“Commonwealth” Autonomy in Puerto Rico “Not an American Solution”

In a recent essay on Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane Maria political challenges, former White House territorial law counsel and Citizens Without A State author Howard Hills drew a comparison between Catalonia, the section of Spain which has been asking for independence since at least 1918, and Puerto Rico, which has been asking for U.S. citizenship and other rights that come only with statehood for longer than that. The Catalan flag, shown in the 1918 document above, looks a lot like Puerto Rico’s flag. There’s a reason for that.

The “one star” feature of the Puerto Rico flag was adopted by anti-colonial insurgents seeking to end Spanish imperial rule in 1897. Catalonia’s one star rule symbolizes its separate identity from Spain. Madrid’s response to both Puerto Rico and Catalonia was an offer of “autonomy” that was still colonialism by another name.

As we now know “autonomy” was a ploy to deny not guarantee real sovereign nationhood for Catalonia under the Spanish Constitution. The “commonwealth” regime of territorial government in Puerto Rico also was called “autonomy” but never secured sovereignty or equal rights of U.S. citizenship.

According to Hills, the Spanish colonial scheme for “autonomy” without full equality failed to end Spanish imperialism for Puerto Rico in 1897. It has failed in Catalonia since 1932. Since it was re-introduced as “commonwealth” under American rule in 1952 for Puerto Rico it has continued to fail.

“Autonomy” in this context means local self-rule, not national independence. Politically, it’s often used for a limited kind of self-rule or freedom. In the cases of both Catalonia and Puerto Rico, the word has been used in deceptive ways. The truth is the autonomy solution has not created sovereignty. Hills argues that Puerto Rico’s false “autonomy” is left over from the earlier Spanish autonomy, and has never been a real option in the United States.

Catalonia-Puerto Rico Paradox

Hills explains the implications of his thesis in the following background analysis provided to PR51st:

“Commonwealth” under American rule in the Philippines

From 1934 to 1946 the U.S. territory of the Philippines had a “commonwealth” local government that gave Manila “autonomy” over internal affairs. But the people of the territory had never been given U.S. citizenship. Their autonomy was a step toward independence.

Still, the U.S. Congress had full sovereignty and the Philippines had none. The U.S. could take back any power it gave to the territorial government. Congress could cancel any act taken by he government in Manila. In 1946, the U.S. kept its 1916 promise to give the territory full independence.

Use of the words “commonwealth” and “autonomy” under the model of territorial government leading to nationhood for the Philippines territory began and ended as a failed U.S. experiment in imperialism and became a decolonization success story only when that territory finally became a real sovereign nation-state after WWII.

The U.S. used the same “commonwealth” term for local government in Puerto Rico in 1950. It did the same in the Northern Mariana Islands in 1976. In the case of both Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands, the “commonwealth” model of so-called “autonomy” was not a path to sovereign nationhood as it had been in for the Commonwealth of the Philippines. Instead, for the Puerto Rico and NMI the “autonomy” of “commonwealth” was another name for indefinite “unincorporated” territorial status with the same limited rights of self-government as the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands under U.S. imperial rule between 1900 and WWII.

“Commonwealth” under American rule in Puerto Rico

To understand the nature of “commonwealth” in Puerto Rico we have to look back in time to Spanish rule in Puerto Rico.

The Spanish liberal party took control of the government in Madrid in 1897. They did not want to deal with separatism in Puerto Rico. So Madrid granted a so-called “Charter of Autonomy” that was not “independence” or even “sovereignty” in any sense.

The Charter of Autonomy gave limited local power and freedom to organize political parties. That “autonomy” regime existed at the pleasure of the Spanish government. It created no binding rights that Spain could not undo.

The U.S. invaded Cuba and Puerto Rico and ended Spanish colonialism in the Americas in the Spanish American War. That ended the “autonomy” regime in Puerto Rico, but ironically a new autonomy movement in Puerto Rico was encouraged by FDR’s appointed Governor, Rex Tugwell, to prevent a choice between equal integration or independence.

So the U.S. ended up adopting the Spanish autonomy model that the U.S. had ended when it brought democracy and freedom to Puerto Rico. How ironic, right?

Failure of autonomy status models in Spain and Puerto Rico

The 1952 “commonwealth” regime of territorial local government in San Juan is a version of the autonomy model the Spanish tried to use to stave off anti-colonial rebellion in Puerto Rico. The Spanish also employed the same hoax in Catalonia for the same reasons in 1932.

But in all its forms the Spanish model of autonomy instead of equality is a trick. It can be taken away — and has been taken away:

  • Spain took local autonomy it had granted away from Puerto Rico by surrendering and ceding Spanish sovereignty over Puerto Rico to the U.S. without consent of its citizens in the colony.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in 2016 that “commonwealth” remains a territorial status with no vested right of sovereignty,  as demonstrated in the 2017 PROMESA law suspending local autonomy under the territorial constitution due to bankruptcy of the “commonwealth” regime.
  • Spain outlawed the Catalonian regional government’s assertion of independent national sovereignty in 2017.

The Spanish model of autonomy that just prevents full and equal citizenship is not an American political status solution.

Colonialism and racism no excuse for defeatism

The Broadway musical “West Side Story” narrative of Puerto Ricans in America as victims of racism has been replaced by the “Hamilton” narrative of Puerto Ricans joining the ranks of fully empowered Americans.

In America today we don’t surrender to racism. We defeat it. We de-institutionalize it.

To fully and finally end racism we first need to end colonialism.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the voters chose to do that through statehood.

So now what is Congress going to do?

Since 1787 when the Continental Congress adopted the territorial integration plan known as the Northwest Ordinance, the American political status solution has been equal citizenship through statehood or independent separate nationhood.

That led to the abolition of slavery, votes for women, the defeat of fascism and communism in the 20th century, and the work of making America a more perfect union, which still goes on today.

Starting with statehood for the last large U.S. colony eligible for statehood.

“Autonomy” is a failed Spanish device to sustain a colonial condition.

Catalonia may or may not become independent, but for Puerto Rico, statehood is what the people have chosen.

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