Saturday, September 30, 2017

Puerto Rico: incompetence, indifference and colonialism

It is going to be a staple of the liberals and the left that the way the United States has allowed Puerto Rico to become a humanitarian catastrophe in the wake of Hurricane María is a result of  incompetence and indifference powered by Trump's racism.

But behind that is a more fundamental cause: Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, and has been since 1898, when Washington wrested it from Spain along with Cuba and the Philippines.

What is a colony? A country that does not govern itself. From its origins the United Nations has had a formal principle against colonialism, but the United States pays it no mind.

In the early 1950s, Washington lied to the U.N. saying that Puerto Rico had become a self-governing "commonwealth," but as recently as June of 2016, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that Puerto Rico is an "unincorporated territory." As defined by the court when the United States first acquired the island, Puerto Rico is a place that belongs to, but is not part of, the United States.

Congress exercises unlimited power over Puerto Rico. It can do whatever it wants, can (and does) create special laws that apply only to Puerto Rico, and even the constitutional rights of American citizens can be ignored.

Congress just did that a year ago, refusing to let it file for judicial protection under the bankruptcy laws (unlike every other jurisdiction under the U.S. flag), and instead imposing a seven-member banker's junta to dictate budgets and policies to the island's government.

(Puerto Rican journalist Juan González gave a major speech a year ago going into detail on how U.S. colonial domination has bled Puerto Rico, driving the country into an unending depression, massive emigration to the United States, and bankruptcy).

Puerto Ricans have no say in what the United States does with their country. They do not vote for President. There are no Senators from Puerto Rico, nor any members of the House of Representatives either, just a non-voting "resident commissioner" who is little more than a glorified lobbyist.

There is only one way Congress can surrender its unlimited power over Puerto Rico, which is to transfer Puerto Rican sovereignty to someone else, just as Spain transferred it to the United States in 1898. Congress should renounce its authority, allowing the people of Puerto Rico to determine the island's future, including its future relationship with the United States.

Right now all sorts of politicians and journalists are saying that Puerto Rico is part of the United States but that is not true, strictly speaking: it is a separate, distinct country, but one that the United States owns.

But you will also hear politicians --especially Puerto Rican ones who are aware of the reality-- arguing on behalf of the island by saying Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. That is true, but by a 1917 act of Congress, and not the Fourteenth Amendment which was adopted after the Civil War and makes citizens "All persons born or naturalized in the United States." Under the law, people born on the island do not do so "in the United States."

At least until the last few days, half of the U.S. population did not even know that Puerto Ricans were American citizens. And it's not just racism, but the obvious, self-evident fact that Puerto Rico is a different country (combined with the encyclopedic ignorance produced by American schooling).

There is a reason for Washington's indifference to what had happened in Puerto Rico, especially evident in the first week after María. It is the indifference of a colonial power towards a country it has conquered.

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