Is Independence a Realistic Option for Puerto Rico?

Recent discussions on Puerto Rico’s status have focused on the choice between statehood and remaining a territory.

These are not really the only options available to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico could become an independent nation.

In 1936, Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland presented a bill offering independence to Puerto Rico. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had, in 1935, written an open letter saying that, “the Department takes no official stand beyond affirming its belief that the wishes of the people of Puerto Rico should be respected… and in case of doubt as to what these wishes are they should be unmistakably established by referendum duly prepared by the fullest discussion.” He further said that “it might be useful for the Congress and the administration, as well as for the Puerto Rican people, to clarify their positions.”

In other words, things were in much the same position that they are in today.

The Tydings bill proposed a referendum with one yes-or-no question: “Should the people of Puerto Rico be sovereign and independent?” If the people of Puerto Rico agreed with this, there would be a four-year plan which would gradually do two things: make Puerto Rico self-governing and put the island in the same economic position with regard to trade as that of any other nation.

Puerto Rican leaders were aghast. They attempted to negotiate more favorable economic terms, but were not successful. “Plebescite or Ambush?” asked a San Juan newspaper.

Vito Marcantonio, a New York congressman representing many Puerto Rican constituents, offered an alternative bill, granting independence to Puerto Rico on their own timetable,  with no tariffs and no restrictions on immigration to the United States after Puerto Rico became independent. No Congressional action was taken on either bill, nor on later independence bills leading up to the 1952 constitution.

The first vote on Puerto Rico’s status took place in 1967, and independence– then and in all the referenda following — clearly lost. However, there continued to be, and still continues to be, a small independence movement in Puerto Rico. The movement holds that U.S. persecution of those fighting for independence kept the people of Puerto Rico from voting for this option. The Progressive expresses this view in a reprint of an essay from 1998:

Without an appreciation for the fear and despair caused by this century of repression, the small percentage of votes cast for independentista parties makes no sense.

If Puerto Rico were to become independent, there would be no guarantee that Puerto Ricans could keep their U.S. citizenship and ability to travel freely to and from the United States. U.S. tourism to Puerto Rico may also suffer. Puerto Rico would ultimately lose all Federal benefits, including Social Security, law enforcement support, school lunches, etc.  It is likely that arrangements with U.S. companies currently maintaining a presence in Puerto Rico would change, but it is not possible to predict the precise nature of those changes.  The exchange of goods would by subject to new international trade laws.

While a territory cannot strike deals with the United States government, or with any other nation, a sovereign nation can make trade agreements and treaties. Puerto Rico might try to broker deals before accepting independence, though it hasn’t worked before because a deal made with a territory would not be binding on Congress. Those who favor independence assume not only that the United States would work with the new nation of Puerto Rico, but that other countries would do so as well. They could be right; they could be wrong.

The Philippines can be considered as an example of a former territory of the United States which is now an independent nation. The Philippines became a territory of the United States along with Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American War, and has been an independent nation  since 1946. The United States helped the Philippines financially, but also set a number of conditions for that help, including the acceptance of U.S. military presence. The Philippines has experienced a great deal of political upheaval, but has also renegotiated its deals with the United States. While Puerto Rico would be the poorest state in the Union if it became a state, the average person there earns over 80% more than a resident of the Philippines, and the Philippines has more than double the rate of infant mortality.

Compare this with the economic position of Hawaii, another tropical territory, but one that chose statehood.

It seems likely that statehood would be a better deal economically for Puerto Rico than independence. This did not matter to the people of the Philippines, who were determined to be independent. With only a small percentage of Puerto Rican voters favoring independence in any of the plebescites on Puerto Rico’s status, it appears that independence is not as strongly supported in Puerto Rico. Would Puerto Rico be willing to accept the uncertainty and probably economic hardship associated with independence? History says not.

Unlike the various “enhanced commonwealth” options being discussed, independence is a real possibility, and one which the United States has shown itself willing to offer Puerto Rico. Since Puerto Rico has already rejected the territorial relationship, independence is the real alternative to statehood.

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