Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
"The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a political and economic anachronism."
With that one-sentence paragraph, Rubén Berríos-Martínez began an article in the April 1977 issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled, "Independence for Puerto Rico: The Only Solution." But the President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party was too kind: "commonwealth" as a political status is not even an anachronism; it is a myth.
For 400 years, Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain. Then, after the Spanish-American War, sovereignty over the island was transferred to the United States, a nation which, in deference to its own revolutionary origin, eschews the use of the term "colony" in describing its dependencies. Thus, as the nineteenth century ended, Puerto Rico ceased to be known officially as a "colony," and instead was euphemistically redesignated an "unincorporated territory."
So it has remained to this day.
In this article I intend to show why "commonwealth" is a myth, and why the time has come for Puerto Rico to enter the union as the 51st state. I am convinced, both as a Latin American and as a U.S. citizen, that statehood for Puerto Rico would constitute a boon for the nation, as well as for the island.
Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution invests Congress with the "power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States." Under that clause, Congress saw fit to confer American citizenship upon the Puerto Rican people through a 1917 law commonly known as the Jones Act. In 1952, as Mr. Berríos correctly observed:
the U.S. Congress enacted Public Law 600, giving the island the power to draft its own Organic Act which was to be called "the Constitution." All the provisions of the Jones Act, which governed the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, remained unaltered but were now to be known as the Federal Relations Act. Puerto Rico obtained absolutely no additional economic or political power, except the right to design the structure of its internal government, under the ever-watchful eye of the U.S. Congress. (Emphasis added)1
It was this Organic Act, this local constitution, which was heralded in Puerto Rico as representing a "compact" between the "peoples" of the United States and Puerto Rico. In Spanish the "compact" would be known as the Estado Libre Asociado (a deliberately deceptive misnomer if ever there was one, since its sponsors knew full well that Congress retained the constitutional right unilaterally to alter or even terminate the so-called free association at any time), and in English by the comfortingly less autonomous-sounding label of "commonwealth," the name by which states of the union such as Kentucky and Massachusetts are formally chartered.
In an era of worldwide decolonization, the myth of the "Estado Libre Asociado" served the interests both of the U.S. government and of the then dominant Popular Democratic Party (PDP) in Puerto Rico. In 1953, just a year after the "Commonwealth" was established, the United States was successful in persuading the United Nations to remove Puerto Rico from its list of non-self-governing territories. And by arranging to have the island's new constitution take effect on July 25 (the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of 1898), together with the simultaneous adoption of an official flag and anthem long associated with the independence movement, Puerto Rico's charismatic Governor, the late Luis Muñoz-Marín, succeeded in placating separatist elements within the PDP, so that he could thereafter proceed, without serious internal opposition, to develop the Puerto Rican economy in close harmony with American business interests.
The "commonwealth" concept, then, constituted the means by which a Governor, who throughout most of his life had made no secret of his own separatist sympathies, chose to go about the task of solving a problem in practical politics: such an interim compromise on the status issue had become essential, since Muñoz had decided to give top priority to economic development, and to postpone indefinitely (for reasons we shall discuss presently) any attempt to pursue the sovereignty question.
Thus the cosmetic virtues of the "commonwealth" arrangement seemed quite substantial at the time in San Juan and Washington alike, especially since relatively few Puerto Ricans were at that point convinced of the efficacy of actively pursuing either statehood or independence.
Today, however, the situation is very different. Nearly 30 years have passed, and the Puerto Rican people have become increasingly aware of the inadequacy of our existing political status, call it what you will. In 1952 industrialization was in its infancy; Puerto Rico remained a largely rural, geographically remote society. In the intervening years, the island has evolved a multibillion-dollar economy, with high-technology manufacturing enterprises. Jet aircraft and satellite communications keep us in constant contact with the mainland and the world. The tropical island whose inhabitants four decades ago endured an average life expectancy of 46 years, and an annual per capita income of less than $200, now enjoys the highest standard of living south of the Río Grande and a life expectancy level which actually exceeds the U.S. national average. Remarkable though it may seem, we also have a higher per capita enrollment of young people in institutions of higher learning than the United States as a whole.
Puerto Rico has undergone a radical transformation. Economic and social ills still remain, to be sure, but by and large we have emerged as a people justifiably possessed of optimism and self-confidence-a people no longer willing to continue tolerating political inferiority.
In 1952, we were told that a noncontiguous territory could never become a state; that an island far removed from the mainland could never become a state; that a predominantly Catholic, or predominantly non-Anglo, community could never become a state. The admission of Alaska and Hawaii and the election of President John F. Kennedy destroyed those arguments.
Then we were told that a Hispanic culture would inevitably pose an insurmountable barrier to acceptance. But we have since looked on as the United States took action to require that bilingual election material be provided in mainland jurisdictions where as few as five percent of the voters speak a language other than English. Yet far more impressive has been the rise of fellow Puerto Ricans to positions of prestige and influence throughout the nation: a Congressman from New York, a federal district judge in Connecticut, a state senator in Kansas, the mayor of Miami, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a state supreme court justice in Colorado, the President's personal military aide, a U.S. Ambassador to Spain, and many more.
We were told that America is a land of prejudice, but as blacks and women and Hispanics have made tremendous strides over the past two decades, we in Puerto Rico have come to realize that the United States, despite the tensions inevitably resulting from its enormous racial and ethnic diversity, has become perhaps the least bigoted nation in all history.
Finally, within just the past four years, we have for the first time witnessed Presidents and the Congress itself go on record in unequivocal support of our right to statehood. President Gerald Ford broke the ice with his strong 1976 declaration in favor of Puerto Rico statehood. Jimmy Carter followed that up just days later when, as President-elect, he sent a message to be read at my inauguration wherein he pledged publicly to support whatever political status we might choose. In August 1979, without a single dissenting vote, the Congress adopted a joint resolution acknowledging the right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination, specifically including statehood. The 1980 platforms of both the Democratic and Republican Parties reaffirm support for the statehood option.
As these epochal events were unfolding on the mainland, there were momentous changes underway in the Caribbean as well. Since the 1950s, the new world's few remaining colonies, one after another, have been laying claim to their right to political dignity, most of them through independence. Cuba, since joining the Soviet bloc, has exploited this trend aggressively, launching virulent and perennial assaults on the United States through the United Nations and other international forums, alleging that Puerto Rico is being subjected to "colonial bondage" under "American imperialism."
With the exception of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who as U.N. Ambassador in the mid-1970s forthrightly told the Russians in no uncertain terms that so long as they continued to hold a half-dozen nations in Eastern Europe-not to mention Cuba itself-in a state of total captivity, they would have no ethical basis whatsoever upon which to point the finger at anyone else), America's representatives have tended to hem and haw on the issue. In 1978, I finally went before the United Nations Decolonization Committee myself (the first Governor of Puerto Rico ever to do so) and stated flatly that we Puerto Ricans are fully capable of resolving the dilemma of our political status by ourselves, and will brook no intervention of any kind from outside, because we have confidence in the good faith of the United States. And I added that if we ever had occasion to doubt the good faith of the United States, then it would not require a Fidel Castro to bring the issue before an international forum: "the freedom-loving people of Puerto Rico would virtually lay siege to this building in their clamor for redress of grievances. And I should emphatically add that I myself would not hesitate to stand at the forefront of such a movement."
This, then, is the historical context in which the Puerto Rico statehood movement has come of age.
Luis Muñoz-Marín, despite the personal magnetism and gifted leadership which won him admiration and renown throughout the Americas, as well as establishing him as the undisputedly preeminent political figure in Puerto Rico for over a quarter of a century, never pursued from public office his youthful dream of independence. He refrained from doing so because he came to realize early on, after traveling throughout the island and talking to men and women from every walk of life, that the Puerto Rican people, even amid the grinding poverty of the late 1930s, deeply valued their American citizenship. Until recently, to be sure, there were misgivings about seeking statehood, because there was fear that statehood would require the surrender of Puerto Rican values: our language, our lifestyle, our culture. The political opponents of statehood fed on those fears at every opportunity, in what for a long time proved to be a highly successful effort to discourage the emergence of a vibrant statehood movement.
Yet as the United States has become a more open and compassionate society, and as Puerto Ricans have grown increasingly dissatisfied with a political status which they now realize amounts to little more than "candy-coated colonialism," the scare tactics of the anti-statehood forces have lost their impact.
In 1952, amid the euphoria surrounding the adoption of "commonwealth" status, the pro-statehood political party polled only 12.9 percent of the vote in the general election. Even the independence party did better, polling 19 percent. Since then, the pro-statehood vote has risen in each and every quadrennial election, reaching 48.3 percent in 1976, when the pro-independence vote totalled only 6.4 percent. Today, statehood advocates control not only the governorship, but both houses of the Legislative Assembly and a majority of the city halls throughout the island. And that noteworthy beachhead was established before the statehood welcome mat was rolled out by Presidents Ford and Carter, and by the Congress.
The trend is clear. Our pro-statehood New Progressive Party expects to win this November's general election, and then about a year later to hold a political status plebiscite, the first one since 1967. Upon gaining a majority vote in that plebiscite, we shall formally petition Congress for admission to the union.
Very few Puerto Ricans favor independence, and even those who defend "commonwealth" acknowledge openly that it is an unsatisfactory arrangement in its present form. Indeed, any remaining illusions to the effect that "commonwealth" might constitute some form of unique "compact between peoples" were shattered on May 27 of this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Harris v. Santiago that Puerto Rico is, after all, nothing more than a territory under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution, regardless of the name under which its local government functions. That decision affirmed that the Congress can legally discriminate against American citizens who reside in Puerto Rico simply because they reside there.
Nothing in the U.S. Constitution ever prohibited Puerto Rico from adopting a local flag or anthem to accompany the national flag and anthem, and nothing in the U.S. Constitution ever prohibited Puerto Rico from maintaining its local language and culture or adopting a local constitution in consonance with the U.S. Constitution. No "compact," no "free associated state" was ever required. And now the highest court in the land has confirmed that neither did the creation of a "commonwealth" in any way change the fact that Puerto Rico is simply a territory of the United States.
Statehood is the solution to our dilemma, and nationwide public opinion polls have revealed that two-thirds of the American people (including majorities in every section of the country), are prepared to accept whatever political status the Puerto Rican people prefer, including statehood.
Nevertheless, skepticism persists among some segments of the mainland academic and foreign policy community. "Scholarly conferences" on Puerto Rico at universities and "think tanks" have tended frequently to be heavily weighted in favor of anti-statehood elements. "Learned papers," including one published last winter in Foreign Affairs (not to mention the partisan treatise by Mr. Berríos which appeared in these pages in 1977), have likewise been inclined to view the growth of the Puerto Rico statehood movement as some sort of aberration or problem which should, if possible, be circumvented or corrected.
In this regard, since it would be impractical to attempt to comment on a wide variety of published materials, I shall concentrate on the Puerto Rico discussion by Professor Alfred Stepan of Yale University, which is contained in his article entitled, "The United States and Latin America: Vital Interests and the Instruments of Power," published in the special "America and the World 1979" edition of Foreign Affairs last February. I shall focus my discussion on the several decidedly questionable assumptions upon which the article's principal arguments are based.2
The essential thrust of Professor Stepan's essay is as follows: (1) Puerto Rico's status is certain to change; (2) statehood leaves a lot to be desired; (3) independence might well be the most constructive solution, especially from the point of view of American foreign policy.
In examining the author's analysis, I must begin by remarking on a point he makes repeatedly: that I myself am on record as advocating independence for Puerto Rico should the island be denied statehood. The context in which I made that statement to CBS News in May 1977 was the following: I was asked what my position would be if Puerto Rico were formally to request statehood and if the response of the Congress were a categorical and unqualified denial, not subject to reconsideration. The question was, of course, hypothetical, since the denial of statehood by one Congress could not legally oblige a future Congress to do the same. Nevertheless, by way of illustrating my refusal, as a firm believer in democracy, to tolerate indefinitely a political status which denies me and my people equal participation in the affairs of the nation of which we are citizens, I replied that if I were to knock on the door of my brother's house and his response were to lock the door, telling me to go away and not come back, then I would have no alternative but to build my own house.
In making the statement on which Professor Stepan placed so much emphasis, I did not, as the readers of Foreign Affairs might have been led to infer, characterize independence as an acceptable alternative to statehood, but rather as the only alternative to continued colonialism in the event that the door to statehood were to be closed forever. But I went on to say in that same interview that I foresaw no possibility that Congress would deny us statehood, because to do so would contradict everything the United States has traditionally stood for in the world community. How, I asked, could America preach democracy and human rights anywhere on earth after having flatly denied political equality to a community of its own citizens? Furthermore, in addition to being mocked as massively hypocritical, the United States would under such circumstances almost certainly also be accused of blatant bigotry, since the target of its rejection would have been a people seeking admission as the nation's first and only predominantly Spanish-speaking state.
So let no one be misled: the commitment of Puerto Rico's statehood advocates is absolute. In no way are we open to "persuasion" by any mainland "policymaker" who might be toying with the idea of selling us on independence as an "acceptable" second choice.
Another section of Professor Stepan's essay questioned the "validity" of any victory statehood might achieve in the forthcoming plebiscite. While some may sympathize with his frustration at the limitations of the electoral process as a means of determining accurately the sentiments of an entire population, I submit that in a free society there can be no legitimate alternative to political mandate by secret ballot. Insofar as the wording of the status alternatives on the plebiscite ballot itself is concerned, we recognize the necessity of ensuring not only that all parties be permitted to participate fully, but that the entire process be conducted with absolute fairness, openness and credibility. In that regard, I have stated on numerous occasions that we would welcome the presence of observers, be they from the United States or abroad, to witness the legitimacy of the voting process and the counting of ballots.
To juggle figures, however, as Professor Stepan did, in an apparent attempt to discredit the final outcome in advance through an exercise in sheer conjecture, strikes me as profoundly cynical, if not actually arrogant. Never before will a prospective state have conducted a statehood referendum in which not two but three alternatives appeared on the ballot: statehood, independence, "commonwealth." If such a referendum produces an absolute majority (not a plurality) in favor of statehood, then its validity cannot be questioned.
To propose, as Professor Stepan does, that some kind of public opinion survey subsequently be undertaken to determine the sentiments of Puerto Ricans who may choose to abstain from participating in a status plebiscite is as absurd as to poll nonvoters in a U.S. presidential election before deciding whether to grant the winner the privilege of taking office. Election results may not provide a perfect reflection of the public will, but in a democracy they are the only appropriate test we have, and in a community invested with Puerto Rico's exemplary record of adherence to the democratic process, it is insulting to suggest that the results of a freely contested plebiscite should be taken with a grain of salt.
Equally out of place were the author's allusions to Quebec, Ulster and other jurisdictions where militant separatist movements have posed grave problems. One need not be an authority on world affairs to discern that no plausible analogy can be drawn between these examples and the situation confronting Puerto Rico. In each and every trouble spot cited in the article, a minority group has been subjected to centuries of real or imagined mistreatment by a traditional ethnic or religious rival. (In Ulster, just to mention two instances of blatant de jure discrimination, the British long prohibited Roman Catholics from owning land in their own country, and imposed rigid quotas on the number of Catholics who could receive advanced schooling.)
The "liberation" movements in these regions of unrest are without exception relatively large and enjoy the sympathy, and often the active support, of sizable segments of the local population. The enmities run very deep, and the drive for separation in each case is motivated at least as much by ancient hatreds as by a rational commitment by the dissidents to improving the individual and collective well-being of the inhabitants of the affected communities.
In Puerto Rico, by contrast, American "conquest" took the form of a virtually bloodless invasion which a majority of the Puerto Rican people perceived at the time to be in itself a liberation from four centuries of neglect and occasional abuse by Spain. Evidence of this is the fact that in 1900, in the first election held after the change of sovereignty, both Puerto Rican political parties then in existence were pro-statehood. That statehood sentiment waned thereafter was the direct consequence of ill-advised federal policies which did not really begin to be remedied until after Franklin D. Roosevelt became President.
Eighty years later, Puerto Rico (once known as the "Caribbean Poorhouse" because it was even more destitute than such nations as Haiti) not only possesses the highest standard of living in all of Latin America, but ranks first in the United States in meeting the enlistment goals of the all-volunteer Army, and produces massive electoral majorities every four years in favor of maintaining permanent ties to the United States. Not since 1956 has the pro-independence vote amounted to as much as eight percent of the total.
This is Quebec? This is Ulster? On the contrary, the fallacious Quebec/Ulster analogy is simply another myth: a myth promulgated by the opponents of statehood in a calculated effort to alarm the ignorant. The so-called Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) and other equally tiny fringe groups are no more representative of political sentiment in Puerto Rico than were the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Weatherman faction representative of public opinion in the United States.
If a free society permits its public policy to be subverted to the slightest degree by terrorist threats, then the terrorists are the winners, and the free society will henceforward cease to be truly free. As recent history has eloquently demonstrated, terrorism is a form of tyranny, and tyranny cannot be appeased: no sooner does the victim of terrorism yield to one series of "non-negotiable" demands, than a new list of equally non-negotiable demands is brought forth. I trust that our fellow American citizens will not weigh the Puerto Rico status question in terms of the threats and rhetoric of fanatics.
Allegations to the contrary notwithstanding, however, the truth is that the socio-economic and political conditions which have spawned so much tragic bloodshed in Northern Ireland, the Basque region of Spain, and other places, simply do not exist in Puerto Rico. So long as individual rights-including those pertaining to our language and culture-continue to be respected in Puerto Rico, there will be no civil disorder, nor any significant upsurge in terrorism.
The fact is that Puerto Rico is a remarkably stable society. I know of no other sizable political jurisdiction in our entire Hemisphere where no government has ever been overthrown by internal revolt, dating all the way back to the sixteenth century. And since all but a tiny handful of even the independence advocates in Puerto Rico are outspokenly committed to the democratic process, there is no reason whatever to suppose that the advent of statehood would result in any significant upsurge in violence. Indeed, history suggests just the opposite: during the wave of decolonization drives over the past 35 years, violence has tended to increase as a colony moved toward independence-factional infighting among groups striving to lead the independent government-whereas colonies moving toward political integration with the "mother country" have in general remained tranquil.
Those who employ the Northern Ireland analogy do so in full awareness that the mainland public possesses very little real knowledge of Puerto Rico, and that words and deeds identified with so-called Puerto Rican liberation invariably receive prominent news media coverage there. But as any student of journalism can attest, a guiding principle of the profession tends to be, "Good news is no news." The virtues of a society are seldom touched on by the media.
Let me illustrate that.
Economically depressed areas of the continental United States occasionally erupt into violence, as occurred earlier this year in Miami. By mainland standards, much of Puerto Rico remains economically depressed, despite the strides we have made in recent years. Moreover, the island's population density is 15 times as great as that of the nation as a whole. Yet in Puerto Rico we have never experienced a riot of the kind that occurred in Watts and Liberty City.
It is despair and a sense of helplessness that lead people to form guerrilla armies or to riot in the streets. Puerto Ricans, as a group, feel no such sense of alienation. Instead, we participate, as evidenced by the fact that 99 percent of our eligible voters are registered, and by the fact that 85 percent of them go to the polls. Our people respect the democratic process: when the majority chooses statehood, the minority will respect their decision, although you would never guess that from a casual glance at the headlines of the national press.
Resuming our review of Professor Stepan's article, we come to the matter of international opinion. Professor Stepan makes the case that much of Latin America appears to favor independence for Puerto Rico, and that accordingly, in the interest of establishing warmer relations with neighbor nations, it might behoove the United States to endeavor to nudge Puerto Rico gently in the direction of an amicable divorce.
At best, this line of thinking reflects a shopworn world view which painful past experience should long since have taught us is utterly without validity: to wit, the notion that we can best gain the respect and cooperation of other nations by directing much of our foreign policy toward doing what they say they want us to do. When put into practice, this naïve concept has repeatedly proven counterproductive, in no small part because what foreign governments say they want us to do, and what they really would like us to do are by no means always identical.
For example, within virtually every nation in Latin America there exists a highly vocal anti-American political faction. The governments in these nations usually find themselves obliged to steer a careful course between ideologically hostile factions, some of which may also be prone to violence. One method employed by many such governments to keep the anti-American elements from becoming overly restless is to indulge periodically in "Yankee-baiting": i.e., denouncing or even overtly confronting the United States over some issue of conveniently minor genuine bilateral significance.
Puerto Rico constitutes an ideal target for such gestures. To stage a show of solidarity with the cause of Puerto Rican independence costs little or nothing in real diplomatic terms, and occasional expressions of sympathy on the subject offer Latin heads of state a superb opportunity to pay lip service to a cause dear to the hearts of anti-American political groups in their own countries. Also contributing to the tendency of foreign nations to "favor" independence for Puerto Rico is the fact that the island's own independence advocates, discouraged by their consistent failure to attract public support within Puerto Rico itself, have been very active in going abroad in an attempt to rally international backing for their cause.
For the above reasons, therefore, it would be a serious mistake to conclude too readily that the concept of an independent Puerto Rico truly enjoys broad and deep support among Latin American governments. Closer scrutiny would likely reveal that leaders in this Hemisphere actually harbor reservations about the idea, on the grounds that the long-term stability of the Caribbean basin might be significantly jeopardized if the U.S. presence in the Caribbean were to be further diminished in the wake of the withdrawal from Panama. Given the influential role of nationalist sentiments in Latin America, however, we cannot reasonably expect such ambivalence to be articulated publicly.
Overlooked too in connection with all of this has been the matter of the United States' own self-respect. I am at a loss to understand how Professor Stepan can place so much emphasis on the outspoken preferences of Latin American nations vis-à-vis Puerto Rico's status, without taking into account the fact that these same nations would unquestionably react with indignation and outrage if the United States ever presumed to lecture them in the same fashion on how to deal with a group of their own citizens. So long as the United States continues to tolerate a double standard in matters of this kind, our neighbors will rightly perceive us to be, on the one hand, condescending, and on the other, weak.
A chronic problem for the United States in Latin American affairs has been the pervasive feeling among Latin American nations that the norteamericanos feel superior-culturally and politically, as well as economically and militarily. The resentment spawned by this feeling has again and again complicated American foreign policy, by breeding suspicions and by exacerbating nationalist sentiments.
Today, Puerto Rico serves only to reinforce those feelings: as second-class American citizens, Puerto Ricans are dismissed as "colonial lackeys of the Yankee imperialists." To be sure, independence for Puerto Rico would remedy that problem. But statehood for Puerto Rico would accomplish much more: by accepting Puerto Ricans as true equals, by respecting and embracing the island's Spanish language and Afro-Caribbean culture, the United States would offer Latin American republics tangible evidence that North Americans do not look with disdain upon Hispanic peoples, but on the contrary are capable of ratifying unconditionally the creation of an actual state of the union comprised of Hispanics.
Lest anyone doubt that Puerto Rico can contribute significantly to the enhancement of America's image on the international scene, let me cite some tangible evidence of what our pro-statehood administration has accomplished already, in spite of the shortcomings of our present political status.
As President Carter's representative at the U.S. Independence Day celebration in San Juan this year, Mrs. Lillian Carter brought with her an official message from the White House which included the following passage:
Recent events have demonstrated how Puerto Rico's contribution to our nation can become even more valuable in years to come. Exactly one year ago this week, Puerto Rico welcomed athletes as host of the Eighth Pan American Games. Nowhere else in the United States could peoples from North and South America and the Caribbean have come together in a setting so ideally suited to the many traditions and cultures which they collectively represent.
A few weeks after the Pan American Games ended, Hurricane David devastated our neighbors in the Dominican Republic. With its customary humanitarian concern, the United States rushed in military units to offer medical help to the storm victims, and to distribute food and other supplies. But the language barrier proved a significant handicap in the delivery of vital services-particularly in treating the sick and injured, and in assisting in the search for missing persons.
It was then that I suggested to Washington that the Puerto Rico National Guard be sent in, and the Carter Administration's response was immediate and positive. In a step never before taken in peacetime, our National Guard was called to active duty and promptly dispatched to the Dominican Republic. There, the common language shared by the Dominican people and the U.S. troops from Puerto Rico, together with our personnel's familiarity with Caribbean island terrain and the social mores of the population, produced an immediate bond of brotherhood and constructive interaction which greatly increased the efficiency of the hurricane relief effort. The resulting goodwill was directed to the United States as well as to Puerto Rico, for those Puerto Rican Guardsmen were wearing U.S. Army uniforms, flying U.S. Army helicopters, and distributing food, medicine and shelter bearing U.S. markings.
In referring to that episode this past Fourth of July, Mrs. Carter's message on behalf of the President read as follows: "Puerto Rico responded with promptness and with patriotism. Units of your National Guard won the profound admiration of the Dominican people for the service they rendered in the name of the United States of America." In the fall of 1979, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance expressed similar sentiments in a letter he sent me. Mr. Vance cited "the outstanding performance of the Puerto Rico National Guard elements which participated in disaster relief operations in the Dominican Republic," and noted "the major and constructive contribution their activities made to United States foreign relations." The Secretary's letter continued, "President Guzmàn, as you know, singled out these units in expressing his thanks for our intensive relief efforts following the devastation created by the hurricane."
Earlier this year, the Puerto Rico National Guard was again called into action to serve the national interest, as units were dispatched to the mainland to assist in the processing of refugees from Cuba. The White House Fourth of July message also touched upon that subject: "Your National Guard played a key role in our response to the emergency created by the influx into the United States of more than one hundred thousand Cubans fleeing intolerable conditions in their homeland. Once again, the Spanish language and Caribbean heritage of Puerto Ricans proved invaluable."
But Puerto Rico's role as America's gateway to better relations in Latin America and the Caribbean is by no means limited to emergency assistance by military personnel. As the most technologically and economically advanced community in the region, we can offer much in the areas of commercial, educational and technical interchange.
On the one hand, despite the enormous burden we bear in having to import foreign petroleum to generate 99 percent of our electricity, Puerto Rico has succeeded for three consecutive years in registering increases in its favorable balance of foreign trade, thereby reducing to some degree the overall U.S. foreign trade deficit. And on another front, there was the conference held in San Juan last June by representatives of 14 mostly English-speaking islands in the Lesser Antilles, at which significant progress was made toward the establishment of better preparedness measures for dealing with the growing threat of oil spills along the heavily traveled supertanker routes through the eastern Caribbean. That meeting, which was attended by officials from numerous international agencies, including the United Nations and the Organization of American States, was only one of many similar meetings at which we have been host or a participant during the past several years.
In addition, our island's participation in the Dominican relief effort last year went well beyond the contribution of our Guardsmen. Several dozen personnel from our government-owned Electric Power Authority spent several months in the Dominican Republic after the storm, aiding in the restoration of that nation's power grid, and we have since arranged to lend the Dominicans a specialist to assist them in creating a long-range planning division within their national electric utility. In another area of common concern, we this year signed a joint agreement with the Dominican Republic to provide for technical cooperation and interchange in the energy field.
Although his Dominican Revolutionary Party has traditionally endorsed independence for Puerto Rico, President Antonio Guzmàn of the Dominican Republic extended me an invitation to make a formal state visit to his nation last July, during which, in the presence of U.S. Ambassador Robert Yost, he publicly expressed his people's gratitude for the timely and sincere friendship displayed by Puerto Rico on the occasion of the 1979 hurricane disaster. Moreover, the Dominican Foreign Minister, Emilio Ludovino-Fernàndez, told a Puerto Rican journalist in an on-the-record interview that "whatever status decision the Puerto Ricans should make, be it political integration with the United States or any other, it will meet with our total, absolute, and complete acceptance."
The successful initiatives we have been taking in the Caribbean in recent years are initiatives which we take as Puerto Ricans-as the neighbors and friends of the peoples who share this region with us. Because we ourselves feel no ambiguity about being both Puerto Ricans and Americans, our neighbors are beginning to regard the concept as not only acceptable, but perhaps even desirable. We benefit from the closer ties that result, and the United States benefits, too. With statehood, with two senators and seven congressmen, Puerto Rico will have the wherewithal, both political and economic, to do even more, and the benefit to the nation will increase commensurately.
The mention of economics brings us to the only other major argument routinely raised in opposition to Puerto Rican statehood: that the island would be a costly and embarrassing burden on the American body politic, a "beggar state" wholly dependent on federal largesse. It is a fact that Puerto Rico is less developed than the mainland, that unemployment is high and per capita income comparatively low. But in reality, we need statehood precisely to become less dependent on federal transfer payments, not more so.
While certainly the most fundamental argument on behalf of statehood concerns the rights of citizenship in a democracy (and the fact that today we remain disenfranchised citizens of the greatest democracy of all), there remains no doubt that the economic aspects of the situation will be subjected to careful scrutiny. For the sake of argument, therefore, let us for the moment set aside the moral and ethical aspects of the Puerto Rico status question, and deal with it strictly in economic terms.
Suppose the Congress were to decide, as writers such as Alfred Stepan seem to prefer, that statehood was a bad bargain and that it preferred to have Puerto Rico become independent, despite the fact that well over 90 percent of the island's population has demonstrated repeatedly that it has no desire to relinquish its American citizenship.
This would leave two alternatives: to sever ties abruptly, leaving the island at the mercy of the other superpower, and sending immediate shudders of alarm through all of America's weaker allies; or to phase in independence, with a gradual elimination of existing federal aid, and then perhaps continued "foreign aid" to the new republic for an indefinite period of time thereafter.
Along the way, there would be strong and fully justified demands for some form of compensation to U.S. firms which had made major capital investments in Puerto Rico on the good faith assumption that the island's future status would be determined by the Puerto Ricans, not by Washington, and which might not wish to take their chances on continuing to operate there under an independence imposed against the will of the local population. Then too, there would be demands to pay similar compensation to the holders of billions of dollars in Puerto Rico government bonds. Payments would also have to be continued to Puerto Ricans who had earned social security and Medicare benefits during their working lives, as well as to veterans and retired federal employees.
In addition, the United States could hardly expect to maintain military bases in a Puerto Rico which had been arbitrarily expelled from the nation, so add in the cost of seeking out, acquiring, and equipping substitute bases elsewhere in the Caribbean, keeping in mind that this would probably require substantial long-term outlays to one or more foreign governments, while offering less long-term security than did the rent-free bases on U.S. soil in Puerto Rico.
Moreover, unless the United States decided it had no interest in maintaining good relations with the Republic of Puerto Rico in the increasingly volatile Caribbean region, it seems likely that any continuing foreign-aid payments to the new nation would have to be maintained at a very sizable level, which in turn would bring pressure on Washington to increase aid to other Caribbean countries beyond what might otherwise be deemed necessary.
Finally, there is the human factor: 3.5 million U.S. citizens, most of them with relatives among the 2 million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland. What would become of them? To deprive each and every Puerto Rican of his or her American citizenship without due process would be illegal. Yet no grounds for due process would exist.
Accordingly, we could anticipate a wave of immigration to the mainland, alongside which this year's influx from Cuba would seem hardly noticeable. It is not inconceivable that between one and two million Puerto Ricans would choose their American citizenship in preference to an uncertain political and economic future on the island. And remember that in this instance the immigrants would be U.S. citizens, against whom no quotas could be established nor any restrictions imposed. So add in the cost of contending with an overnight mass migration the likes of which even this nation of immigrants has never come close to experiencing before.
Still, there are those who have the audacity to argue in favor of independence for Puerto Rico on the grounds that it would be the least costly alternative for the American taxpayer!
The commonwealthers' ideal scenario for the future envisions a Puerto Rico wherein U.S. citizenship and its benefits (except perhaps for the right to vote in federal elections) would be preserved, but where the local government would hold veto power over federal legislative and executive branch decisions affecting the island-possibly including the mobilization of troops in time of war. They call this "autonomy," but what it really amounts to is the birth of a nation without severing the umbilical cord.
The economic argument of the commonwealthers is that statehood would cripple the island's development, and hence benefit neither Puerto Rico nor the United States. They allege that the federal income tax burden would crush individuals, while simultaneously depriving the island of its chief incentive for attracting outside investment in job-producing industry. They depict a Puerto Rico inundated with food stamps and almost totally lacking in productive economic activity.
Where, then, do the statehooders stand?
Our position is that throughout this century, in war and peace alike, we Puerto Ricans have demonstrated our loyalty to the principles of American democracy and to the private enterprise system, and that it is now high time we were granted the equality that our loyalty has earned, and to which our citizenship entitles us. To suspect that we might be interested in setting ourselves up in a welfare state is an insult to our character; to suspect that we might actually believe that a welfare state would be a pleasant place to live is an insult to our intelligence.
If welfare in Puerto Rico poses a headache to Washington, what do you suppose it poses to Puerto Rico? President Carter worries about unemployment creeping up to eight or nine percent. I have to deal with 16.5 percent unemployment, and even that has been reduced from 22 percent when I came into office. The President is alarmed at the rise in the cost of living in the 50 states. The cost of living in Puerto Rico is consistently 15 percent higher than the national average, despite a per capita income less than half that of the poorest state.
Can anyone seriously believe that I would be advocating statehood if I thought it would increase Puerto Rico's unemployment and reduce its per capita income? Can anyone seriously believe that I would favor statehood for Puerto Rico if I thought it would increase the level of idleness among our people? I know as well as anyone that idle hands do the devil's work, and that pride in a productive job, at decent pay, is the surest guarantee that a citizen will be a stable and law-abiding member of the community.
We statehooders are therefore committed to forging a society in which, while remaining faithful to our linguistic and cultural traditions, we can make a full and meaningful contribution to building a better America, in exchange for full and meaningful participation in the process by which America is governed.
Yes, statehood will bring with it federal taxes and limitations or changes in the rebates we receive from customs duties and federal excise taxes collected on the island. But there is no reason why this need happen overnight. It could be phased in over an appropriate period of time.
Since the adoption of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Puerto Rico will have been the first new state that was not already incorporated into the federal internal revenue system at the time of its admission. Provision will therefore logically have to be made for this changeover, and Congress is fully empowered to grant such provisions. Among the reasonable options in this regard will be a 20-year transition period, during which Puerto Rico income tax rates-which are presently higher in every income bracket than the corresponding federal rates-will be lowered, as federal income taxes are gradually phased in. Revenue lost from local taxes and federal rebates will be offset substantially by new resources resulting from the island's full participation in federal programs-such as aid to the elderly, handicapped, and families with dependent children-under which we currently do not enjoy parity. Moreover, I have been assured by both congressional leaders and U.S. Treasury Department officials that tax exemption grants already in force on the day Puerto Rico becomes a state could remain fully in force until their normal expiration dates. Such a "cushion" would both ease the transition process and no doubt also stimulate a substantial and very constructive investment upsurge during the immediate pre-statehood period, as corporations hasten to set up new operations ahead of the deadline.
In becoming a state, Puerto Rico will be obliged to assume its proportionate share of the national debt. In return, it would not seem unreasonable for the federal government to assume responsibility for debt accumulated by Puerto Rico. Clearing the slate in this manner would enable Puerto Rico to devote more of its local resources to satisfying the infrastructure requirements of its post-statehood economy.
Notwithstanding the above, however, there has long existed a tendency to overemphasize the potential investment disincentives of statehood, without taking into account the positive incentives which statehood will provide. It must not be overlooked that the very fact that Puerto Rico's future political status remains in doubt serves today as a significant disincentive to investment by many firms. A great many of them are disinclined to risk a $100 million outlay under such conditions; when they do come in, it is more often on a small scale-perhaps ten million dollars. With statehood, the risk obstacle would disappear, and this in itself would help to counterbalance the loss of corporate tax exemptions, because the more secure an investment is, the less return is demanded on it.
In addition, many firms-especially small but rapidly growing firms in the sunbelt-do not at present even consider Puerto Rico in contemplating sites for domestic expansion, because it never occurs to them in the first place that the island is a part of the United States. Prior to its admission as the 50th state, Hawaii experienced precisely this same hardship. Looking back over the first 20 years of Hawaii's statehood, Senior Vice President Thomas K. Hitch of the First Hawaiian Bank told The New York Times (August 17, 1979), "Statehood has made all the difference for business. It made people on the mainland aware of Hawaii. It made them willing to invest money here. Why, I can remember when I'd go to New York or Boston to give a speech and people in a sophisticated audience would ask if Hawaii was a foreign country."
Thus statehood will serve to increase dramatically corporate America's awareness of Puerto Rico, and of the fact that we offer an abundant supply of easily trained, highly productive workers, who exhibit a very low turnover rate and whose performance and productivity have won the praise of senior executives of the hundreds of prestigious firms already established there.
With increasing frequency, I am hearing from off-island industrialists that they prefer to use materials manufactured in Puerto Rico because their quality is superior to that of similar goods produced on the mainland. One such report came from the operators of an oil field in Oklahoma, who had been purchasing external casing packing valves from a firm in Texas; when the number of defective valves per shipment rose to 30 percent, they changed over to a supplier based in Puerto Rico, and the number of defective units dropped almost to zero.
Likewise, the sheer quantity of talented, dedicated workers in Puerto Rico is an asset of inestimable value. It explains why we have been so successful in recent years in attracting investments from some of the fastest growing sectors of American industry: electronics, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and precision instruments, among others. Locales with high concentrations of these advanced-technology enterprises, such as the Route 128 crescent around Boston and California's "Silicon Valley," have experienced extraordinary wage spirals as companies pirate employees from one another. In Puerto Rico, however, the labor supply is now, and will continue to be, not only abundant but stable and productive as well.
From another perspective, the state of Puerto Rico, with its ideal climate, central geographical location, bilingual personnel, and modern communication and transportation facilities, will serve as an ideal base of operations for firms of all kinds desiring to expand into rapidly growing markets throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. And here I am talking not just about manufacturing, but about a wide variety of service industries as well.
To argue that statehood will cripple investment in Puerto Rico is therefore like arguing that attending college deprives a person of four years of earning power in the job market: the benefits are almost certain to outweigh the disadvantages. Agriculture, for example, was sorely neglected during the rush to industrialize; in the future, however, access to the federal agricultural extension services provided to states will abet our drive to reduce Puerto Rico's dependence on food imports, while making it possible for us to export fruits and produce to the mainland profitably during the winter months.
Statehood will also bring a tremendous boom to Puerto Rican tourism. Like business executives, many tourists are leery about going somewhere that seems too "different." Tourism expanded spectacularly in Hawaii after the islands attained statehood, and Puerto Rico, with its modern facilities and distinctive landscape and culture, will surely reap a similar harvest.
Finally, we must not overlook the stimulative impact of federal investment. All of us are aware of the periodic reports which appear, recounting the disproportionately large share of federal office complexes, research facilities, and other activities which find their way into the home districts of senior members of Congress. Because we have no voting representation in Congress, Puerto Rico has perennially missed out on such opportunities. Under statehood this will change, as our large population will entitle us to as many as seven or even eight members of the House, in addition to two senators and nine or ten electoral votes for President; we shall rank 26th among the 51 states in congressional representation, and at last begin to receive our fair share of appropriations for special projects.
The preceding have been only a few examples of how statehood could directly benefit Puerto Rico economically, and thereby reduce the inflow of federal transfer payments. While some of the proposals may be without precedent, none of them falls outside the realm of the constitutional authority of Congress. Over the years, Congress has granted a wide range of special concessions to new states, from land grants in excess of 100 million acres (in the case of Alaska) to outright cash grants. Puerto Rico's situation will in many ways be unique, and will accordingly merit a unique approach.
A people's quest for dignity is nearing its goal. An island which two decades ago the U.S. Department of State took delight in heralding around the world as a "showcase of democracy" has now come of age. No longer willing to serve passively and decoratively as a "showcase," our people have gone relentlessly forward, emerging as a driving, dynamic, energetic community in the United States.
The goal of the Puerto Rican people is political equality within a framework which will permit our island and our nation to prosper together. It is a goal which can and will be achieved.
1 "Independence for Puerto Rico: The Only Solution," p. 566.
2 Although it is not my purpose to call into question the accuracy of the author's research, it should be noted, to give an idea of the carelessness with which facts were used, that Professor Stepan erred on at least three basic points: our next election is scheduled for November 4, 1980, not November 12; the last year in which a governor of Puerto Rico won reelection was 1960, not 1964; and the 98th Congress (under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution) is scheduled to convene on January 3, 1983, not January 20.