123 Years Later, the Unfinished Business of Self-Determination for Puerto Ricans

March 10, 2021 | 11:00 am
Juan Declet-Barreto
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

“[E]ven were Puerto Rico given each and every one of the freedoms, and the powers that such [freedom] begets, the development of such a system will be thwarted because the Union would have violated the principle upon which that system rests, which absolutely requires the will of the people to organize representative institutions.”

Eugenio María de Hostos, in Rivera (2016, 79)


One of the prized possessions I brought with me to the United States is a Puerto Rican flag. Not a flimsy, cheaply-made flag on a plastic straw-like stand, the kind that you get on your way to a rally and wave around. It’s a cloth flag, water-stained and frayed by time around the edges of its white and red stripes: La Monoestrallada, literally, The One-Starred. It doesn’t really matter what material the flag is made out of; its meaning transcends its materiality.

The flag belonged to my maternal grandparents Adela Hernández and Luis Barreto. Abuela was a nurse; abuelo was a car and sewing machine mechanic. That flag is likely three or four decades older than I am. That very same flag was kept hidden by my grandparents because in their time, possessing a Puerto Rican flag in Puerto Rico was a sedition act against the United States, criminalized by Law 53 of 1948, colloquially known as the Gag Law (Ley de la Mordaza). Its possession was criminalized because the Puerto Rican political establishment of the time engaged in the ultimate act of self-deprecation and negation of our right to be, to exist as a nation of people with a shared history that predates the existence of the US as a nation and even the Spanish colonization of Puerto Rico. And such negation, and the political repression that was unleashed far beyond the elimination of the Gag Law in 1957, went out of its way to accommodate the United States’ imperialist, colonialist, and modernist project of “nation-building” underway in Puerto Rico since it was invaded in 1898.

From the perspective of many with which I have had conversations with over the years, Puerto Ricans have it easy. We have been US citizens since 1917, we don’t have to pay coyotes (smugglers) and risk our lives crossing la frontera, we don’t need US passports (or expensive visas that can take years to obtain) to come and go from the island to the US; we’re even eligible for federal aid in case of disaster. In fact, it looks like we opt in to an immigrant experience in the US with the door always open to opt out of it and head back to Puerto Rico when we want (and also you look white, Juan!) – so what are we complaining about?

Well, I do look white, and I certainly have benefitted from the opportunities afforded to some by Puerto Rico’s criollo brand of white-favoring racism and colorism. But as a people we have been denied that most elemental of rights in modern existence – the right to self-determination, the right to decide, on our own terms, what path we want to walk in our own pursuit of prosperity and happiness. The path that Puerto Ricans as a nation have walked on has never been set by Puerto Ricans or even in the interest of Puerto Ricans. As I argued recently, that path has at times proven beneficial for some Puerto Ricans, for example in the US postwar boom moment that created a sizable and prosperous middle class. But that came at a big cost. Sprawling, US-style urban and industrial development not apt for Caribbean latitudes has made the island vulnerable to the high economic and human health costs of fossil fuels and eliminated ecological services that can protect against extreme heat, floods, and sea-level rise.

A large fraction of the population, effectively a surplus army of labor, was displaced to the US in the postwar and beyond to reduce the long-standing and increasing discontent with social and economic inequity in the island. Those Puerto Ricans, and their descendants in the US today actively struggle for protection under the law to enjoy clean environments and dignified living conditions in accordance to US constitutional rights. And for Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico, twelve decades under the US flag were not enough to elicit an adequate or otherwise humanitarian response from the federal government after the destruction of Hurricane María in 2017, a humanitarian crisis that demonstrated “a long history of US colonial neglect and human rights violations.”

And association with the US has not brought many rights taken for granted in US states. For example, Puerto Ricans do not receive the same Medicaid/Medicare benefits as Americans in the US, lack congressional representation, and the territory is subject to the maritime transport provisions of the Jones Act which make US-imported consumer goods much more expensive for Puerto Ricans. A recent and egregious example is the way the 2017 Tax Act was applied in Puerto Rico, which classified corporations in Puerto Rico as foreign (to the US) and thus subject to higher corporate tax rates that were designed to close tax loopholes exploited by highly-profitable US companies established abroad. This has had a chilling effect on the Puerto Rican manufacturing sector and has hampered the economic recovery even more.

The roots of the lack of self-determination for Puerto Ricans

It’s well known that in 1898, US troops landed on Puerto Rico and obtained the island as war booty from Spain following the Spanish-American War, effectively ending the self-government rule of law that the Spanish Crown had bestowed upon Puerto Rico earlier that same year in the Carta Autonómica. In 1900, Congress’ Foraker Act authorized the formation of a civilian government In Puerto Rico, and in 1917 the Jones-Shafroth Act extended US citizenship to Puerto Ricans. In 1950 both laws were repackaged under the Federal Relations Act, leading in 1952 to a reformulation of Puerto Rico as an Estado Libre Asociado (ELA, known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico). While the ELA was supposed to solve the question of Puerto Rico’s status as a colony of the United States, it did nothing of the sort because it reinforced the Territorial Clause of the US constitution that states that the ultimate authority over Puerto Rico’s affairs resides not in the Puerto Rican people, but in Congress. And it did nothing to alter the US Supreme Court’s 1901 opinion that the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico “belongs to but is not part of the United States”.

Fast-forward seven decades when Puerto Ricans were reminded of the absolute control that US Congress has over Puerto Rico’s affairs. The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016 (PROMESA) created a fiscal oversight management board (FOMB but known as “la junta” locally) to oversee Puerto Rico’s beleaguered fiscal situation, severely deteriorated by decades of corruption, misappropriation of public funds, and questionable investments that many in Puerto Rico decry as public debt that was contracted illegally. In its most recent show of force, the FOMB has ordered both Gov. Pierluisi’s administration and the Puerto Rican Legislature to desist from approving and implementing a proposed bill to protect public employees’ pension funds decimated by the territory’s fiscal insolvency.

Self-determination has long been a concern of Puerto Ricans

Through the 19th-century view of the incipient American republic as a “beacon of democracy”, the Puerto Rican sociologist and educator Eugenio María de Hostos was indelibly prescient in anticipating the undemocratic nature of the US’ impositions on Puerto Rico. Hostos argued that even if the United States granted Puerto Ricans the rights and responsibilities of self-government and citizenship, doing so without the express consent of the Puerto Rican people would not amount to self-determination. Furthermore, Hostos decried the illegality of the Spanish transference of Puerto Rico to the United States because the Carta Autonómica had already granted Puerto Rico the authority to negotiate international treaties and stipulated that any change in relations between Puerto Rico and Spain could only occur by initiative of the Puerto Rico Legislature. Bringing Puerto Rico to the autonomous rule of law that existed previous to the 1898 invasion was, in Hostos’ view, a pre-condition for engaging Puerto Ricans in a self-determination process. Puerto Ricans have been denied a voice in democracy that can lead to our self-determination as an independent state, a state of the US, or some other non-colonial form of government.  That process has never taken place in 123 years of US rule over Puerto Rico. This history is relevant to the contemporary discussion and recent congressional action on a self-determination process for Puerto Rico.

Solutions for self-determination must hold Congress accountable to uphold the will of Puerto Ricans

In October 2020, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) introduced the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020. The bill’s purpose was “[t]o recognize the right of the People of Puerto Rico to call a Status Convention through which the people would exercise their natural right to self-determination, and to establish a mechanism for congressional consideration of such decision, and for other purposes”. This bill would go a long way towards creating a decolonizing, democratic self-determination process for Puerto Rico to resolve the territory’s colonial status. A broad coalition of social justice, labor, feminists, and climate activists in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora supported the bill then, and do so again now that Rep. Velázquez has reintroduced it in the US House of Representatives.

The bill is non-partisan and thus does not advocate for any particular political status option championed by the major Puerto Rican political parties (e.g., statehood, independence, or some other non-colonial form). Instead, it is focused on creating a congressional mandate to allow Puerto Ricans to create a Status Convention, to democratically select its members, to consult the people of Puerto Rico on desired status options, and for Congress to appoint a bilateral negotiating commission to advise Status Convention delegates. This last provision is the closest that the bill gets to hold Congress accountable to act on the results of the Status Convention, as the results of the previous five plebiscites carried out are non-binding to Congress, i.e., Congress has no obligation to act on their results regardless of the outcome. And the oft-cited notion that support for statehood in Puerto Rico has grown is illusory. The exclusion of other status options besides statehood, boycotts from multiple sectors, the use of plebiscites as means to rally the PNP’s (the pro-statehood party) base to vote so as to maintain power, the exclusion of other majority and minority parties and civil society sectors from the design of these plebiscites, have all called into question the legitimacy of the plebiscites. They have also proven to be ineffective tools for mobilizing support in Congress for taking federal action on the status of PR.

Some commentators reject the bill because as written in its draft from, it does not create a process that binds Congress to act on the will of the Puerto Rican people after holding a plebiscite–and it’s a fair point. While UCS signed on to support the bill, we recognize that a truly anti-colonial process needs to guarantee that the will of Puerto Ricans will be carried out.  Without democratic accountability, science allows colonization and entrenched prejudices to persist within the practice of science itself. For their own good, scientists and advocates of science in the public policy process have an obligation to support freedom of thought, association and inquiry, not only within their profession, but as part of the necessary conditions of a free society where science can flourish, a science whose goal ought to be directed toward emancipation. Science is done ON subjects (not WITH them) when objects of inquiry have no voice. With a century of poor social policy imposed from afar, Puerto Rico is no exception. There is a deep connection between democracy and science for the public good that all scientists have an obligation to uphold.

So I hope to see modifications to the language that champion the spirit of what Hostos singled out as the sine qua non of any self-determination action on Puerto Rico by Congress: championing the will of the people to organize representative institutions. It’s time for Puerto Ricans to be included in a democratic process for us to decide whether to partake in the US’ political system, or gain sovereign powers to enact our own democracy.

About the author

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Dr. Declet-Barreto earned a Ph.D. in environmental social sciences, M.A. and B.S. degrees in geography, and an associate’s degree in geographic information systems, from Arizona State University. At UCS, his research maps, analyzes, and finds solutions to the unequal human health and livelihood impacts of environmental hazards, particularly those exacerbated by climate change.