Puerto Rico is a colony, not a commonwealth

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In a recent article in a left periodical about the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, the author attributed the woes of the island nation to misdirected economic policies of the “Puerto Rican Commonwealth’s government.” The piece treats the government as an independent entity with powers to resolve its social and economic problems. It does not deal except in a very minute and passing manner with the colonial reality of the island.

To call the island nation of Puerto Rico a “commonwealth” is to condone U.S. imperialism’s use of Puerto Rico to further its dastardly goals in Latin America and its use of the youth of Borinquen as cannon fodder for its wars of conquest and domination. Puerto Rico is nothing more than a colony of the United States, and its working class is shackled by this relation since it cannot change its situation. As long as this relationship exists, the island is held hostage to capitalism and all the ills this brings.

The United Nations Decolonization Committee has recognized this dilemma since 1972, when it resolved that Puerto Rico had the right to “independence and self-determination.” It does not take much to realize what the status of Puerto Rico is — even if one does not want to accept the fact that the U.S. government itself has admitted as much. Let’s take a look at this reality.

The U.S. presence is most clearly expressed through: a) U.S. military presence, b) judicial control by the U.S. Congress, president and courts, and c) economic control by U.S. corporate and financial institutions.

The United States directly controls the following areas of Puerto Rico’s national powers: communications, currency, trade (national and international), transportation, citizenship/naturalization, immigration and emigration, foreign travel (passports), customs laws and tariffs, labor relations, wage laws, census (population, agriculture, commerce, industry), defense/military service/internal security (FBI, CIA), international relations, banking systems, health standards (slaughterhouse, food products, medicines), Social Security/unemployment and disability benefits, environmental laws, prices, penal system and court system.

The political structures used by the U.S. to govern Puerto Rico encompass and affect all social, economic and political aspects of life on the island, and control and restrict external relations between Puerto Rico and other countries.

Amilcar Cabral, the great African liberator, in a speech to the First Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America in Havana, Cuba (1966), emphasized that “both in colonialism and neocolonialism the essential characteristic of imperialist domination remains the same: the negation of the historical process of the dominated people by means of violent usurpation of the freedom of development of the national productive forces.”

Under these circumstances Puerto Rico’s working class does not just struggle against the exploitation inherent in a capitalist system, but also struggles for its national liberation, in defense of what it sees as its national patrimony — for example, the struggle against the privatization of the phone and shipping companies in Puerto Rico, the struggles to preserve the national language of the people, and against the death penalty and wiretapping (both prohibited by the Puerto Rican Constitution). In essence they struggle for the right to be able to determine their own destiny without the shackles put on them by imperialism. Therefore, during the recent budget crisis certain unions understood that the correct position was to make the rich and the multinational corporations pay for the crisis, not the working class and the poor.

Other unions and federations, like the AFL-CIO and some of its affiliates and some Puerto Rican unions, that responded to pressure from colonial and U.S. economic interests supported the sales tax — let the workers pay for the crisis of colonialism. They took the pragmatic solution that can only lead to more crisis and suffering in the colony, and not the long arduous road to change that will benefit the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. working class.

The proof is in the pudding. We are not talking about a commonwealth nor a free associated state but about the oldest colony in the world — Puerto Rico. Unless progressives realize this, their analysis about the economic and social condition of the island will be flawed, to say the least, and they will be ignoring their duty to oppose the imperialist policies of their ruling class everywhere.

José A. Soler (jsoler@umassd.edu) is director of the labor education center at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.