeed founded on the principle of consent, expressed by a compact in the form of an Act of Congress subject to the approval of the people of Puerto Rico at the polls. Another basic characteristic is the concept of association as distinguished from the historical idea of union, so far as states are concerned, and of possession, so far as unincorporated territories are concerned. It embodies association with the United States, not union among the states. These are the characteristics that clear the status of the former colonial character of "territory" or "possession."

In internal structure the Commonwealth is, in some ways, like a State of the Union and in some ways quite different. It originates in a compact. It makes and can change its constitution within the terms of the compact, which includes applicable principles of the Constitution of the United States. It is republican in form, as defined by custom in the United States and by theory at least in most of the countries of the hemisphere. It provides for separate legislative, executive and judicial branches, all arising from the sovereignty of the people; legislative faculty to override executive veto by a two-thirds vote, judicial review, periodic elections, a modern Bill of Rights. The constitution can be amended by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and subsequent majority approval by the electorate. Members of the Supreme Court are designated by the Governor and Senate for life, subject only to impeachment by the Legislature, and the membership of the Court cannot be increased or decreased except by concurrence of the three branches, the Court itself proposing the change and the Legislature approving it by a law which requires the signature of the Executive. There is a Federal Court, with substantially the same jurisdiction as the Federal Courts in the States, and appeals from the Commonwealth courts can be taken to the Supreme Court of the United States essentially as in the States.

In several other ways commonwealth--Estado Libre Asociado, Associated Free State in the official translation approved by the Constitutional Convention--varies markedly from the status of the federated States. No taxes are collected for the benefit of the Treasury of the United States. There is no voting representation in the Federal Congress but rather a commissioner accredited before the Department of State who has a seat in the House of Representatives with all the privileges of a member excepting the vote. Much federal legislation, with the indicated exception of tax legislation, takes effect in Puerto Rico as in the States, but the Congress is not under obligation to extend the application of any law to Puerto Rico, including, of course, grants-in-aid that are financially beneficial to the island. (Congress as a rule generously does make such laws applicable in most cases.) A last and profound difference is that while federated statehood is irrevocable, commonwealth status can be changed--we know that, morally, it will never be changed for the worse--although not unilaterally because of the nature of compact and the principle of consent.

May it be assumed that this relationship, created to free Puerto Rico from the statehood-independence strait jacket, is a permanent one? Unless by permanent we mean frozen, I say it is and should be permanent. If it freezes, if it doesn't grow according to its own nature, it may not be permanent.

Let us consider how it may grow. The principle of consent is one of its basic elements. It is present today in two forms: generic consent such as that given to federal laws not dealing with taxation, including, sight unseen, future laws; and specific consent such as that given by the people of Puerto Rico through their elected legislature to each law of the Commonwealth. The generic consent was given when the people went to the polls several years ago and voted to approve Act 600 of the United States Congress, the language of which fully recognizes the principle of consent and is imbued with the intention and nature of a compact.

The vast majority of the people are generally satisfied with this distribution of their consent as of now. They are the generation of voters that went to the polls and gave that consent. As time goes on it will probably be found that the area of general consent will seem altogether too broad to those that did not participate in the voting, and even to some that did: that will depend on the manner in which the outline of applicable future or even past federal legislation may jibe or clash with the Puerto Rican pattern. Also, I believe, time will tend to show that the extension of much of that legislation to Puerto Rico is unnecessary to the basic idea of association as distinguished from federated statehood. Under those circumstances it would appear that the reason for such ample delegation will be less understood as the voting generation which gave approval to it at the polls diminishes and recedes into the past.

At the proper time an evaluation could be made of what federal functions, instrumented by what kind of federal legislation, are essential to the fact of a permanent association based on common citizenship, and what functions are not essential. The criterion should be that of the greatest possible self-government. The basic points of association could be spelled out in an Act of Congress agreed to by the Puerto Rican electorate, as now; all other federal functions and legislation could be extended to Puerto Rico at the Commonwealth's own request, or with its own specific consent in each instance. Obviously Congress would not be understood to have obligated itself to extend requested legislation.

It is not too simple a problem to work out in detail, but it is far from being an impossible one. Instances of the kind of federal functions which probably could not be left to specific consent but would have to be agreed to permanently, as of the essence of association, would be minimum wages, quota arrangements, common defense, political treaties. An instance of federal legislation running to no purpose in Puerto Rico that could be of interest to the United States would be the Labor Relations Act.

The general principles of this associated statehood recognize that this is a time for getting together and not for pulling apart; that where important cultural differences exist, such as language and historical background, the smaller unit should not participate in the government of the larger one, nor the latter wish its laws to rule in the former unless agreeable locally in each case, or contained in the basic instrument of Association as essential to its nature. Thus there would be not only "no taxation without representation" (as now), but also no legislation without representation--and without disturbing the composition of Congress. Taxation, after all, is not the only thing in the world that may require representation for legitimacy.

This is the potential of Commonwealth. From the United States and Puerto Rico viewpoints: Why not statehood? Why not independence? Legitimate questions both.

What the United States thinks of statehood for Puerto Rico can be easily gathered from the record of the Hawaii-Alaska debate which took place in the Senate last March. Statehood for Puerto Rico was definitely not favored by the opponents or by the advocates of statehood for Hawaii and Alaska. The reason given was explicit: different historical and cultural background. Puerto Rico, which is not asking for statehood, would as a state have two senators, six representatives. No Senator wanted that. Puerto Rico agrees. As between having influence of that kind on United States policy in general and having complete authority, within the terms of association, in fact and in potential growth, over its own policy, it chooses the latter. We would not do so if we were Oklahoma, Arkansas or Delaware; but being Puerto Rico, we enjoy more real liberty that way.

Puerto Rico in its upsurge is an exemplification of the fine spirit of freedom in which the United States can deal with civilized people of different origin in their homeland. If Puerto Rico were nationalized as a State within the United States a large segment of local policy-making would shift to Washington where a handful of Puerto Rican congressmen would contribute slightly to a general policy. The olive in the Martini would become a drop of bitters or a shade of vermouth.

And why not independence? From Puerto Rico's viewpoint I have perhaps touched sufficiently on the subject. Free trade with the States has become a basic need for an economy developed for a half-century on that premise. There is also Puerto Rico's traditional non-isolationist sense of freedom. And there are the pride and affection that Puerto Ricans feel regarding the citizenship that they have lived with for 37 years, defended in war and honored in their practice of democracy in peace.

From the point of view of the United States there are military and commercial reasons--Puerto Rico buys $500,000,000 a year from the States--but probably such reasons are not nearly as important as the fact that Puerto Rico is today an eloquent indicator of the good faith of the United States.

There is a long-range United States interest expressed in the chosen relationship that is greater than either of those two interests. Puerto Rico has become a small but effective engine of understanding of and goodwill for the United States. Hundreds of Technical Assistance students, engineers, administrators, labor leaders from all over Latin America, Asia, Africa are with us every day, watching how things get done, acquiring a first-hand knowledge of how admirably the two great cultures of America work together in terms of freedom, respect, common citizenship, economic achievement. There is also a constant flow of distinguished men of letters, political leaders, teachers, journalists from Latin America and other regions who come to see what goes on. No matter how sincerely a man may have been bemused by propaganda aimed against the United States, the things that he sees in Puerto Rico and the realization that on five occasions within six years our people have voted overwhelmingly against independence, against statehood, against colonialism and in favor of this joint experiment in statesmanship--this constitutes a massive answer to that propaganda. In this connection, the creative relationship that has been worked out between the American Union and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an eloquent manifestation of a goodness and a greatness in the spirit of the United States.

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  • LUIS MUÑOZ MARÍN, Governor of Puerto Rico since 1949; former President of the Senate; author of several works in Spanish and English
  • More By Luis Muñoz Marín