Anti-Colonial Legacy of Lares and Yauco Rebellions
The small Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) has never won more than 5% of the vote in political status plebiscites. Yet, as if it represents the freely expressed will of a majority, the PIP boldly celebrates domestic terrorism committed by its armed wing from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Civilians, police and even military personnel were targeted in cowardly attacks causing destruction and death in the name of independence. Yet the U.S. repeatedly affirmed the right to independence if approved by a majority of voters. A simple declaration of will to attain independence by the elected territorial legislature or a proposal by the elected Governor to negotiate terms for an independence vote of the people could have led peacefully to separate nationhood.
Every U.S. President since Eisenhower recognized the right to independence, and that was probably true under Roosevelt and Truman as well. Given infamous Puerto Rican nationalist assassination attempts in Congress and at the White House during his tenure, Truman might well have encouraged separate nationhood!
Without a democratic mandate from the people or even U.S. denial of the right to nationhood, the independence movement felt justified in shedding innocent blood. To deflect moral responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of independence, PIP propaganda claims terrorism in the modern era was part of an historical armed struggle for independence.
To bolster that ideological mythology, the PIP traces nationalist violence to anti-colonial rebellions against Spanish rule at the city of Lares in 1868 and Yauco in 1897.
The truth about the anti-Spain uprisings
The historical reality PIP propaganda tries to hide is that some heroic freedom fighters in the Yauco rebellion had plotted insurrection in New York, had ties in the United States, and were eager to support statehood rather than independence as an anti-colonial future status for Puerto Rico.
The inconvenient truth for the PIP is that Antonio Mattei Lluberas, who organized and led the Yauco insurgency in 1897, would not devote himself to the independence cause. After American rule began three years later Mattei Lluberas was elected Mayor of Yauco as an anti-colonial Republican supporting Puerto Rico’s admission as a state of the union.
The PIP also finds it inconvenient that the Spanish colonial regime did not end due to the impact of the independence movement. Rather, Spain’s colonial rule ended when U.S. troops seized Puerto Rico as the Spanish-American War drew to an end in 1898.
Contrary to the PIP’s grandiose manifesto, today the anti-colonial legacy of the Lares and Yauco rebellions has its highest expression in democratic majority rule by voters in Puerto Rico favoring statehood over independence as a future political status.
Autonomist Collaborators Betrayed Anti-Colonial Movement
Spain’s military defeat of anti-colonial insurgents at Lares and Yauco was possible because of betrayal by Puerto Ricans collaborating with the Spanish colonial regime. In the American era it was collusion with Washington by “autonomists” from Puerto Rico that betrayed the anti-colonial movement in the territory.
Not surprisingly, Puerto Rico’s modern autonomists — who still oppose both statehood and independence — do not like to be reminded about the betrayal of anti-colonial insurgents by Yauco’s infamous Spanish-loyalist mayor back in 1897.
Instead of a midnight ride in the spirit of Paul Revere to alert his fellow Puerto Ricans about Spanish soldiers on the march, mayor Francisco Lluch Barreras alerted the Spanish governor about the planned uprising so troops could be sent to ambush the rebels.
Lluch Barreras was a spy and informant who doomed the anti-colonialists and enabled Spanish military forces to defeat the insurgents. It is significant that Spanish collaborator Lluch Barreras was succeeded as mayor of Yauco by Antonio Mattei Lluberas, leader of the Yauco rebellion, a statehood advocate elected in 1904.
Like the autonomist “commonwealth” party leaders who still collaborate with anti-independence and anti-statehood allies in Washington today, most of the Puerto Ricans who colluded with Spain to defeat the anti-colonial movement in 1897 were “autonomists.”
Anatomy of Autonomist Colonial Collusion
In 1898, both in New York and St. Thomas, anti-colonialists exiled after the Lares and Yauco rebellions turned to the U.S. for support in the struggle against Spain. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican autonomists on the island collaborated with liberal party in Madrid, which promised “liberal reforms” in exchange for loyalty to Spain.
The anti-colonial rebellions at Yauco were exploited opportunistically by autonomist colonial collaborators in Puerto Rico to form a political alliance with the liberal party in Madrid. Liberal party leaders cited the failed insurgency as proof reforms were needed to empower pro-Spanish loyalists and save Spain’s last imperial holdings in the Americas.
The autonomists promised to oppose the local anti-colonial movement in exchange for increased power in the colonial regime if the liberal party came to power. When the liberal party won the Spanish national elections and took power in 1898, a Charter of Autonomy was granted to the colony and the autonomist leaders were rewarded with high office.
That scenario would have played out perfectly for the autonomists but for one very serious complication. It was only a few months after the Charter of Autonomy was adopted before the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico and replaced the colonial regime with American territorial rule.
Puerto Rico Decolonization Deferred
118 years after U.S. rule began, the U.S. Congress still has not exercised its power over territories to define the terms for completion of Puerto Rico’s decolonization based on democratic self-determination.
As a result, 80 years after the Philippines territory – also annexed by the U.S. in the Spanish American War – was decolonized by Congress through independence, Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation. 68 years after Alaska and Hawaii were decolonized by Congress through statehood, Puerto Rico is not a state of the union.
It has been 31 years since three island nations governed by the U.S. under a United Nations trusteeship were fully decolonized under treaties of “free association.” Yet, Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” regime remains a territorial status that does not meet the United Nations or U.S. legal definition of sovereign independence with voluntary treaty based “free association.”
Puerto Rico’s decolonization remains incomplete because it is neither a state nor an independent nation. Instead an outdated and failed regime of American rule under deeply flawed territorial law and policy continues.
Because the U.S. system of constitutional federalism distributes democratic political rights through states, American rule in territories outside the states is not fully democratic. Even with “state-like” local self-government residents of territories do not vote in federal elections or have citizenship rights equal to Americans in the states.
As a result Puerto Rico remains in a “colonial” status under U.S. “imperial” rule. Fully democratic decolonization has been delayed for 65 years due to voter distraction by an unrealistic “autonomous commonwealth” proposal combining features of statehood and independence.
That discredited “autonomist” status model – misleadingly labelled “free association” by the “commonwealth” party – has been rejected by both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court for decades, as confirmed by the high court’s Sanchez Valle ruling in 2016.
“Autonomists” Opposed Anti-Colonial Solutions
The same autonomist movement that thrived in collusion with the colonial power against the anti-colonial movement in 1897 has been collaborating against both statehood and nationhood for Puerto Rico ever since.
That first became evident earlier in 1950, when the U.S. Congress authorized and in 1952 approved a locally ratified territorial constitution. That conventional territorial regime of local civil government was subject to supremacy of federal law in all matters.
But for international reasons early in those tense early years of the Cold War era, the political meaning of the new local constitution was misleadingly presented by the U.S. and Puerto Rican autonomist leaders in the United Nations in 1953 as an undefined “autonomous association” under the legally meaningless label “commonwealth.”
The U.S. was able to twist enough arms to force U.N. adoption of a resolution accepting “commonwealth” as sufficient progress toward decolonization to end classification of Puerto Rico as a U.S. colony. Still, everyone knew the U.S. and Puerto Rico’s autonomist collaborators had failed to ensure completion of the partial decolonization process began in flawed and ambiguous U.N. proceedings in 1953.
That was recognized in Washington but denied by “commonwealth” autonomists in Puerto Rico from 1953 to the present. In repeated plebiscites the pro-statehood majority of voters in Puerto Rico have denied majority rule support for the “autonomous commonwealth” status quo. In 2012 and 2017 statehood attained majority rule approval.
In addition, for decades federal courts tolerated ambiguity about the legal nature of “commonwealth” while preserving federal supremacy. But in 2016 overreaching by autonomists in the Valle Sanchez case led to overt repudiation of the autonomist by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As a result, the autonomist definition of “commonwealth“ is no longer legally or politically viable. Yet the stubborn persistence of the modern autonomists that has prevented full decolonization for 65 years confirms that “commonwealth” is a continuation under American territorial rule of the collusion between the government in Madrid and the local “autonomist” faction in Puerto Rico in the Spanish colonial era.
Modern Autonomists Abandon Democratization and Decolonization
While the mid-20th century emergence of the autonomist “commonwealth” party reduced the PIP to a marginalized fringe minority party, statehood became the fully viable and fully democratic alternative to “autonomous commonwealth.” The local statehood party became not only competitive, but eventually won elections over the autonomists as often as not.
Full democratization and equal rights and duties of citizenship – including voting representation in Congress and the Electoral College – are restricted by the U.S. Constitution to states. But statehood ends exploitation of territorial status for financial and political gain.
As it was in every territory before statehood, mainland U.S. special interests and corporations profiting from territorial status have been aligned with local political factions thriving under territorial status quo in common cause to prevent change.
In Puerto Rico autonomist tactics to preserve the status quo were even more anti-democratic than the corrupt practices used for decades to prevent statehood for Alaska. In the territory of Alaska the statehood movement was obstructed by fishing and mining empires based on San Francisco. Those corporate conglomerates in turn were backed financially and politically by Wall Street banking and investment syndicates.
In Alaska the special interests exploiting territorial status to monopolize and plunder natural resources diverted a small fraction of the profits to buy influence in Congress and the White House to delay statehood. There was no alternative political status doctrine, just good old fashioned graft and corruption.
In Puerto Rico the autonomists actually harnessed the special interests in Washington and Wall Street to fulfill the original autonomist vision of Puerto Rico as a dependent quasi-nation client state of a benevolent metropolitan power. Instead of ending simply ending colonialism and going it alone as a sovereign nation, autonomists aspired to a reversal of colonialism so the dependency could exploit the empire.
The autonomists adopted a manifesto holding that denial of equal rights of U.S. citizenship that come only with statehood was tolerable if off set by special rights for Puerto Rico. Since special political and legal rights could not be secured under U.S. constitutional law, the autonomists settled for a pay-to-play scheme allowing U.S. corporate giants to participate in a so-called “job creating” program offering federal and local tax shelters in the territory.
For decades Wall Street and corporate syndicates evaded billions in federal and local tax annually, and the tax gimmick benefited the local economy just enough to protect massive corporate tax savings. Unfortunately, the metrics of the program revealed mainland corporate profits unconscionably disproportionate to any local benefits.
Abuse of Puerto Rico’s tax sparing scheme led to its abolition by the Clinton Administration and Congress in 1996. At around the same time U.S. military bases that made a disproportionately positive contribution to the island economy were closed by Congress with the acquiescence of the territorial government.
That double blow to federal stimulus for the local economy demonstrated that “special rights” under federal territorial statutes are no substitute for permanent equal political rights of government by consent that come only with citizenship of a state.
After the loss of “fiscal autonomy” and the former U.S. military contribution to the economy, the government chose debt financing of the public sector over strategic diversification in private sector led development. Even as that led to unsustainable fiscal imbalance that would culminate in bankruptcy of the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government, the autonomists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries sought to preserve the status quo and prevent statehood or independence.
The rest is, as they say, history. For the PIP and pro-commonwealth autonomists the historic truth about Lares and Yauco hurts. It is hard to admit the rebellion of 1897 was anti-colonial and anti-Spain, but not exclusively pro-independence much less autonomist.
The truth about the ceiling on prosperity due to denial of equality, economic loss due to dependence on corporate welfare tax shelters, the economic and social impact of military base closures, phase out of U.S. citizenship that will come with independence or “free association,” failure of autonomist regime due to bankruptcy and federal court rulings…it all hurts.
Now, even the aftermath of hurricane Maria reveals that delaying statehood was a mistake. Instead of seizing equal rights of national citizenship that are real, the autonomist’s “commonwealth” hoax tricked party followers to vote for promises of a right to autonomy that does not exist.
Instead of keeping military bases that would have helped prevent bankruptcy and made far more timely humanitarian disaster relief logistically possible, the U.S. military was told to leave over a decade ago.
For the pro-statehood majority the truth feels like freedom and equality that will endure permanently as long as each generation defends its rights. Statehood is the status that will put recovery from both man made and natural forces of destruction within the reach of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.
Through centuries of existential threats far worse than any hurricane, including global wars, the statehood model of government by consent of the governed and equal rights and duties of citizenship under rule of law has survived, thrived and prospered. It has made America the greatest force for good among nations.
If anything, Hurricane Maria has made the people of the U.S. and even more so the people of Puerto Rico painfully aware that statehood now must not be denied. For only statehood will redeem the promise of America in Puerto Rico, as it has for citizens of the states throughout our nation’s history.