Recolonization or Decolonization?

The Neocolonial Project of the United States in Puerto Rico

by | May 18, 2008

Artist garvin sierra’s 3d images show “sor-dado,” a play on the spanish words for “soldier” and “nun” and (right) “zona sagrada” or “sacred zone” express mixed images and symbols of Puerto rican life. Art by Garvin Sierra

The status debate is our “national sport,” we Puerto Ricans like to say. After more than a century of U.S. colonialism, the issue of the status of the island is still unresolved. The first impasse is a local one between the pro-Estado Libre Asociado forces (pro-status quo Commonwealth status represented by the Partido Popular Democrático) and the pro-statehood movement (annexationists, represented by the Partido Nuevo Progresista, who seek to become the 51st state of the United States). The country is divided between these two poles—each representing 48 percent of the total votes of electors in the country for a total of 96 percent—while the remaining 4 percent of the total support independence.

The most recent 2004 elections confirm this impasse. The Partido Popular Estado Libre Asociado forces won by some 3,000 votes thanks to thousands of independentista votes. The status issue is so much a popular sport that it has its own popular jargon; these votes were referred to as “pivazos.” The colorful word combines the term for those voting for the pro-independence Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP)—better known as “pipiolos”—and the straw hat, or “pava,” symbolizing the pro-“Estado Libre Asociado” or pro-Commonwealth status of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD).

The well-documented political corruption and opportunistic politics of the main two parties, Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) and the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), has exacerbated the profound economic crisis experienced in the island for the past few years. We say “exacerbates” because the institutional crisis of the Estado Libre Asociado (abbreviated in Spanish as ELA or meaning literally in English “Free Associated State”) as it exists now—as a colonial relation—is at the root of the crisis that is experienced and reflected in all aspects of the social and economic life of the island. The ELA is obsolete as a political status.

The systemic crisis of the capitalist system is real, but is aggravated by the obsolescence of the ELA. Massive deindustrialization and high unemployment rates are worsening. The crisis of the ELA has generated countless social problems, and it no longer creates employment and lacks the indices of development that it had achieved in prior decades. Facing this reality, the need to decolonize the island becomes imperative. But with respect to how we resolve this situation, there exists a second impasse between empire and colony.

The empire would need to allow a federally recognized referendum in which the decolonial alternatives recognized under international law and the United Nations are included as options. In such a referendum, only three alternatives are possible: statehood (annexation as a state of the United States), an associated republic (sovereignty with autonomous status), or independence. Under current international law, the Estado Libre Asociado—which represents the current colonial situation that must be eliminated—could not represent a decolonial alternative. If the ELA were to continue as a status alternative, the country would remain divided in two halves: colonialist estadolibristas and annexationists, without an absolute majority of fifty-plus-one in support of any decolonial option. This local impasse emerged when, after the Cold War (1989), the empire suspended two proposals for federally recognized plebiscites (one in 1991 under a Democratic Congress and the other in 1998 under a Republican Congress). The two plebiscites were suspended because the elimination of the ELA as a status alternative in a referendum would leave only the three decolonial options recognized by international law (statehood, associated republic, and independence). Thus, 90 percent of Puerto Ricans would most likely vote for the statehood option to become the 51st state of the United States. That is, the immense majority of those who currently vote for the PPD pro-Estado Libre Asociado status quo would vote for statehood before they would support either a neo-colonial associated or independent republic.

According to what imperial elites have expressed on many occasions, including the position expressed by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in the late 90s, within the new post-Cold War context their reticence or fear toward Puerto Rico is not as an autonomous or independent republic, but rather the incorporation of Puerto Rico as the 51st state of the union. After a hundred years of colonialism, the formula of a neo-colonial republic (be it associated or independent) would allow the empire to trim back—under the name of a false “decolonization” (the strategy of “neo-colonial recolonization”)—rights that have been won through much sweat and blood.

The Puerto Rican people are not misinformed: they know very well what a neo-colonial republic in the Caribbean and Latin America is. Through a strategy of changing juridical status to a neo-colonial republic (autonomous or independent), Puerto Ricans would lose at the stroke of a pen the citizenship rights won under U.S. citizenship. This means that islanders would no longer have access to the federal minimum wage, the right to battle the empire in federal courts, the right to receive billions of dollars of federal transfers/compensations, the right to federal institutions (which allows access to massive FHA loans for private housing, millions of dollars in federal transfers for public housing, millions of dollars through FEMA in cases of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, federal insurance for savings accounts of more than $100,000 in case a bank goes bankrupt, social security for all citizens, state medical insurance for the poor and those over 65, etc.), and the right to migrate if one cannot find employment on the island. These are neither panaceas nor are they gifts of the empire. We are speaking of rights that we Puerto Ricans have conquered and seized from the empire. These are conquests that cannot be underestimated in the neo-liberal world of savage capitalism that is experienced in the neo-colonial periphery of the world-system.

The rights enjoyed by citizens of peripheral nations are not the same as those enjoyed by metropolitan citizens, however limited the latter may be. The social and civil rights included in metropolitan citizenship—even if these have been cut back, as is the case in the United States (from Reagan to the most recent Bush administration)—are still greater than those afforded by most peripheral citizenships. The cutbacks in rights guaranteed by peripheral citizenships resulting from the neo-liberal offensive of international capital during the past three decades has maintained the condition of absolute inequality between these and metropolitan citizenships, despite the cutbacks and limitations that the latter have also experienced during these last decades. As a result, the inequalities between peripheral and metropolitan citizenship have not disappeared, but rather have become more pronounced in all cases. This is not to claim that in the first world, civil and social rights represent a panacea, especially not in the post-Bush United States.

However, compared to peripheral citizenship, the popular sectors in Puerto Rico enjoy more rights than their counterparts in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Mexico or Jamaica. In the end, this inequality in social and civil citizenship is a central and constitutive part of the North/South inequalities of the capitalist world-system; it represents an integral part of the struggles to decolonize the global coloniality of power. Meanwhile, having witnessed the debacle of peripheral citizenships, members of the Puerto Rican popular classes opt not to lose their metropolitan citizenship.

Popular sectors in Puerto Rico know these realities very well. They know that the transfers, institutionality and rights granted by U.S. citizenship are not accessible—with all the cutbacks experienced and problems they bring—in the same way to the popular sectors of Latin America and the Caribbean. This has not only protected the island from extreme poverty, but has also protected us from the neo-liberal incursions of disciplinary agencies of capital like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). As a U.S. territory under U.S. sovereignty, these agencies cannot constantly meddle in politics or blackmail with debt as they do with the rest of the neo-colonial republics in the Caribbean and Latin America. As many workers in Puerto Rico express, peripheral republics live “colonialism without the benefits of colonialism.” In these cases, they say,the empire loots, dominates and exploits without transferring a single penny to the popular sectors and without creating the necessary institutional conditions allowing people to survive at least decently. Frequently, the only money from the empire that reaches Latin America and the Caribbean is military and foreign aid that never reaches the popular sectors and end up in the pockets of the local elites and the United

States’ military-industrial complex. This explains why, even with all of the island’s social and economic problems (and these are many), the options of independence or an associated republic together cannot achieve more than 10 percent of Puerto Rican votes.

But why have imperial elites shifted from decades of opposition to the autonomous or independent republic to fearing statehood since the early 1990s? Once the Cold War had ended, imperial elites no longer had needed to continue to oppose the sovereign alternatives in Puerto Rico (as they did from 1898 to 1989), because the island no longer had the symbolic or strategic military value for the struggle against other empires that it had during much of the 20th century (e.g. Germany in the first half of past century and the Soviet Union in the second half). For imperial elites, the island now constitutes an unnecessary expense for the federal treasury (more than $13 billion annually). During almost the entire 20th century, the island had functioned as a military bastion and/or Cold War symbolic showcase of U.S. developmentalist policies. The ELA or Commonwealth status was indeed a creation of the Cold War because of fear of pro-Soviet anti-colonialist rhetoric. However, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it was more convenient for imperial elites to move the island toward a neo-colonial republic in order to exploit and dominate at a lower cost without the headache of the possible incorporation of an Afro-Latino state like Puerto Rico. That would be highly undesirable at a moment in which—according to even the conservative calculations of the U.S. Census Bureau—white Anglo-Saxons will be a demographic minority in their own country by the middle of the 21st century. According to the census, the fastest growing population in the United States are Latinos. It is within this context that we confront the ironic situation that after opposing Puerto Rican sovereignty throughout most of the 20th century, imperial elites now rotundly oppose statehood (annexation), while they favor “sovereign” options (which, given the reality of the neo-colonial periphery, we should call “pseudo-sovereign”) like the neo-colonial associated or independent republic.

Thus, there exists a second impasse between the Puerto Rican people and imperial elites: the people would vote overwhelmingly for statehood in a decolonial referendum that follows the guidelines of international law (without the ELA as an option), in order to not lose (through a neo-colonial republic) access to previously-won rights and resources, while imperial elites would support a “neo-colonial sovereign” option to cut back federal costs on the island, reduce rights such as federal environmental laws and the minimum wage, and eliminate the possibility of a Latino state, thereby improving the conditions of exploitation for transnational capital on the island while maintaining military control.

Faced with this situation, what are we to do? One option is what native Puerto Rican elites choose: accept that imperial elites don’t want us and opt for neo-colonial “independence” or “autonomy.” That is, to support the imperial neo-colonial recolonization of the island, because: 1) this would eliminate federal transfers to popular sectors so that this money might instead fall into the hands of local capitalists through foreign aid from the U.S. Department of State (crumbs in the millions of dollars for the pockets of local elites instead of the billion that the popular sectors now receive); 2) it would eliminate restrictive federal laws, thereby making the economy more competitive and cheaper for foreign investment (corporations and transnational banks) 3) it would allow entry into the WB and the IMF (whose neoliberal plans and interventions have led to devastation and bankruptcy in many Third World countries). This option would make exploitation and imperial domination of Puerto Rico cheaper for the United States, of which the only beneficiaries would be imperial and associated local elites. Facing such a situation, the question is the same one that thousands of Puerto Rican workers ask: sovereignty for whom? This neo-colonial sovereignty would consolidate the alliance between local capitalist elites (who would control the Puerto Rican “national state”) and transnational capitalist elites (who would control economic, military and political operations). Fewer than 5 percent of the island’s voters support this option.

In this scenario, alongside with other intellectuals, I have supported since the 1990s the idea of “radical statehood” as a political project framed in the struggle for the decolonization of the empire (against white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism and capitalism) from within its own bowels in alliance with those discriminated minorities who will constitute a demographic majority within a few short decades. The struggle for equality of citizenship for Puerto Ricans is not only a civil rights movement, but also an important step in the battle for the decolonization of the empire from within the “belly of the beast” (as José Martí would say). The incorporation of Puerto Rico as a state of the union would represent a key part of struggles for the decolonization and radical transformation of the empire in the 21st century. It would be the first Latino state in a context where white, Anglo-American populations are becoming a demographic minority in their own country. While this struggle is not deterministically decided, we choose to side with uncertainty and the risks that this carries with it rather than support the inevitable certainty of imperial exploitation/domination that an associated or independent neo-colonial republic would bring. Our position is not far from that of the majority of Puerto Ricans. Would the Republic of Puerto Rico be an exception to what has occurred in other Latin American and Caribbean republics? Only a local nationalist chauvinism mixed with an exceptionalistic idea of Puerto Rican superiority could allow us to deliriously dream that Puerto Rico would be the only Caribbean island to escape imperial control and exploitation (by the U.S. or European powers) and intervention by disciplinary neo-liberal agencies of global capital.

A decolonial project in Puerto Rico cannot be one in which the vision and interests of a minority of neo-colonial elites aspiring to be a national bourgeoisie, to be presidents and senators of the Republic or ambassadors or consuls in foreign countries, are imposed on the population in an authoritarian manner. In their rejection of the associated or independent neo-colonial republic and their struggle for citizenship equality, Puerto Ricans express a decolonial potential that moves in a very different direction from the Latin American tradition of equating “decolonization” with “independence.” Puerto Ricans are very conscious of the colonial limitations on independence in our region. We need only glance at the inequalities existing between the independent and the non-independent Caribbean to get an idea of how the neo-colonial independent republic is the worst form of colonialism at present. The Puerto Rican struggle for citizen equality—by both pro-Estado Libre Asociado and pro-statehood forces—contributes not only to resisting cutbacks in rights and resources entailed by the “neo-colonial recolonization” option of imperial elites, but moreover, integrating ourselves into the decolonization struggle within the empire through equal citizenship would be our best expression of solidarity with our Caribbean and Latin American brothers and sisters. For example, a single senator can paralyze the U.S. Congress. This is a power that no United Nations ambassador enjoys. The most radical response to the Puerto Rican context is not to create one more neo-colonial republic to resolve a problem for the imperial elites. The most progressive course is to fight from within for a democratic, anti-imperialist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-capitalist decolonization of the empire during the 21st century, and to insert the Puerto Rican decolonial struggle into the anti-imperial decolonial struggle of Latinos and other minorities inside the U.S. empire. We don’t need another neo-colonial republic with a vote in the United Nations, votes that mean little to the empire. What is more necessary—from a progressive perspective—is for a Latin American nation to enter with full rights into the empire with senators and representatives with the power to challenge it.

We Puerto Ricans have a historic opportunity that no other country in the region has: the right to demand equal citizenship and incorporation as a state with two senators and eight representatives (more representatives than 26 states in the union) in the U.S. Congress, to serve as a vehicle and expression of anti-imperial struggles within the empire. Nothing would be better for the U.S. population and the people of the world at large than to struggle to put an end to the imperial North American republic, and to radically transform the United States into a truly democratic, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal and anti-imperialist society, toward the achievement of more just and democratic world.

Spring 2008Volume VII, Number 3

Ramón Grosfoguel is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Colonial Subjects: Puerto Ricans in a Global/Comparative Perspective (University of California Press, 2003) and co-editor of Latin@s in the World-System: Decolonization Struggles in the 21st Century US Empire (Paradigm Press, 2005). He wishes to thank George Ciccariello-Maher, who translated this essay

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