“Nationalism” in U.S. Territories

By Howard Hills

Politicians and journalists in Puerto Rico sometimes refer to that U.S. federal territory as a “country.” That mistakenly implies it has the status of a “nation” under the current “commonwealth” regime of territorial government.

In a controversial and inconclusive 1993 vote on future status, the definition of “commonwealth” also incorrectly referred to Puerto Rico as if it were a nation. The commonwealth option on that 1993 ballot promised residents of the island the people would be “Puerto Rican first” above and before being people of the United States. It inaccurately claimed “bilateral” sovereignty and virtual nationhood with a “Puerto Rican First” status.  Yet, the “commonwealth” constitution adopted under a 1950 federal enabling act recognized U.S. citizenship as “paramount.” Even the hyper-neutral Congressional Research Service noted the ballot “arguably exceeded the relationship established in 1950.”

Ironically, the 1993 ballot also promised permanent U.S. citizenship, federal programs and existing exemptions from federal taxes, unless new taxes were agreed to by the Puerto Rico government. Several members of Congress commented on the 1993 definition of “commonwealth,” sarcastically noting if Puerto Rico could get that deal the people of their states would want that same status.

However, in Puerto Rico that “too good to be true” option still won less than a majority (48.5%) in 1993, while statehood came in a close second at (46.5%). The 1993 ballot choice to actually be a “country,” “nation” or “Independent” came in a distant third at 4%.

In 1998 and 2012 votes the “commonwealth” option again failed to win a majority, when it was defined accurately and honestly as it is – a federal territory with limited rights of local home rule that is subject to amendment or revocation by Congress. Presented with the valid options, 61% chose statehood in 2012.

Why isn’t Puerto Rico a nation?

The U.S. acquired the Philippine Islands from Spain by the same treaty under which Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, but unlike Puerto Rico the Philippines was never granted U.S. citizenship. In the Philippines there was not just nationalist sentiment, as well as an independence party and popular support for nationhood. In the Philippines, there was a massive nationalist insurgency in which thousands of U.S. Army troops were killed and thousands more were wounded.

Over 100,000 native Filipinos reportedly died in the conflict between the U.S. federal territorial government and the Philippine nationalist insurgents. After the insurgency was defeated, the U.S. was left with a clear perception of overwhelming popular majority favored nationhood. That led Congress to declare in 1916 that the future status of the Philippines would be that of a “country,” “nation” and “independence.”

As with Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, Texas and other states before and after admission, there was and remains a independence movement in Puerto Rico. As in Hawaii the nationalist movement in Puerto Rico did not mount an insurgency and wage a widespread armed conflict with the federal government. There were acts of violence but in adopting a local constitution by overwhelming majority vote in 1952 the people proclaimed that U.S. citizenship was “paramount” to the future of Puerto Rico.

The local “Puerto Rico Independence Party” has garnered so few votes in past elections it is no longer deemed a major certified and viable party.

Is “Nationalism” a dirty word?

Most “isms” can be good or bad, depending on what adjectives one uses and what actual ideas and actions give expression to the ideology of the particular “ism.” That includes liberalism, conservativism, patriotism, separatism, activism.

Nationalism has only one valid and correct meaning. It refers to the allegiance of people within a body politic to a nation state with a government exercising jurisdiction and control over a defined territory and population.

The only other literate usage of “nationalism” refers to the aspiration of a people within another nation or within a transnational movement to constitute themselves as a body politic under the sovereignty of a separate nation state. Expressing the intent and purpose to have allegiance to such new nation if established is a nationalist aspiration.

It is political and historical illiteracy to use of the term “nationalism” to refer to citizens governed under the sovereignty of an existing nation state, but espousing a separatist political, social, economic and cultural agenda, identity or ideology. Yet, purporting to represent a form of “nationalism” in order to escalate the political narrative of opposition and defiance to an existing national order is typical of ideological subcultures and counter cultural movements.

That misuse of the term “nationalism” is symbolic but non-material propagandistic rhetoric. Still, that misapplication of terminology is common practice for alienated and estranged factions who remain subject to the nationality, sovereignty and national law of the nation in which they reside and/or have national citizenship.

It is the same with the word “revolution.” Only an actual organized effort to end the sovereignty of an existing nation state and replace it with a new nation state is a revolution. Use of the word “revolution” to describe political change within the structure of the political economy under an existing nation state’s sovereign order is not a revolution.

Nationalism is a good and affirmative term if one speaks of national citizenship and national sovereignty a nation to which one remains loyal. It means you owe allegiance not only as a matter of nationality law, but as a matter of fidelity and faithfulness to country. The term “citizenship” is a synonym for “nationality” as those terms are employed in federal nationality law, including provisions in Title 8 of the U.S. Code known as the “U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.”

So “nationality” and thus “nationalism” are part of our law and our political tradition. Nationalism and patriotism can have the same meaning if the citizen not only has a legal duty of allegiance, but also personally embraces and values allegiance as a moral commitment. Only when a person or group asserts a separate national identity seeking separate legal status, rights and duties do they become “separatists” within the political order.

That includes all forms of pseudo-nationalism, based on race or any other ideological, political or other untenable criteria. Those who claim, assert or seek recognition as having a separate nationalism are “separatists” only ideologically, unless and until they become political revolutionaries. Even those who claim separate nationalism or revolution remain subject to the legal duty of allegiance to the nation state in which they have national citizenship, unless and until they establish national citizenship of another new – or if not new, different – nation.

As a political stunt a few Puerto Rico independence advocates tried to renounce U.S. national citizenship in the 1990’s, and declared themselves citizens of the “country” and “nation” of Puerto Rico. But they wanted to remain in Puerto Rico without giving up the rights that only U.S. citizens have in the territory.

As a result, the federal courts determined their sworn renunciation declarations were a political and ideological gesture. Accordingly, the courts upheld revocation by the U.S. State Department of its erroneous certification of loss of citizenship.

Generally, governments do not allow citizens to extinguish the duty of allegiance under law by relinquishing citizenship unless they have another citizenship, in order to prevent statelessness.

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