The recent natural disaster has opened many Socratic debates surrounding the role of American imperialism, exploitation and the continued century-old debate regarding the prospects of Puerto Rico, an American territory since 1898. Hurricane Maria not only devastated a rich, vibrant Caribbean island infrastructure but also opened a political dialogue that has been brewing for over a century, a dialogue that continues to challenge our democratic ideals of imperialism and exploitation. Not only has the natural disaster showed the volatile infrastructure of the American territory, it also showed the political paralysis of imperialism, exploitation and the continued dehumanizing of a people who are American citizens.
The American territory, Puerto Rico, has been in the center of political dialogue since its acquisition during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The fantasy of what to do with Puerto Rico, what’s their role, the island strategic location and more so, where do the Puerto Rican people fit into America’s jigsaw puzzle? After all, they are brown people who speak a different language, and given our historical policy of Manifest Destiny and Anglo-Saxonism, we need to civilize anyone who does not fit the American profile of what an American should be. Despite its absurdity, the fantasy of Puerto Rico and its citizens continued to remain on the radar of American imperialism. Its early beginnings started with a new cheap, abundant and available source of labor for the newly acquired territory of Hawaii and its fledging sugar cane industry. Yes, that is right. The first migration of Puerto Ricans went to Hawaii in 1899-1900 and not New York City or Chicago. At the offset, many Puerto Rican scholars questioned the perplexing mixture of motives that went into the American venture. Famed Puerto Rican civil rights activist Jose de Diego (1867-1918) not only challenged the policies of America but became the political advocate for many who lost their voice in an era where many just accepted the norm of American imperialism. Jose de Diego was quoted as saying:
Some American companies, in the horrendous industry of exploiting the good faith and misery of our country people, or moved consciously or unconsciously by the desire or intuition of driving the natives from their land, took thousands of unhappy peasants to Hawaii, Yucatan, and some other far country. This represented the glorious entrance of North Americans and a defeated exit for Puerto Ricans.
According to records by 1901, there were some 5,000 Puerto Rican men, women and children had made their new homes in the Hawaiian Islands, not only were they hypnotized, it envisaged an attempt to relieve Puerto Ricans from an inevitable economic suffering they had faced back on the island. Interestingly, this is not the first Puerto Rican contact with America, during the American Revolutionary War. Puerto Rico, under the auspices of the king and queen of Spain, and Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of the Louisiana territory, sent gunpowder, rifles, bullets, blankets, medicine and other supplies to the armies of General George Washington in support of America’s cause. In fact, Puerto Rican troops were documented in America’s great divide -- the Civil War. Puerto Ricans continued to play a vital role in every military conflict – in every war, in every battle, and on every battlefield. Puerto Ricans have put their lives on the line to protect their freedom, liberty, and democracy in the Civil War, World Wars I & II, Vietnam and the present-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite their loyal commitment, the island remained a victim of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism second to none. Yet, at the same time the descendants on the American mainland began instituting a complex and confounding role in the creation of American history and culture with a Puerto Rican flavor.
The disaster shed light on one of the most guarded secrets in American and Puerto Rican history, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 or simply known as the “Jones Act.” The law coined by US Congress required that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. The intent of the legislation was to ensure that outside interference and competition on American shipbuilding and marine shipping would be discouraged or prevented. The laws stipulated that any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay significant tariffs which are then passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer. As a result of the law, it led to an increase in the cost of living on the homeland and both restricted as well as stifled any economic competition from foreign companies who desired to engage in foreign trade with the island. Hence, the creation of a monopoly with regards to the importation of goods and services by the American government on the Puerto Rican people. Economists estimates the cost of living on the island is almost twice as much as living on the American mainland and given the low income and diminishing economic opportunities on the island, it has created a culture of poverty that is equivalent to many third-world countries, but this is an American terrority! How could this happen?
This economic deprivation over decades created a culture of poverty and dependency that America would use to control and dictate future polices of the island nation. An interesting note of fact, despite this economic starvation, President Kennedy’ Latin America foreign policy: “Alliance for Progress”, was inspired by the Puerto Rican experience according the Arthur Schlesinger, Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy. President John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy with Latin America, was aimed at promoting economic needs, human rights, and democracy in Latin America. President Kennedy himself referred to this policy as “Latin America’s Marshall Plan.” Yet, despite those accolades of the policy, Puerto Rico remained in economic backlash with vast human rights political abuses, a contradiction of ideals and Americanism on its own people.
Political representation has been the cornerstone of American democracy, since 1776 we no longer live by the rule “no taxation without representation.” Yet despite that political philosophical rhetoric, American imperialism has always taken a different twist, despite the spreading the American way of life, certain democratic ideals center to democracy have never been fully integrated in many of their territories. Few realize that there is a political representation of the Puerto Rican people in the US Congress, but this representation comes with the penalty of being an American terrority. The hurricane disaster not only showed the historical infrastructure and economic weakness of the American terrority, it also demonstrated the arguments that rang in 1898 by activist Jose de Deigo and many other Puerto Rican nationalists who sought their political independence. We are reminded that President Donald J. Trump, who has recently visited the American terrority aggravated the confusion over the political inclusion while allegedly attempting to clarify America’s role in the island. It must be noted that residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories do not have voting representation in the United States Congress, and are not entitled to exercise one of our fundamental rights as Americans, the right to vote especially in electoral election for President of America.
This lack of direct voting representation in Congress for Puerto Ricans and other members of American territories has been a divisive political issue since the U.S. Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917. In other words, according to the law, Puerto Rico is a territory under the sovereignty of the federal government, but is not part of any state nor is it a state itself. They simply do not have all constitutional rights, especially the right to self-government. This political dictation was challenged in the US Supreme Court in the early 1900’s on the issue of constitutionality rights for Puerto Ricans and others in American territories. Often termed the Insular Cases, which was a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the legal status and rights of people in the newly acquired territories of Puerto Rico, Philippines, and other U.S. holdings. The highest court in the land emphatically ruled despite having American citizenship and being part of the United States, Puerto Ricans, Do Not have all constitutional rights that are bestowed to all Americans, especially when it comes to self-governing and self-rule. A democratic failure or democracy by default? This continued debate on the future of the island territory has renewed the much-debated topic of statehood or island sovereignty that has divided the island residents. America must make the first move to acknowledge and respect the contributions of Puerto Ricans in every aspect of our society, not only in the baseball arena, but must come to an understanding that Puerto Ricans are Americans. The Spanish-American war not only changed America, but announced to the world that America is now a world power. America’s influence on Puerto Rico and its political manipulation within the territory not only created an illusion of a fake and misleading democracy, which has led to an unfounded loyalty and created our new best friends: “imperialism” and “colonialism.”
Whatever the arguments are, Puerto Ricans are American citizens who should be given the benefits that are bestowed to all who championed the word, American citizenship. We are only as great as the people who make us great, where all can strive for the possibilities of achieving the democratic ideals of human life. To be deprived of a sense of what is human life, democracy, and privileges in a society that champions citizenship and freedom for all, we ultimately become an irony against the dynamics of American idealism.
Stephen Balkaran, is an Instructor in the Department of Philosophy, Central Connecticut State University.