U.N. Decolonization Committee lambasts U.S. on Puerto Rico

The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization met on Monday, June 20 and discussed the situation of the U.S.-controlled island nation of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is not officially on the Committee’s list of “non self-governing territories” whose colonial status requires a U.N. monitored plan for decolonization, but the dramatic new developments with the Puerto Rican economy, and a deeply flawed plan in the U.S. Congress to “rescue” the island, may change this situation.

The Committee heard testimony from numerous people, Puerto Rican and others, on the situation of the island. The speakers represented the three major positions on the question of Puerto Rico’s status. Although the largest number were supporters of complete independence and national sovereignty for Puerto Rico, there were also speakers who favor the continuation of the current “Commonwealth” (Estado Libre Asociado) relationship, or even statehood – that Puerto Rico become the 51st state of the United States. They had in common that none of them had any use for the current way that the U.S. runs Puerto Rico, or for the PROMESA act which is going through Congress that is supposed to solve the current sharp economic crisis.

One after the other, they denounced the U.S. relationship to Puerto Rico as blatant colonialism. Several recommended that Puerto Rico be listed once more as a “non self-governing territory.”  If this were to happen, Puerto Rico, with its resident population of 3.6 million people, would be by far the largest territory on this list (the runner-up being Western Sahara, currently struggling for independence from Morocco, with a population of under 600,000).

The current governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García Padilla, of the pro-Commonwealth People’s Democratic Party, spoke to the Committee and accused the U.S. Supreme Court of having violated the autonomy rights of the Puerto Rican people when it ruled, on June 13, that Puerto Rico has no right to create its own bankruptcy laws, but must obey the dictates of the U.S. Congress in faraway Washington, D.C. This situation is the result of a 1984 law passed by Congress (not by the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly). García Padilla pointed out that in 1952, the Puerto Ricans were authorized by the U.S. Congress to adopt their own constitution, which was accepted through a referendum. In the past, said the governor, the U.S. had convinced the UN Committee on Decolonization that Puerto Rico was governed by a free mutual agreement between its own government and that of the U.S., so was not a colony. The Supreme Court’s decision indicates that this is not really the case.

María de Lourdes Santiago, a senator in the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly and Vice President of the leftwing Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), as well as her party’s candidate for governor in this year’s elections, denounced the financial control board being imposed on Puerto Rico by the U.S. Congress as part of the PROMESA Act. “The tax control board has absolute power over our country,” she said. This refers to the Financial Control Board which, under PROMESA, will be composed of seven persons not chosen by the people of Puerto Rico or its elected officials, and which will nevertheless have absolute control over budgetary decisions in Puerto Rico.

A number of other issues were raised by the speakers. The Jones Act, imposed on Puerto Rico by the U.S., prevents the island nation from finding the most inexpensive shipping choices, in a country which imports 85 percent of its own food, and many other things. Others pointed out that Puerto Rico is shortchanged on Medicare and Medicaid payments. Some speakers denounced the entire model of development imposed on Puerto Rico by the U.S.as unsustainable: Everything came to depend on attracting U.S. companies to invest in the island on the basis of tax breaks; when these were allowed to elapse in 2006 many of those companies decamped in search of places where they could make higher profits, putting the Puerto Rican economy into a  tailspin from which it has not recovered. This is now leading to high unemployment, increased poverty, and radical cuts to the social safety net. Many Puerto Ricans are emigrating to the U.S. mainland for jobs, education and opportunities.

Though Puerto Rico’s constitution has abolished the death penalty, the U.S. government continues to claim its right to impose this penalty in Puerto Rico for federal crimes, and such trials are carried out in English, although 98 percent of Puerto Ricans speak Spanish as their first language.

Many of the speakers demanded freedom for imprisoned Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera. His daughter, Clarissa López, New York Coordinator to Free Oscar López, made an eloquent statement about the way the U.S. has used violent methods to keep its control over Puerto Rico.

Several speakers added to their plea for the release of Oscar López a plea for the release of Ana Belen Montes, a woman of Puerto Rican ancestry and a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, who is currently serving a long prison sentence for proving Cuba with vital information on U.S. actions against that socialist nation.

Representatives of nations serving on the Committee discussed the situation, in every single case denouncing the colonial status of Puerto Rico. Comments were made by representatives  of Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Syria, the Community of Caribbean and Latin American States, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Cuba introduced a resolution, approved by the Committee, which calls for the UN Special Committee on Decolonization to take up the Puerto Rico issue once more. The resolution insists that the U.S. “assume its responsibility to expedite a process that would allow the people of Puerto Rico to exercise fully their right to self-determination and independence” and “move forward with a process that allows the Puerto Rican people to take decisions in a sovereign manner, and to address their urgent economic and social needs, including unemployment, marginalization, insolvency and poverty.” The Committee’s resolution also called for President Obama to release Oscar López Rivera, and expressed “deep concern over actions carried out against Puerto Rican independence activists and encouraged investigations of those actions, in cooperation with the relevant authorities.” The resolution also called for the U.S. to undertake a complete cleanup of the island of Vieques and the municipality of Ceiba, two places in Puerto Rico where U.S. military activities have left a legacy of environmental contamination.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico faces a debt payment of 2 billion dollars on July 1 and will not be able to pay it. This is being used to force the island to accept the fiscal control board which so many speakers at the UN Committee hearings denounced. The board is part of the PROMESA bill, HR 5278, which, although Governor García Padilla supports it, has been denounced by every single major candidate for governor of Puerto Rico. It passed the House on June 9 by a vote of 297 to 127, with 11 not voting, and now is awaiting action by the U.S. Senate. In addition to imposing the fiscal control board, PROMESA allows delayed payment to some hedge funds and other bondholders, but provides no U.S. taxpayer funds to Puerto Rico.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.