First, a history lesson. In 1900 members of the U.S. Congress who favored U.S. rule over conquered Spanish territories formed an “Imperialist” coalition. They were encouraged to call themselves “imperialists” by Harvard Law Review articles arguing the world needed U.S. imperialism to become more democratic and civilized.
Congressional and Presidential advocacy for policies of “enlightened imperialism” also was encouraged when the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed America could rule large populations of non-citizens in distant newly annexed island territories outside the umbrella of the U.S. Constitution.
So it was the U.S. that first used the I-word to define U.S. rule in Puerto Rico, not Puerto Ricans. The U.S. would later stop using the word “imperialism” after the Empire of Japan gave it a bad name. But that did not mean the U.S. stopped being an imperial power.
So what is “Imperialism” anyway? Here’s the legal definition.
A nation is a defined geographic territory and population with a government exercising supreme power of national sovereignty. Imperialism is the exercise of sovereign power by one nation over a geographic territory and population outside the imperial power’s national political order.
That is, one nation has power over a place and people outside its own homeland and established system of law and government.
Typically, the people of the outlying empire do not have the same civil status and rights as the national population of the imperial power. For example, the citizens of the Roman Empire, those who lived in the imperial nation, had greater rights and privileges than the “subjects” who lived in other countries under imperial rule.
Imperial rule that benefits and serves the national interests of the imperial power is a form of colonialism, the C-word that Americans historically avoided. When a colonial relationship is more of a burden than a benefit for the imperial power, then the imperial ruling model has failed for the ruler.
What does imperialism mean for Puerto Rico?
The U.S. traditionally has grown by defining territories and moving them toward statehood. Being a territory was temporary, whether it was one year like California or 88 years like Oklahoma. For 32 outlying territories under U.S. sovereign rule over an expanding empire, citizenship was a promise of equal rights through admission to statehood on equal footing.
However, in 1901 the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Congress could establish a new form of imperial rule over “non-incorporated” outlying territorial empire in the which the people were not U.S. citizens. Instead, the court decided that residents of “unincorporated” territories could be “nationals” of the U.S. empire rather than U.S. citizens.
Then in 1917 Congress granted U.S. citizenship to people living in Puerto Rico. In 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court once again deviated from U.S. anti-colonial and anti-imperial traditions by declaring that the U.S. could maintain imperial rule indefinitely over U.S. citizens in outlying territories.
As a result of that 1922 federal high court mandate, Puerto Rico’s U.S. citizenship was not materially different than being U.S. “subjects,” or “nationals,” in the unincorporated imperial colonies. That court ruling stripped citizens in territories of the historical norm of incorporation under the Constitution leading to equal rights through statehood.
In its 1922 ruling on the status of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Supreme Court openly and explicitly declared for the first time in U.S. history that unless Congress acted to bring about eventual statehood by mandating incorporation of the territory, the only way native peoples could attain full and equal citizenship was to relocate to a State.
In Puerto Rico over the past five years, hundreds of thousands of imperial subjects in effect “voted with their feet” for instant incorporation leading to full citizenship through statehood for themselves and their families… by relocating to a State.
The current economic crisis in Puerto Rico is a result of the territory’s dependence on federal subsidies and tax exemptions that looked like good ideas for Puerto Rico — but turned out to be colonial practices that benefited the U.S. national private sector more than the private sector of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is neither a State nor a sovereign nation. Puerto Rico still has the freedom and right under the U.S. Constitution to reclaim the promise of citizenship made in 1917. Puerto Rico can become a State or a sovereign nation.
Finally, perhaps a better way to define imperialism is to describe what it is not. Imperialism is not fully democratic self-government based on the right of self-determination and government by consent of the governed at the national level.
In 1953 the U.S. voted to approve Resolution 742, adopted by the United Nations to confirm the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist principle that all people have a right to equal citizenship in a nation established with democratic consent of the governed at the national level.
Resolution 742 defined imperialism and colonialism by confirming the criteria for ending imperialism and colonialism. One of the terms adopted by the U.N. defining decolonization and what imperialism is not includes equal citizenship and representation in a legislative body that makes the supreme law in a nation.
Hours after Resolution 742 was adopted, the U.N. also approved Resolution 748, allowing the U.S. to end submission of annual reports to the U.N. on decolonization of Puerto Rico. This diplomatic transaction was based on a U.S. commitment to complete the decolonization process. Fully democratic self-government for Puerto Rico has not been fulfilled.
Instead, with the complicity of the local party that favors the status quo in Puerto Rico, federal-territorial codependency on U.S. imperialism persists.
The promise to end “subject” status in favor of full and equal citizenship is not being redeemed by democracy in Puerto Rico. Rather it is being attained by attrition through depopulation, not free choice or consent of the governed.
For Puerto Rico, that is the true definition of imperialism in 2017.