Newspaper article International New York Times

Puerto Rico's Rude Awakening

Newspaper article International New York Times

Puerto Rico's Rude Awakening

Article excerpt

Indifference and insults from Washington have left us no better off than a powerless colony.

It's official now. Puerto Rico has about as much sovereignty as a United States colony.

The word came down from Washington in mid-June, in two Supreme Court rulings that insult our pride as self-governing United States citizens.

One said our courts lacked the power of state courts to try local criminals separately after federal prosecutors weighed in. The other said we must go hat in hand to Congress if our public utilities are to get debt relief. Unlike states, we cannot help them seek bankruptcy protection.

A third insult -- from Congress -- came as we reached the brink of default two weeks ago. As it finally consented to debt relief, the Senate also approved an oversight board that could tell our elected government how to handle our finances.

In vulgar street talk here, Puerto Rico has been stripped naked and put on show to be shamed.

This after we'd grown up being told we had a unique, privileged relationship with the United States -- we were full citizens, free to migrate north, and autonomous to govern our own affairs. A bit like a state, without surrendering our Latin personality.

But now it is clear that was a charade. We've learned how much it left us at the mercy of an unsympathetic Washington. Even as he offered debt relief, the Senate's majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, rubbed it in. "The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is in crisis," he declared.

Territory? Really? I thought -- as did Justice Stephen G. Breyer in his dissent from the prosecutorial powers ruling -- that Washington granted us a far better status in 1952. As the United Nations pushed for global decolonization, Justice Breyer wrote, we and the Truman administration entered into a social contract that made us neither colony nor state, but something new, called a "commonwealth" in English and, in Spanish, an "estado libre asociado" (free associated state).

My generation, the baby boomers, was told autonomy made us equal but exceptional as citizens, and indeed there were advantages. Tax breaks initiated in the 1970s attracted employers like pharmaceutical producers. Billions of federal dollars flowed to us. All we had to do was behave, serve in the military when called (I was wounded in Vietnam as a combat medic), and not call ourselves a "colony."

Dissenters advocating statehood warned that "self-government" was a mirage without a vote in Congress, or for president. Still, Congress never showed interest in accepting a bicultural Hispanic state that had more workers than jobs.

There were occasional nationalist uprisings. But Puerto Ricans have never been good at rebellion. Instead, we jabbered away about our politics. And every few years we replayed the same referendum: Statehood? Independence? …

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