The 2016 elections in the U.S. leave no doubt the political pendulum that swung so far in one direction over the last decade is now swinging in another direction. What remains unclear is whether it is swinging back in an equal and opposite reaction to its last trajectory. Or, are the political physics swinging national trends, goals and governance in new directions, drawn by attraction to both old and new possibilities and opportunities not pursued in recent times?
There is no doubt that the 20th century range of choices and possibilities for sustaining the U.S. success story is being challenged. In Washington there is a nervously optimistic sense that anything is possible and something new is coming.
As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, it now seems highly probable and even inevitable that for Puerto Rico the historical pattern in federal territorial law and policy that converted five U.S. territories into States during the 20th Century will repeat itself. Instead of impeding that outcome, as in the case of other territories that became States, the current territorial government’s fiscal crisis will become the impetus leading to conversion of the last large and populous U.S. territory into the 51st State of the Union.
For the 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, transition to statehood fits the pattern of both an “old” historical outcome when territorial status ends, as well as the “new” solution to economic stagnation due to the inherently flawed and constitutionally temporary status of a large U.S. citizen population in territory, under U.S. sovereignty but not in a State of the Union. The current territorial status is so, well, like, 1950’s, right?
Indeed, as the doorway to 2017 open wide it is a vexatious and truly pathetic understatement to observe that being a U.S. possession with embarrassingly limited local self-government is an anachronism. The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court rulings that confirm the colonial status of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico make it seem unreal that the anti-statehood faction was able in the name of “autonomy” to delay admission of Puerto Rico as a State of the Union for five decades.
The anti-statehood platform calling for Puerto Rico to be recognized as a “nation,” “country,” but also be an “associated state” with U.S. citizenship, has been exposed as an ideological myth that became a lie. But worse than being a lie, the “autonomy” platform of the anti-statehood political party junta is now simply a discredited and shabby farce, too boring to spend much time thinking or talking about.
Indeed, to talk about “commonwealth” as a third path combining features of statehood and nationhood, so that a choice between them is not necessary, one must not think. Even the party junta leaders must suspend disbelief to recite the liturgy of autonomy to the growing ranks of former devotees now non-believers.
Even the local independence movement is now smaller and more obsolete than the independence movements in Vermont, Texas, Alaska and Hawaii before those territorial jurisdictions within the U.S became States. The best the anti-statehood autonomists and independence faction can come up with is a collection of perversely idiosyncratic narratives about the worst moments in Puerto Rico’s history under American rule.
Thus, being circulated in San Juan and Washington as 2016 comes to an end is a 2015 book entitled War Against All Puerto Ricans, by an anti-statehood propagandist named Nelson A. Denis. The book’s title is a fabricated fictional rendition of a statement made by a federal appointed territorial Chief of Police.
The book recites the history of civil strife in the territory, as if that somehow proves that Puerto Rico’s past means statehood is impossible in the present and future. That flawed premise ignores the redeeming power of freedom and democracy, which thrives best when it overcomes the denial of freedom and democracy. Nations are not formed and expanded by incorporating new territories and peoples without adversity.
Indeed, the internal and external political turmoil, government corruption scandals and civil strife in Puerto Rico existed on a small scale and were not major disruptions of civic order when compared to the history of other territories that became States:
- Arizona unilaterally declared itself a State then joined the confederacy in rebellion against the Republic and the Constitution. The U.S. Army invaded and occupied Tucson to restore federal law and order.
- Native tribes in the territory that became Oklahoma imported slaves from southern states, expanding the slavery conflict, after which some Indian tribes also joined the confederacy in rebellion against the Republic and the Constitution. Plans to form a geographically expansive mid-western state of the union for native tribes were rejected, creating conditions contributing to the tragedy of Indian Wars.
- The State of Ohio and the Territory of Michigan each called up and amassed troops along their disputed borderline in the event war broke out preventing a settlement of claims.
- Like Puerto Rico, there were cross-cultural, linguistic, legal and political tensions that arose because Louisiana, California, Alaska, New Mexico and Hawaii each were under the sovereignty of foreign powers and had populations that were not U.S. citizens when annexed by the United States.
Freedom is not free. In addition to the U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico who served in every war since WWI, people born and those living in Puerto Rico have paid a high price, struggling with civil strife and political violence.
Confrontations between federal and local authorities and the anti-statehood factions have been costly. Now the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have freely chosen statehood as the solution, and they earned the freedom to do that without further delay. If the independence or autonomy movement does not respect the democratic majority rule, they will become the tyrants unless stopped, and as such they will be swept aside and join similar anti-democratic movements in the dust bin of history.
The lesson of history is that the worst moments in the history of a territory are quickly overtaken by the success stories under democracy. That will be true in the case of Puerto Rico, soon to be our 51st State of the Union.
This post was written by Howard Hills, author of Citizens Without A State.