Puerto Rico’s Radical Fringe: Desperately Seeking Relevance

Extremist Ideology Becomes Background Noise As Island Unites In Fight For Survival

In the aftermath of extreme natural and economic calamities, Puerto Rio’s politics have become more centrist and non-partisan. Unprecedented coalition politics have eclipsed divisive identity politics in America’s vibrantly diverse island territory.

In America’s last large and populous jurisdiction not within a state, 3.5 million U.S. citizens are rolling up their sleeves to reinvent Puerto Rico. Political leaders clearly understand that voters cherish island heritage, but now demand a future better than the past. Twice in recent years a majority has rejected territorial status and the failed political and economic social engineering experiment in limited home rule known as “commonwealth.”

This month the Puerto Rico Statehood Commission, created by the local legislature consistent with powers granted by the U.S. Congress, formally constituted a “Tennessee Plan” shadow delegation to represent Puerto Rico in Washington. The delegation seeking admission to the union comprises former Governors and leadership of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, back home, in addition to restoring reliable water, power, health care and a stable social order, voters are demanding that a century of political status limbo end on terms ratified by the U.S. Congress and voters, allowing orderly transition to either statehood or nationhood. After 400 years of Spanish colonial rule and 118 years of U.S. nationality without democracy at the national level, recent plebiscite results confirm popular political will to secure equal rights and duties of national citizenship in a stable, constitutionally defined political status.

Between 1796 and 1994, 32 former U.S. territories became states of the union, and 4 territories governed by the U.S. became separate sovereign nations. In each case there were special interests thriving under the territorial regime that opposed a change in political status. Anti-democratic tactics to derail statehood or nationhood are typical during normalization under a permanent status.

In most cases the faction opposing status resolution is comprised of an unsustainable alliance of ideological extremists and private sector commercial interests profiting from the territorial regime. When change in the political order become imminent, factions opposing statehood or nationhood predictably seek to delay the inevitable.

Puerto Rico has entered the terminal stage of status resolution. Continuation of the failed “commonwealth” regime of territorial autonomy is no longer viable. Only indoctrinated stalwarts of the “autonomy” cult implausibly defend the status quo.

Pro-statehood movement leaders are in majority control of the territorial government. Local political intrigues aside, no one doubts that recent pro-statehood majority votes by the people will be confirmed in future plebiscites.

Meanwhile the intelligentsia of a small independence faction withers on the vine of historical anachronism that yields only sour grapes. Only a few extremist octogenarians, once fashionably pro-Castro revolutionary wannabes, long for revival of anti-democratic violence.

A small but loud fringe faction of next generation nationalists persist in a narrative about oppressive imperialist American rule, but reject calls for violent resistance by delusional stragglers in the Cold War era pro-Castro lunatic fringe. Only an isolated cadre of rebels without a cause remain beguiled and befuddled by 20th century geo-political conundrums long ago swept into the dust bin of history.

The good, bad and ugly aspects of early 20th century American imperialism, along with the Cold War era ideological soap opera over Puerto Rico in the United Nations, are of relevance only as political archeology. The stark political reality of modern day Puerto Rico is that any actual civil conflict incited in the name of independence will only accelerate ever-increasing majority rule in favor of statehood.

The narcissistic ideological self-aggrandizement of once radical convicted felons like Oscar Lopez Rivera perhaps best should be billed as a “Last Tango In Havana.”

Anti-Democratic Radical Agenda Self-Defeating For Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico today is in a historical moment when recovery from fiscal collapse and natural disaster will fail unless the island reinvents itself as either a state or a nation. So far statehood has trounced independence in every vote.

The lesson of U.S. territorial status resolution history is clear. When the time is right the will of the people prevails. Any tactics aimed at disrupting orderly democratic majority rule will be prevented by local and federal law enforcement as needed to ensure political status is decided lawfully by ballots, not unlawfully by bullets or bombs.

Still, arm-chair purveyors of radicalism provocatively predict nationalist future anti-statehood violence. But as with pro-independence and anti-statehood factions in several territories that became states, political violence appeals only to the lunatic fringe when when the political question at hand can be resolved democratically and peacefully.

That is why hollow unjustified threats of violence being heard as part of a narrative about racial and colonial victimology of disenfranchised U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico is being espoused mostly among ethnic Puerto Ricans who are fully enfranchised U.S. citizens in New York City.

Hard Truths Revealed In Robust Discourse

Warnings of political violence surfaced during a recent City University of New York (CUNY) public affairs television program on the impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.  During that discussion, an advocate of national independence publicly put “colonial powers” in Washington on notice that pro-independence violence will be escalated if necessary to prevent statehood.

Jaime Estades, Director of an organization calling itself the Latino Leadership Institute, made his prediction of anti-statehood violence in response to CUNY Forum moderator Bob Liff’s observation that voters in Puerto Rico rejected independence by over 95% in multiple democratic plebiscites.

CUNY’s public affairs anchor Liff asked Estades why New York’s ethnic Puerto Ricans who enjoy full rights of U.S. citizenship demand independence for residents of the island denied equal citizenship due to its territorial status. Estades initially responded that only by living in a state can Puerto Ricans understand that even with voting rights and full citizenship the U.S. will never treat Puerto Ricans equally because it is a racist nation.

In that context Estades declared that even if approved by a majority in Puerto Rico it is a “fact of history” that admission to statehood will lead to a “militant independista movement in the U.S.” that would make the island “another Northern Ireland.” Referring to Irish nationalist civil strife and armed conflict in Belfast, Estades warned Americans are naive, “if you think Puerto Ricans are not willing” to commit nationalist violence… “they have been doing that since 1898.”

The actual history of armed rebellion in Puerto Rico dating back to the 1890’s is far different than what Estades described.  The idea that future violence is “historical fact” raises a question as to how something predicted to happen in the future can be “historical fact” in the present.

Nevertheless, the statements made by Estades gave added significance to CUNY moderator Bob Liff’s introductory background remarks reporting that Estades’ anti-statehood organization is opening a chapter to spread its message at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Pro-Independence Faction Rejects Majority Rule On Status

On the CUNY television forum, Estades was joined by Maria Perez y Gonzalez, Puerto Rico and Latino Studies Department Chair, Brooklyn College. According to Estades and Perez y Gonzalez, a century of American imperialism has rendered the electorate of Puerto Rico culturally, ideologically and politically disabled to exercise freely the right of democratic self-determination on the island’s future status.

Citing federal and local anti-sedition laws suppressing violent militant independence factions during the 1930’s, the two independence activists argued that the U.S. broke the political will of the people by “making support for independence a crime.” On that basis, Estadesa and Perez y Gonzalez suggested the U.S. should make amends by acting unilaterally to declare a policy leading to future independence.

This recycles a long standing Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) manifesto rejecting democratic majority rule unless it favors independence. That anti-democratic doctrine was confirmed by a PIP representative at a 2014 Harvard Law School symposium on Puerto Rico.

Estades and Perez y Gonzalez also implied the U.S. should provide tens of billions in funding annually to usher in separate sovereign nationhood. Perez y Gonzalez even argued that the U.S. should grant the people of Puerto Rico “dual citizenship” so that the choice of independence will have no actual political, social or economic consequences for those born in Puerto Rico after independence. That would mean all persons born on the island when it is a nation would have the same status and equal rights of U.S. nationality as if born in a state of the union, as well as equal rights of national citizenship in a future sovereign Republic of Puerto Rico.

Perez y Gonzalez and Estades dismissed the 61% vote for statehood in 2012 and the 97% vote for statehood in 2017 as inconclusive and controversial due to oppression under U.S anti-independence imperialism. Instead, Perez y Gonzalez declared “Puerto Rico can become independent…I don’t see any problem with that…with dual citizenship…there are many countries…at least 60…that have dual citizenship with the United States…”

Dual Citizenship Myth Undermines Informed Democratic Self-Determination

The U.S. does not recognize or create “dual citizenship” with other nations by operation of U.S. law, or confer U.S. citizenship based on birth in a foreign nation. Rather, birthright national and state citizenship is conferred by the citizenship clause of the U.S. Constitution (14th Amendment), based on birth in a state of the union consistent with federal law and jurisdiction.

All other forms of U.S. nationality and citizenship are conferred at discretion of Congress under federal statutory policy subject to unilateral revision or repeal by Congress. That can include relationship to a person with U.S. citizenship, as deemed by Congress to be consistent with the U.S. national interest.

The U.S. State Department and Department of Justice, President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, Congressional Research Service and even the ACLU have gone on record in Congressional hearings that the U.S. can not be bound by a statutory policy granting statutory U.S. nationality to a person born in Puerto Rico after separate nationhood is established.

The record before Congress also confirms that applying federal immigration and naturalization policy conferring citizenship for foreign born children of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico after independence would not be consistent with “national succession” and transition to separate sovereignty. That includes independence with a treaty of “free association.” Accordingly, post-independence birth in Puerto Rico would not trigger naturalization based on relation to a person who acquired any provisional form of U.S. nationality and citizenship under federal territorial statute.

Historical Independence Narrative Promotes Nationalist Propaganda

In support of his theory of American imperial hegemony, Estades told the CUNY audience, “The U.S. invaded Puerto Rico eight days after it became sovereign from Spain.” That attempt to delegitimize the annexation of Puerto Rico under a treaty of cession with Spain is historically absurd. If it were true Spain could not have have ceded Puerto Rico to the United States without its sovereign consent.

Clearly, the ”autonomy” granted to Puerto Rico by Spain in 1898 was even more a hoax and less actual sovereignty than the similarly token autonomy” Spain granted to Catalonia in 1932. The so-called “Charter of Autonomy” granted to Puerto Rico by a newly elected Prime Minister in Madrid in 1898 was a desperate farce, offered to local collaborators with the colonial regime. Madrid hoped “home rule” would co-opt nationalists, preserve Spanish rule, and prevent anti-colonialists in Puerto Rico from aligning with the United States.

Violence Threats Linked To Race Baiting

Estades also argued that the mistakes made by the U.S. during the recent hurricane relief and recovery effort reflect race based hatred of Puerto Ricans by federal colonial powers, and imperialist oppression of the storm victims. “Puerto Ricans are themselves more nationalistic” in the aftermath of the storm, Estades argued, because “they can see the racism.”

This sentiment was echoed by notorious independence seditionist Oscar Lopez Rivera, whose 35 year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to commit political violence was ill-advisedly commuted by President Obama. Lopez was found guilty of complicity in a campaign of violence in Puerto Rico and the U.S. that targeted, injured and killed innocent civilians, military and police.

In what the New York Post termed yet another “anti-Yankee rant,” Lopez demanded that non-Puerto Ricans from the U.S. participating in storm relief effort must leave the island. Rivera is viewed as a romantic figure by some Puerto Ricans for whom the consequences of independence and the bloody realities of his violent past are sublimated abstractions.

Howard Hills, former White House territorial law counsel who also appeared on the CUNY Forum program with Estades and Perez y Gonzalez, knows the history of federal and local government efforts to deal with pro-independence extremism. Hills, author of the book “Citizens Without A State,” commented on the pronouncements of Estades and Lopez: “There is a word for it when people who can’t achieve their ideological goals through the democratic process use bombs and murder to impose their will by violent tyranny. The word is ‘terrorism,’ and at the national, state, county and local level the U.S. knows how to respond to both domestic and internationally sponsored terrorism.”

Hills added, “I am well aware of the balance of good and evil in how the U.S. governed Puerto Rico, the Philippines and other territories, and in the lawful as well as the sometimes unlawful response of nationalist factions. The reality today is that under U.S. and international law the people of Puerto Rico have a right to informed democratic self-determination between statehood and nationhood. The people of Puerto Rico are competently constituted as a body politic to exercise that right and determine a future status by majority rule, peacefully and without violence, much less terrorism.”

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