Renowned government economist Arthur Laffer once made local headlines in Guam by reminding territorial leaders of the old adage that “People unduly obsessed with the past have no future.”
That was a dose of political realism responding to Guam’s agenda of grievances over centuries of Spanish colonialism, uncompensated war reparations claims arising from Japanese occupation in WWII, and demands for a race based plebiscite in which only descendants of Guam’s indigenous Chamorro natives decide the future status of the island territory.
A recent post on this website noted Hawaii’s endeavors to preserve threatened aspects of local island cultural heritage. As a state of the union Hawaii has far greater authority to protect language and culture than Guam or any territory. Federal law and policy precluding invidious racial discrimination ensures pluralistic ethnic culture thrives, even as integration with U.S. society and the global community has advanced under statehood for Hawaii, and decades of impressive social and economic development in Guam.
Still, some ethnic communities in these once remote Pacific islands continue to suffer vestiges of anachronistic culture shock. As with native American tribes under Indian treaty status instead of territorial law, some indigenous peoples in current and former island territories remain isolated by ethnic self-absorption. That is a lingering unresolved legacy of transition in the now distant past from relative isolation to integration in modern American culture.
In contrast, Puerto Rico is no longer held back by its past. It is the last large U.S. territory, populated by 3.3. million U.S. citizens who generally do not suffer from unresolved cultural identity. Because of its historic experience as a crossroads of European, Latin American and U.S. societies, civil society and the Puerto Rico body politic emerged from cultural transformation and integration into the modern era with strong social cohesion that values and celebrates ethnic pluralism. Puerto Ricans stand ready to decide on the future, as reflected in the 2012 majority vote in Puerto Rico to end the current territorial status.
That is not to say that the past does not hold deep meaning that drives political values in the future political status debate. Rather, it is a truism that looking back does not prevent Puerto Rico from looking forward with clarity of purpose. Indeed, Puerto Rico’s awareness of its past now informs and will guide democratic determination of its future political status in the first federally sponsored plebiscite scheduled for June 11.
In that act of self-determination – just over two months from now – voters for the first time will be presented with a clear choice between all legally valid future status options. That includes statehood, which received 61% in the 2012 vote, and separate sovereign nationhood, which garnered 38% in 2012. Sovereign nationhood comes in two forms – full independence now or gradual transition to independence under a treaty of “free associated state” status, to be decided in an October run off if nationhood is chosen by voters in June.
Statehood ends limited U.S. citizenship granted under federal territorial law that can be repealed by a Congress in which U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico do not have voting representation, and unlike the current status or any form of independence/free association statehood is the only status that guarantees future U.S. citizenship under the U.S. Constitution. So the choice between statehood and nationhood is really a choice between U.S. citizenship under U.S. law and nationality of Puerto Rico under its own supreme law in the future.
Of course, the once dominant local political party that opposes both statehood and independence still seeks to preserve the current status under federal laws that give Puerto Rico some of the benefits and burdens of both a state and a nation, without the full and equal rights, powers and opportunities of either. That has produced the economic, political and cultural failed client state syndrome that has now nearly made Puerto Rico insolvent.
Fortunately, in 2012 the voters recognized the real choices to end territorial status, and Congress did too once the 2012 status vote made it clear only statehood or nationhood provide the model for economic and political recovery of Puerto Rico.
In the face of these realities the anti-statehood party, which also is the anti-independence party too, has mounted a surprisingly weak campaign to stop change to the current status. The out-dated, unimaginative and unpersuasive “commonwealth” party status quo platform is as follows:
- To end fiscal and budgetary crisis increase annual federal subsidies and bail out Puerto Rico’s $75 million debt
- Reject statehood even if a majority support it because Puerto Rico is a separate “country” with a “national” Spanish language based ethnic culture
- Puerto Rico can never be integrated as a state due its separate “sovereign nation” status, but like a state the right to U.S. citizenship acquired during territorial period cannot be ended
- Puerto Rico cannot be a state because it has sovereign power to participate separately from the U.S. not just in sports and beauty contests but also foreign relations and International trade
- The U.S. should restore the Spanish colonial model of “autonomy” without equal rights of citizenship
- Statehood should be rejected because the federal government violated civil rights of independence leaders in the 1930’s-1950’s
- U.S. law should apply in Puerto Rico only as “mutually agreed” and Congress cannot change federal law without “consent” of Puerto Rico
This is the platform of the local party promising “enhancements” of the status quo rejected by the majority of voters in 2012. It represents the mentality of people in Puerto Rico who still identify with contrived metaphors of the “West Side Story” narrative. That popular culture rendition of America in 1961 is now obsolete, evoking a time when social and even racial alienation and identity confusion prevailed among both Puerto Rican born Americans and in mainstream American culture.
Today the story of Puerto Rico and America encompasses the broad sweep of history and progress of the American idea captured in the bolder and brighter metaphors of the Broadway play “Hamilton.” Even that literate narrative fails to illuminate the promise of America in Puerto Rico when compared to what the people themselves did in 2012, by voting to end the current territorial status and seek real sovereignty and redeem the full promise of American freedom through statehood or true nationhood.
Clearly, unless it embraces majority rule leading to equal rights, duties and opportunities of a national citizenship, the status quo party that opposes both statehood and nationhood will become irrelevant. Those somehow irrationally nostalgic for the days of Spanish colonial rule, blindly obedient to the “commonwealth” platform espousing “autonomy” without equality, truly are so obsessed with the past that without reform that party itself has no future.
Real empowerment and freedom come only from equality, not “autonomy” as an alternative to full democratic government by consent of the governed. U.S. citizenship without equal rights and duties of government by consent is not really U.S. citizenship at all. Representation in beauty pageants and international sports is a token gesture to make colonial status more tolerable, and it may even be accommodated in the transition to statehood, but it is no substitute for full democratic self-government, never has been and never will be.
That is what has led to the moment of truth that will take place on June 11, when the voters of Puerto Rico finally tell the world not what they feel just about the past, but what they expect and hope for in the future.