AOC: Washington Must “Decolonize” Puerto Rico

Second in a series on Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez

By Howard Hills

On election night 2018 a video clip on Instagram caught Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez gasping, hand-to-mouth, in stunned disbelief as televised results were posted and she had won.  That social media moment went meta-viral, catapulting AOC into the center ring of America’s political circus.

Since that spontaneous reaction to pulling off the insurgent political upset of the 2018 elections, AOC has been the focus of a national obsession by avid supporters, bitter opponents, and everyone in-between.

Her sound defeat of a prominent and powerful mainstream Democrat Party incumbent utterly blindsided the Democratic National Committee establishment.  It was the kind of David versus Goliath and Ms. Smith goes to Washington story Americans find irresistibly…American.

Yet, along with giant killer cachet it all too soon became clear she was not just outside the political mainstream of American politics, but also at odds with the political mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Objectively speaking, AOC is hard core.  As in…at the far left socialist fringe of the DNC’s left flank.

Still, even before she was elected and certainly after taking office, AOC became one of the most prominent figures in national politics.  She instantly eclipsed in media pull and celebrity star power all but a few of her House colleagues.

Puerto Rico watchers from Washington to Wall Street, in academia, the press and on Main Street were both fascinated often astonished as AOC intrepidly staked out positions on the island’s future contradicting powerful Democratic Party leaders in Congress.

Although the DNC party platform supports “self-determination” there have always been key Democrats in pivotal committee leadership defending the “commonwealth” status quo in Puerto Rico.

The false premise of the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government is that “enhanced autonomy” somehow will make denial of democratic representation for Puerto Rico in Congress permanently tolerable.

But delegated powers of limited home rule are revocable by Congress and do not create equal rights of U.S. citizenship.  Thus, AOC understands the status quo to be a colonial hangover from America’s failed experiments in imperialist rule early in the last century.

So, when the Governor of Puerto Rico, once a rising star in the Democratic Party, announced on July 24 that he would resign, it was with trade-mark irreverent exuberance that she told her internet audience:

“This is just the beginning of a decolonization process, a process of self-determination where the people of Puerto Rico begin to start taking their own self-governance into their own hands…So I’m really excited about the protest, I’m excited, I’m encouraged to hear about Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation, but it’s also just a first step. We have a long way to go.”

Some immediately claimed Ocasio-Cortez is aligned with the small and politically marginalized Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP), and that she welcomed the Governor’s political demise because he was leader of the pro-statehood movement.

But her statement focused not on statehood or independence, and instead celebrated the success of the popular will and people power in the streets.  That, after all, is the narrative of her own political success story.

AOC also knows statehood is recognized under U.S. and international law as a legitimate decolonization option.  Unlike independence which has garnered from 1% to 5% in past political status votes on the island, statehood is now favored by majority rule among the 3.2 million U.S. citizens in the territory.

No one knows for sure if AOC wants that people power to be harnessed in support of statehood or independence.  Perhaps she is even pragmatic enough to support self-determination wherever it leads.  That could enable her to bring Democrats wary of her perceived stridency together, and even reach across the aisle in a bipartisan role.

Instead of taking sides with local statehood or independence parties in Puerto Rico, she declared solidarity against both the Governor’s anti-social internet texting as well as mounting corruption investigations, praising “vigils and demonstrations” that left the Governor unable to govern.

Support her or oppose her, call her a hero or a villain, it’s hard to deny AOC has an irrepressible and compelling presence.  No doubt all eyes will be watching to see if she survives the political storms and battles of 2020 in which she is so exuberantly engaged.

*Howard Hills is a former Navy JAG counsel on territorial status and nationality law in the Executive Office of the President and National Security Council under President Reagan, and author of “Citizens Without A State” with foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. 

One Comment


The reality is that Puerto Rico is NOT a commonwealth or a “Free Associated State” Puerto Rico, as the insular cases define our nation is an unincorporated territory that belongs to but it is not part of the United States. In order to become a territory it would have to first become a territory (just like all former territories did) before it could become a state.
To define what is an unincorporated territory, in Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922), the Court used the following statements regarding the court in Puerto Rico:
The United States District Court is not a true United States court established under article 3 of the Constitution to administer the judicial power of the United States therein conveyed. It is created by virtue of the sovereign congressional faculty, granted under article 4, 3, of that instrument, of making all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory belonging to the United States. The resemblance of its jurisdiction to that of true United States courts, in offering an opportunity to nonresidents of resorting to a tribunal not subject to local influence, does not change its character as a mere territorial court.[9]

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