Like millions of Americans in Puerto Rico, Ismael Hernandez didn’t know real freedom with equal citizenship, until he found it under statehood…
By Howard Hills
From an early age, Ismael Hernandez was indoctrinated into a virulent form of Anti-American communism that sought Puerto Rico’s independence from the U.S. and its alignment with the Marxist Cuban regime. So how was he transformed into an advocate for American values and founder of a non-profit community organization, the Freedom and Virtue Institute, focused on supporting youth, immigrant empowerment and free enterprise entrepreneurship?
The tale begins in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where Ismael was born and raised. Many people in America still don’t realize Puerto Rico is U.S. territory and people born on the island are U.S. citizens. Yet, they lack equal rights or representation in Congress, so they can be treated less than equally under federal laws whenever Congress chooses. For Ismael, his transformation in identity from alienation to empowerment was possible only after leaving life under federal territorial rule for life in a state of the union.
Radicalized by territorial colonialism
After more than 120 years under the U.S. flag, the undemocratic treatment and inequality inherent to Puerto Rico’s territorial status has made change to a fully democratic future status the dominant political, social and economic issue. Historically, there have been three future status options, each with its own local political party. A small minority support independent nationhood, a much larger but still minority “commonwealth” faction favoris the status quo with features of “autonomy” rejected by the U.S. for 70 years, and, thirdly, the current majority ruling coalition supporting equal rights and responsibilities through statehood.
Instead of democratic change, Ismael was indoctrinated by his radical communist father, who supported the communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro in nearby Cuba. Ismael was taught to despise America as an imperialist power that conquered and enslaved Puerto Rico under capitalism. Even in federally subsidized public schools on the island, Ismael encountered the belief that U.S. territorial rule could only be understood as a racist and colonialist occupation by a “foreign” power.
Having been taught to support and fight for the liberation of Puerto Rico from U.S. rule by any and all means, Ismael became radicalized. He fully embraced an extremist communist manifesto, and was prepared to carry out a lifetime commitment to eradication of U.S. colonialism in his homeland.
From communist to federalist
To acquire higher education and credential himself as a member of the radical intelligentsia, Ismael left for college on the U.S. mainland. What neither his father, party comrades, nor, especially Ismael himself, could have predicted was that living in the states would change first his mind, and then his heart.
Arriving in Mississippi he felt in his own words he was, “a black Puerto Rican boy raised as an American who lands in Dixie!” In college on the mainland, he was free to pursue a classical education, free of anti-federalist illiberalism and the propagandistic radicalism he had encountered at home and in school. The result was that he discovered real freedom is, as Thomas Jefferson expressed it, an endowment to each individual that does not come from government.
Instead of being fixated on the challenges of his ethnicity in the Deep South, he felt empowered by the full and equal rights of national citizenship, which he had been denied in Puerto Rico. His new reality was full rights of national citizenship – including federal voting rights – acquired and exercised through the right of state citizens to vote in federal elections. No longer denied equal citizenship under territorial rule, holding back emotions still fresh, Ismael recalls that for the first time, “My lungs filled with the breath of freedom when I came to America.”
Of course, Puerto Rico is in America, but Ismael never experienced what being an American citizen truly meant until he experienced life in a state of the union. Through this, his eyes were opened to opportunity in a diverse and wide-open social landscape. He discovered that life in a U.S. state was a political and cultural reality in which he could overcome adversity and take his destiny into his own hands – not as a victim but as a full citizen with equal rights and responsibilities. In the real American system of constitutional federalism in which states and state citizens are in a sovereign power-sharing partnership, he became a stakeholder, free man and entrepreneur.
Spreading the message of freedom
Empowered with this new understanding, Ismael felt compelled to spread the message. To do so he founded the Freedom and Virtue Institute based on the ideals of individual liberty, self-reliance and human dignity.
The institute works to give hope to poor children and communities enduring hardship, including immigrants, by fostering attitudes and leading initiatives that build self-reliance. His programs on the dignity of work teach the virtue of education and creative enterprise, bringing the promise of freedom and opportunity in America within reach.
Now living in Florida, Ismael’s programs teach young people and newcomers to American how to empower themselves with virtues of self-reliance, honesty, productive enterprise, and civic responsibility that includes “effective compassion,” without induced chronic dependency. There now are chapters of Ismael’s institute in eight states!
This success story was recently featured during Hispanic Heritage Month by CBS News in Ft. Myers Florida.
Lessons from this journey
Ismael’s story in America is a compelling metaphor for both the American experience in Puerto Rico, as well as the Puerto Rican experience in America. It also reveals much about the ongoing struggle to define and change Puerto Rico’s political status. As such it offers three important lessons.
Real freedom means self-reliance not dependency
In his communist indoctrination, the government was going to provide what people needed and people had to rely on the government for their livelihoods. But his experience in the U.S. under statehood revealed to him that real freedom is found in self-reliance, not dependency.
Ismael notes he was more able to recognize the growing culture of dependency emerging in the states, because he had seen the results in the Puerto Rico of his childhood. “If I am a poor person and you tell me you are going to take care of me, I’ll let you. But once you taste freedom you don’t want dependency,” he said.
Reaching the balance of social forces in which self-reliance is the norm and dependency is the exception remains the challenge facing Americans in the states. It is an even greater challenge in Puerto Rico and other territories where U.S. citizenship has been conferred, but without any path to full rights of national citizenship that come only with state citizenship.
Instead, a culture of dependence has been encouraged and expanded in Puerto Rico, based on the ideology and political party platform of the “autonomous commonwealth” movement. The “autonomist” party leaders and its platform call for continuation of the current status under the federally established “commonwealth” regime of territorial government. Yet, “ commonwealth” offers no permanent political status or economic solutions other than dependency.
Federalism is a viable route to decolonization
It is not necessary here to know his political party affiliations, if any, or his position on political status options for the territory. Because what transcends those questions is the love Ismael so clearly has for America’s freedom, and equality that empowers even disadvantaged citizens.
His institute teaches people the political facts of life. That includes the reality that U.S. national citizenship does not sustain equality and justice without the rights of state citizenship. Thus, if U.S. citizenship is to continue, “autonomous commonwealth” ideology will not secure the equality of rights that come only with statehood. If Puerto Rico does not achieve equal citizenship rights through statehood, the only alternative is independent nationhood.
Without or without a treaty of free association, independent nationhood means separate Puerto Rico sovereignty, a new national citizenship, and a national constitution that is the supreme law of the land, in what would be the Republic of Puerto Rico. For the vast majority in Puerto Rico, statehood is preferred because it offers the best opportunity to decolonize Puerto Rico, while allowing its people to keep their U.S. citizenship. And for the first time equal rights and responsibilities in the social, political and economic life of the nation would empower U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to realize their full potential as Americans.
For U.S. citizens, full rights and freedoms require statehood
The story of Ismael Hernandez affirms a moral truth about his homeland of Puerto Rico under the current territorial status. It is that the American system of constitutional federalism is not based on political populism. Rather, it is an ordered scheme of liberty and representative democracy, not direct national popular sovereignty. In our republican form of government, the core and fundamental right of government by consent is redeemed through the exercise of the rights of state citizenship.
Specifically, under the more perfect union of the Constitution equal rights and full representation in the constitutional process for consent of the governed exists only for U.S. citizens who also are citizens in a state of the union. Ismael recalls this reality when moving from the political and ideological hot house of the federally controlled “commonwealth” regime of territorial government on the island. The illusion of democracy and half measure of citizenship under “commonwealth” was swept aside into the dustbin of history for Ismael when he came to live in the mainland as the citizen of a state.
Statehood brings freedom
The U.S. and Puerto Rico must now recognize trying to make territorial status permanent through gimmicks that do not redeem the promises of equal citizenship must and will fail. That is because our union of states is held together by distribution of political power through equal state representation at the national level combined with population-based state representation.
That representational paradigm is constitutionally instituted for both Congress and the Electoral College. That’s why voting rights in federal elections are allocated only to citizens of states, and representation in the process of consent is not a right of national citizenship alone, but only in combination with state citizenship.
The success of Ismael and the Freedom and Virtue Institute illuminates what remains a transcendental American reality. The tree of freedom thrives and its fruits can be harvested in greater abundance under government that is just and rules with the consent of the governed. As Ismael Hernandez discovered, for U.S. citizens that freedom and equality exists only in a state of the union.
Howard Hills served as lead counsel on territorial status in the Executive Office of the President, National Security Counsel and U.S. Department of State. He is author of Citizens Without A State with a foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh