by Howard Hills
Since 1932 Spain has tried to appease Catalan separatists under a “Statute of Autonomy” instead of independence. Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona acquired “nation-like” like powers, but constitutionally Madrid retained supreme national sovereignty. The ambiguity of “autonomy” delayed for 85 years the collision of Catalonia’s aspirations for a “national reality” with Spanish rule.
Ironically, in 1897 Spain also offered a “Charter of Autonomy” to quell opposition to Spanish colonial rule in Puerto Rico. Leaving nothing to chance, Madrid cultivated Puerto Rican loyalists who embraced autonomy. Spain’s collaborators betrayed anti-colonial insurgent leader Antonio Mattei Lluberas, just in time for the Spanish garrison to ambush his rebel forces gathering to fight for freedom.
The loyal colonials supporting Spain’s limited but still colonial “autonomy” were rewarded with high office, but just months later the Spanish American War began. Insurgent leader Mattei Lluberas returned from exile in New York City with American troops that came ashore to end Spanish rule.
In the American era anti-colonial leader Mattei Lluberas was elected Mayor of the town where the rebellion he led was crushed. He ran as a Republican Party pro-statehood candidate, advocating U.S. citizenship granted by Congress in 1917. Yet, a full century later Puerto Rico remains a federal territory without equal rights of U.S. national citizenship.
Congress should have decided on future statehood or nationhood for Puerto Rico after WWII. In the next decade Washington granted independence to the Philippines and statehood for Hawaii and Alaska.
The Philippines had been a “commonwealth” territory with limited autonomy since 1934, based on a 1916 declaration by Congress denying U.S. citizenship and confirming independence as the territory’s future status. Meanwhile, like all earlier territories populated by U.S. citizens, Hawaii and Alaska were integrated into the union in preparation for statehood.
However, with intensified Cold War volatility, by 1950 a U.S. decision on statehood or nationhood for Puerto Rico became inconvenient for U.S. diplomats in the United Nations. To avoid hard choices Congress borrowed the Philippines “commonwealth” model for transition of non-citizens to independence and imposed it on 2 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.
Autonomist leaders in the territory and federal territorial officials collaborated in the “commonwealth” autonomy experiment institutionalizing indefinite inequality for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. As Spain had done in Catalonia, autonomists made promises never kept, assuring Congress and voters “commonwealth” would combine benefits of both statehood and nationhood in a “best of both worlds” status.
But Congress imposed one condition before approving “ commonwealth,” mandating U.S. retention of national sovereignty and supremacy of federal law at the national and local level. In Congressional hearings autonomy party leaders from Puerto Rico equivocated but agreed, and collaborated with the U.S. in persuading the U.N. to accept the ambiguities of “commonwealth.”
Now in 2017 ambiguous autonomy in Catalonia failed at the same time as Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” autonomy experiment. For Puerto Rico that delayed by 100 years the moment of truth for choosing equal rights of U.S. citizenship that come only with statehood, or separate sovereignty, nationality and citizenship.
The paradox is that failure of sovereign autonomy moved Catalonia, at least the current local government, toward independence with separate language and citizenship. Prosperity makes economic separatism possible.
In contrast, voters in Puerto Rico put U.S. citizenship first and rejected independence in every local election since 1950. Prosperity requires a level playing field to compete in national or international markets on an equal footing with the states.
Even before historically unprecedented hurricane devastation, autonomy without accountability led to dependence on federal tax shelters and subsidies. Debt financed public spending led to insolvency and federal fiscal takeover in 2017.
Without voting representation in Congress, Puerto Rico was a bystander to federal policy closing major U.S. military bases. Infrastructure was never hardened to “state-like” or standards. Both now contribute materially to hurricane inflicted human suffering.
Contrary to misinformation, Puerto Rico pays billions in annual federal taxes, some years more than smaller states of the union. That includes federal payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare.
But federal program benefits are lower in the territory than the states. At the same time the “commonwealth” economy and job market has imploded. No wonder almost a million people have voted for statehood with their feet in the last decade by moving to states for equal rights and opportunity.
That exodus could double if federal measures to support long term economic recovery lag. Having perpetuated federal territorial reservation status for a century, rebuilding after decades of neglect is a federal responsibility.
Clearly, “commonwealth” has turned out to be the worst of both worlds, but equality not separation is the solution the territory now seeks. Two imperfect but still democratic votes confirm a majority of U.S. citizens want Congress to end the autonomy hoax by declaring statehood the future status of Puerto Rico.
As public sector recovery projects gain momentum economists agree, the lesson of 32 territories that became states is that confidence in a stable future political status is needed to jump start private investment essential to sustained economic growth.
Without hope of future equal rights and opportunity through statehood or the alternative of nationhood, Puerto Rico will remain a failed dependency under the American flag.
Howard Hills is author of “Citizens Without A State” and former counsel for territorial law in the Executive Office of the President, National Security Council and State Department.