The United States took over Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 and ruled it the same way other European powers ruled their colonies for many years – as a source of raw materials and a market for U.S. products. However, in 1917, the administration of Woodrow Wilson, seeing that the U.S. was likely to enter the First World War, arranged a special “gift” for the people of Puerto Rico: U.S. citizenship, with a catch.
This citizenship, hotly rejected by the many Puerto Ricans who resented U.S. colonial rule, was of a limited sort. It did not allow the residents of Puerto Rico to vote for the president of the United States or to have voting representation in the U.S. Congress.
But it did allow Puerto Ricans to serve in the U.S. military; more, it subjected Puerto Ricans on and off the island to U.S. military conscription. No vote, but the right and obligation to kill and be killed for the United States of America.
Though in 1952 the status of Puerto Rico was changed from out-and-out colony to “commonwealth” (“estado libre asociado” – associated free state – in Spanish), allowing a certain amount of internal self-rule, appearances are deceiving. The “commonwealth” status in no way resembles the British Commonwealth status of Australia, New Zealand and Canada. These Commonwealth countries have their own completely independent governments, including independent courts. They cannot be obliged to participate in the United Kingdom’s wars, and their people cannot be drafted into the British army. Tony Blair could not force New Zealanders, for instance, to serve as cannon fodder in his joint adventure with George W. Bush in Iraq.
Puerto Rico enjoys none of these rights. It is a colony in all but name. Its courts are not independent of the U.S. court system. For example, the federal death penalty is applicable in Puerto Rico even though the vast majority of the island’s people oppose it. How people are punished in Puerto Rico is not up to the Puerto Rican people, but to the U.S. government, in whose deliberations the people of the island have no voice whatsoever.
The same is the case with military service. There are no “Puerto Rican armed forces,” just the U.S. armed forces, whose commander in chief, the president, is elected without the input of the people of Puerto Rico.
Until the Korean War, soldiers from the island of Puerto Rico were grouped in their own unit, the 65th Infantry Regiment. Used as sacrificial cannon fodder by U.S. commanders in that imperialist war, the regiment balked and was dissolved, with the Puerto Rican soldiers dispersed into other units.
Since that day in 1917 when Uncle Sam gave the island the “gift” of U.S. citizenship, Puerto Ricans have fought and died in all U.S. wars. In Vietnam and since, Puerto Ricans from the island and mainland, like other minorities, have been disproportionately represented in the military and especially in front-line units. They, like other minorities, have also born the brunt of casualties.
In Puerto Rico and in Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the U.S., military recruitment is big business. ROTC is entrenched in inner city schools where military recruitment and training is promoted as the only way out of a life of poverty. While schools are allowed to decay, Puerto Rican cultural programs are eliminated, and jobs and the social safety net disappear from the barrios, the siren song of the military recruiter sounds louder and louder.
Further, the U.S. military has helped itself to vast amounts of Puerto Rican real estate. The island of Vieques, where a massive resistance campaign recently brought an end to the U.S. Navy’s bombing “practice,” is one example. Those operations are dwarfed by the vast Roosevelt Roads Naval Base on the main island, and numerous other facilities.
Some Puerto Ricans, looking at this situation, see it as an argument for independence for the island. Independentistas point out that the only nation that has ever threatened or invaded Puerto Rico is the U.S. itself, so the military presence in the island, and the use of so many Puerto Ricans by the U.S. military, is of no use to the Puerto Rican people. An independent Puerto Rico would reclaim the facilities of Roosevelt Roads for Puerto Rico’s economic development, and any armed forces would be dedicated to protecting Puerto Rico’s sovereignty, not to invading countries in the Middle East. Others see this situation as an argument for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state, so that finally the island’s people could have full voting rights. People who advocate continuation of “commonwealth” status, such as Governor Sila Calderon, nevertheless fight for greater control of the island over its own affairs.
All people of good will should support the right of the Puerto Rican people to determine their own future.
Emile Schepers is an activist in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org