First in a series on Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez
By Howard Hills
The Republican Party Platform supports democratic self-determination for 3.2 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.
The Democratic Party Platform and the current field of Democrat presidential candidates also support a democratic choice by Americans in Puerto Rico if the people want to pursue statehood or nationhood.
That bipartisanship exists because it is clear Congress was wrong to leave Puerto Rico in political limbo for a century. The U.S. needs to enable Americans in the territory to choose statehood or nationhood, replacing the current failed “commonwealth” regime of territorial government.
Supporting a democratic status choice on terms approved by Congress has become a centrist political position for the White House and the majority in Congress. Washington realized it failed for too long to move forward on self-determination or terms for transition to statehood or nationhood. Even still, federal leaders would continue to stick its head in the sand, if there weren’t 5.5. million Americans with roots in Puerto Rico living in the 50 states of the union.
Most in the Puerto Rican stateside diaspora care with an intensity of ethnic pride about how Washington treats America’s last large and heavily populated territory. That includes concentrations of Puerto Rican Americans who turn out to vote at a very high participation rate for local, state and federal elections in Florida and other swing states.
Now it appears that one of those 5.5 million Americans of Puerto Rican heritage in the 50 states, Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, also may be finding her way to the political center on the question of Puerto Rico’s future status. Her knowledge and critical thinking on Puerto Rico seem to go deep, and cannot be understood simplistically as an expression of ethnic pride.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez was elected to represent residents in the Bronx in Congress, but her political brand is that of champion for the disempowered and disenfranchised throughout our nation and the world. Typically, hers are the politics of progressive far left solutions for victim classes seeking remedies for injustice.
So, it comes as no surprise that the disempowered and disenfranchised people Ocasio-Cortez identifies with include our 3.2 million fellow U.S. citizens who live in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. She has a special and deep awareness that the 120-year old U.S. territory where her mother was born and raised is suffering from a cascade of historical, economic, natural and political crises, begetting yet more crises.
Puerto Rico in crisis
To begin with, the condition of political and economic limbo intrinsic to U.S. territory status culminated in the crippling 2015 fiscal and economic collapse of the anachronistic “commonwealth” model of local home rule and limited “autonomy” Congress established in 1952. A federal financial control board is struggling to restore stability.
Next, at least for a time everything good about life in Puerto Rico was diminished by distress, and everything wrong in the territory became tragically worse, after catastrophic hurricanes struck in 2017. Recovery is hampered by corruption and economic stagnation.
The Congresswoman also knows first-hand that less than equal civil and political rights of U.S. citizenship, combined with denial of Puerto Rico’s equal participation with states in the national economy, means less than equal economic opportunity. She understands this results in a lower quality of life for Americans in the territory, compared to the states.
Better than most Washington policy wonks, she knows that in the modern post-WWII era Congress failed to manage Puerto Rico’s transition from constitutionally temporary status as a U.S. territory to a permanent and stable model of statehood or nationhood.
Most importantly, Ocasio-Cortez seems to recognize the real effects and failure of policy gimmicks and fiscal experiments to enhance territorial status and make limited citizenship rights seem more tolerable as an indefinite political condition.
Instead of muddle-headed relativism, Ocasio-Cortez seems instinctively to understand better than many in Congress that the U.S. Constitution was not meant to govern citizens with less than equal rights. So-far at least her statements on the topic seem focused on the historic anomaly of Congressional failure to act to secure full democracy for the territory.
Specifically, her pronouncements focus on mechanisms for informed self-determination sponsored under federal law, leading on the one hand to Puerto Rico’s accession to statehood in the same manner as it did Hawaii and Alaska in 1959. The alternative is to enable nationhood like the U.S. Philippine Islands territory in 1946, and three independent nations in the Pacific Islands under a 1986 treaty of “free association”.
Although her historical literacy is frequently challenged by her many critics, one narrative Ocasio-Cortez has right is that Puerto Rico currently fits both the U.S. and international definition of a de facto failed neo-colonial client state.
Along with an increasing number of historically and constitutionally literate conservative and liberal members of Congress, the irrepressible Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t hesitate to refer to Puerto Rico’s current status as colonial.
Whether she personally favors statehood or independence (with or without a treaty of free association) is not clear. What is clear is that she understands those are the non-territorial and non-colonial options, and that Congress needs to define the mechanism and terms for Puerto Rico to choose one or the other in a free and informed plebiscite.
Even if she adopts a public position favoring statehood or independence, it appears her strongest instinct and belief about her family’s island homeland is that it’s 119 year old colonial status must end. That’s because the status quo is not working for the colonized or the colonizer.
If that is true then AOC has found the political center on the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status. Whether she will hold the center and support whatever status the people choose, only time will tell.
*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, and author of “Citizens Without A State” with foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. Peace Corps Volunteer and Legislative Counsel to the Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia,