Today colonialism stands exposed in its unrelenting and unapologetic display of dominance and control. As Congress prepares to vote on a restructuring package for Puerto Rico that includes the imposition of a federal fiscal control board that will be composed primarily of bankers, financial sector "experts" and lawyers and will retain powers far greater than democracy itself, the Supreme Court has just made clear for the first time in 100 years that Puerto Rico has no sovereignty, save that granted to it by Congress. And the Obama administration has expressed its support for both positions, having advocated for the control board and against any notion of dual sovereignty for the island. All branches of the federal government have made it explicitly clear recently that in case you believed otherwise, Puerto Rico is in fact a colony of the United States, despite colonialism being illegal and immoral.
Ironically, the Court's decision in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle retraces the colonial history of Puerto Rico under United States control, in painful and painstaking detail, describing how any semblance of self-governance exercised by the people of Puerto Rico was only allowed because Congress permitted and approved of it, including the creation of the island's constitution. That constitution was drafted to recognize social and economic rights a few years after they had been established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized by the international community as being essential to the realization of all rights.
Yet, as the Court reminds us, when the constitution was submitted for ultimate approval -- not to the people of Puerto Rico, but to Congress -- those rights (and any amendments that could have led to establishing them) were removed and instead replaced with the right of children to attend private school and protections that prioritize the payment of general obligation bonds (i.e. private creditors such as hedge funds) above the provision of public services.
The creation of Puerto Rico's constitution created a "new kind of political entity," which is the legal fiction known as the Free Associated State (Estado Libre Asociado), or a Commonwealth, in order not to refer to Puerto Rico as what it continued to be -- a colony.
The Supreme Court said as much, noting that "Puerto Rico's transformative constitutional moment does not lead to a different conclusion" that its status as a colony, both before and after U.S. acquisition, changed. Former Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter called this "inventive statesmanship."
The international community still calls it colonialism. The United Nations has repeatedly affirmed its position with regard to the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), which states that the continued subjugation and domination of a people by a foreign nation violates their fundamental human rights and the United Nations Charter.
The United Nations Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples reaffirms in its resolution each year, as it has done in 33 independent resolutions, the right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination.
And that colonial status is nowhere more evident than in the vote taken by Congress recently to pass the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act ("PROMESA"). PROMESA, which means "promise" in Spanish, offers the island the chance for full debt restructuring, but at the extremely high price of relinquishing self-governance.
The bill would impose a federal fiscal control board that would be composed of seven federally-appointed persons with banking, finance and legal backgrounds and who would have the authority to approve, or not, fiscal plans proposed by the Governor and legislature.
In other words, a seven-member federal panel composed of private sector bankers and lawyers will be able to determine the fiscal priorities, budgets, funding and establishment of policies over the elected members of Puerto Rico's legislature and its Governor. They will be able to hold secret, closed-door meetings, veto budgets approved by the legislature and order reductions in spending.
They will be able to reduce the role of government -- which is fundamentally to act in service of the needs of its citizens in the protection, respect and fulfillment of their rights - in order to prioritize payment of a debt larger than Puerto Rico's Gross National Product (GNP) to private investors. Investors who engaged in financially risky transactions, refused to negotiate, launched a campaign to discourage any federal government assistance (which they called a "bailout") and who have openly advocated for continued austerity measures, such as the closure of schools, hospitals and cutting the minimum wage almost in half for young workers. The Congressional Budget Office itself stated that "the bill would give the oversight board certain sovereign powers over the Puerto Rican government and its instrumentalities." In essence, the federal fiscal control board will serve as a supra-legislative and executive body, the ultimate privatization of government that is not accountable to the people of Puerto Rico, the very citizenry they are purportedly protecting. Instead, the legislation only requires that they report to Congress, a body where Puerto Rico is not represented by any voting members. And all of this at a bill of $370 million in annual administrative costs to the people of Puerto Rico who never sought an oversight board, nor support it.
Colonialism is one of the worst forms of violence because it inflicts itself relentlessly, willfully and repeatedly. Present in every aspect of one's life and for generations, colonialism intentionally attempts to strip away the dignity of a people and nation in order to serve the economic, military and political interest of another.
We witness colonialism and its brutal impact day in and day out, but often stand by silently while our government violates the most basic and fundamental rights of millions of citizens -- the right to autonomy, to freedom to sovereignty and to dignity. The same autonomy and self-determination we demand for our bodies, our families, and our political system is also applicable at the nation level. Sovereignty is a fundamental principle and requirement of the most basic of all rights - the right to live a dignified life. It is the very action and policy President Obama assured Cuba - the island neighbor of Puerto Rico with a shared history, flag and struggle - that he would promote in a path towards normalization. He assured the Cuban people that "we will not impose our political or economic system on you. We recognize that every country, every people, must chart its own course and shape its own model." And yet nearby, the oldest colony in the hemisphere is still denied what the Supreme Court points out as "the principle of government by consent."
As is so often the case in the face of atrocities and human rights violations, silence is equated with complicity. A presumed complicity because it is not your family, your home, your community that is being dehumanized. That is true whether it is war on another's soil, torture in foreign military bases, systemic targeting and killing of civilians by law enforcement outside your neighborhood, the separation and detention of immigrant families in another state, the execution of another in our name for our presumed safety, or exploited workers in our favorite restaurant we look away from. Our government acts in our name without our consent constantly; but our presumed consent emboldens it more. It is more than an act of solidarity to stand with those who are oppressed, particularly when the oppression is being done in our name. It is an exercise of freedom, a collective freedom that we are all ensured, and it is our duty to exercise it and often.