Sunday, June 20, 2010

Puerto Rico: Statehood and Strike

Thursday, 16 June 2010
Press Release: Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Puerto Rico: Statehood and Strike

by COHA Research Associate Krista Scheffey

The Spanish American War ended in 1898, but one aspect of the conflict remains unresolved: the status of Puerto Rico. Despite the importance of the issue, it is rarely an agenda priority in the continental United States. Recently, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2499 (“The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010”), a bill sponsored by Puerto Rico’s Representative Pedro Pierluisi. As the Act awaits its fate in the Senate, however, the White House refuses to voice its opinion on the matter. The Obama administration seems to be stalling until October, when the Presidential Task Force is scheduled to release its official report on the status of Puerto Rico.

While the administration remains tight-lipped pending the release of the Task Force Report, unrest in Puerto Rico may speed up the tempo as to when the international community will take an interest in the island. This spring’s student strikes at the Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR) threaten to shut down the public university system, and the strife has become multi-generational as unions and students’ relatives join the ranks of the protestors. The scale of the UPR strike and the goals it advocates are effectively bringing light to very serious economic problems that must be addressed. The strike began as a protest against government plans to cut the university’s funding by more than $100 million, a devastating budget reduction that would considerably reduce the scope of financial aid available to students. The announced budget cut follows a number of other unpopular austerity measures implemented by Governor Luis Fortuño since he began his term in January 2009.

Although the strike began as a movement against the UPR administration, the demonstration, which has been carried out by thousands of students and sympathetic Puerto Rican workers, highlights tensions in Puerto Rico that will not be easily resolved. As Congress and the Presidential Task Force individually work to resolve Puerto Rico’s future status, they must take into account the economic problems and political issues facing the island. An honest assessment of the island’s status must take into account its historical, contemporary situation. Any change in the island’s status—be it a move towards statehood, independence, or an expanded commonwealth relationship—will come with its share of difficulties and conundrums. However, the price of inaction is a continued and intolerable neo-colonial relationship that benefits neither Puerto Rico nor the mainland United States.

A History of Colonialism

Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico in 1493, and the native inhabitants of the island were soon enough replaced—by conquest, disease, and violence—with Spaniards and imported African slaves. The island remained a Spanish colonial possession, making small but significant progress towards independence until the Spanish American War. In July 1898, the United States invaded the island; Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines and Guam, were ceded to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris, signed by the U.S. and Spain at the conclusion of the war in December of that year. As Pedro Albizu Campos, a leading figure in Puerto Rico’s independence movement, explained, the U.S. was “interested in the cage, not the birds.” The U.S. wanted control of the land, but had little interest in the inhabitants of the island. The United States was already invested in the idea of constructing a canal through Panama, and securing the Caribbean was a key component of the U.S.’ plan.

The U.S. military ruled the island until the Foraker Act (also known as the Organic Act) was passed in 1900, which established Puerto Rico’s civilian government. The Foraker Act and subsequent Jones-Shafroth Act (1917) established separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches to handle Puerto Rican local affairs, while the island continued to follow U.S. federal laws. Notably, Puerto Rico received a non-voting representative in Congress (the Resident Commissioner) and a Governor to head the executive branch. The Jones-Shafroth Act also granted legal American citizenship to Puerto Ricans. In the 1950s, Puerto Rico’s status as a “commonwealth” was officially established. According to Richard Pildes, professor of Constitutional Law at NYU, the commonwealth status initiated in the 1950s represented a “creative intermediate structure” between independence and statehood that was designed to give self-governing autonomy to Puerto Rico and move it away from a colonial status. Public Law 600, passed in 1950, empowered Puerto Rico to directly elect their Governor as well as to draft a constitution (based on the United States’), which was ratified in 1952. Because of its status as a commonwealth, the island receives transfer payments from the U.S. government—including welfare and federal grants. Puerto Ricans also routinely serve in the U.S. military.

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This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Krista Scheffey

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