A recent bill in the Puerto Rico legislature calls for the “decolonization” of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, which has been an unincorporated territory of the United States for more than a century, is increasingly being called a colony.
A Facebook comment questioned our occasional use of the word. Charlie Gorman said, “The use of ‘colony’… is an abuse of language, meant to inflame or unfairly prejudice. PR has far more emigration than immigration. PR is not used to house surplus population, nor has the US used immigration to ethnically cleanse the indigenous population (that would be the Spanish throughout the 16-19th centuries).”
“I agree that something should be done, ” he continued, “especially since the threat of a medieval expansionist monarchy in our backyard has ceased. But I tend to think casting this issue in stark terms that are not borne out by the facts is counterproductive.”
Certainly, Puerto Rico’s position under the United States in the 21st century involves a lot less violence, slavery, and general exploitation than was typical for colonies in the 16th century.
But is the use of the term “colony” actually an abuse of language?
We asked Google to define the word, and learned that a colony is “a country or area under the full or partial political control of another country, typically a distant one, and occupied by settlers from that country.” As Gorman points out, Puerto Rico is not occupied by settlers from the United States, though people can freely move from Puerto Rico to any state and vice versa. There are certainly more people moving from Puerto Rico to the states (“immigration” and “emigration” are the wrong words here) than moving from the states to Puerto Rico.
The United States mainland is not distant from Puerto Rico — it’s closer to Puerto Rico than it is to Hawaii, for example. Puerto Rico is certainly an area under the political control of the United States, but the U.S. is not “a different country” because Puerto Rico is not a country.
But the definition of the word is only part of the story. As Gorman points out, the word “colony” has certain implications in American English. Colonies are exploited by their colonial overlords, the indigenous populations are harmed by the aggression of the colonists, and being a colony is not a good thing. At this point, in fact, most of the world agrees that being a colony is not a good thing, and the eradication of colonies is a project of the United Nations.
So it may be that using the word “colony” is like calling a government a “regime” — an attack (in this case an attack on the United States) through connotations.
We asked Howard Hills, author of Citizens Without A State, for his expert opinion on the subject.
“In the context of American political culture,” Hills responded, “colonialism is about denial of government by consent. It is ruling people who do not have equal rights of citizenship. In modern times governments are inclined to use generosity and assimilation to rule over territorial people who are not fully integrated. Being more humane than Spain is damning with faint praise. Taft and McKinley proudly called themselves imperialists, because imperialism is ruling beyond borders and/or expanding borders over new territory and people. But whether you call it colonialism or imperialism the reality is it is not democratic.”
Gorman concluded his comment by saying that “inflammation of passion seems to be the order of the day, and will perhaps bring about change faster than bloodless discourse.” We think that the Puerto Rico legislature intentionally used an emotionally-charged word in the title of the bill planning a plebiscite. In fact, a lot of the people using “colony” to describe Puerto Rico are obviously using that emotionally-charged word in hopes of making changes.
We’ve seen that using “commonwealth” helped to confuse and deceive people for decades. We don’t want to confuse or deceive anyone. We want to make sure that people — as many people as possible — understand the true position of Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory. We want to make sure that everyone voting on the upcoming bills about Puerto Rico, from the residents of the Island to members of the U.S. Congress, really understands that being a territory is very different from being a state.
But we also want to reach people on an emotional level. We know that the American people, across the nation, care about human rights and feel empathy for those who experience injustice. We know that Puerto Rico’s status is a human rights issue, and that the people of Puerto Rico experience injustice. We ask you to help us get the word out. You can choose whether to use the word “colony” or not.