The Case for Puerto Rican Independence

The United States’ 125-year-old colony deserves independence, and Americans must dispense with the notion that it’s not their place to take a stand on Puerto Rico’s political status.

The ongoing violence in Palestine has been a sobering reminder that colonialism is not, as some have claimed, merely a “trendy academic theory.” It is a political condition still endured by millions around the world. That includes the 3.2 million people of Puerto Rico who are both citizens—and colonial subjects—of the United States.

While the nature of Puerto Rico’s status is often obscured by euphemisms like “territory” or “Commonwealth,” the island is simply a colony. It has been a colony since the early 1500s, first of Spain, then of the United States. The U.S. invaded the island and took it from Spain as a prize of war in 1898. For the next 50 years, the United States ruled Puerto Rico directly, its governors appointed by the president. In the 1940s and ’50s, the U.S. government allowed Puerto Ricans to draft a constitution and choose their own governor, but it never relinquished Congress’s plenary power over its possession. To this day, Puerto Rico has neither sovereignty nor political rights in the United States: island residents cannot vote for the president and have a single non-voting delegate (called a resident commissioner) in Congress. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, Puerto Rico “belongs to” but is “not a part of the United States.”

Political subordination, unsurprisingly, has led to economic precarity. If Puerto Rico were part of the United States, it would be the poorest state: median household income is about $24,000, compared to $53,000 in Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, and $75,000 in the country overall. The poverty rate, which is less than 20 percent in every state, is over 40 percent in Puerto Rico.

Things went from bad to worse in the last two decades, as the Great Recession battered Puerto Rico, causing a steep drop in GDP and employment. In 2016, that culminated in a historic, $123 billion debt crisis. The following year came Hurricane María, which caused massive devastation and was followed by a months-long, nearly island-wide loss of power. Poor conditions on the island have contributed to a surge in outmigration and to one of the lowest birth rates in the world. At the same time, more Puerto Ricans are dying. The COVID-19 pandemic strained an already faltering healthcare system, leading to a “surge in deaths that reached historic proportions in 2022,” according to an investigation by the Washington Post and the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism.

Many of these trials and tribulations are direct consequences of the island’s political status. Puerto Rico was invaded and remains colonized by the United States as part of an imperialist, expansionist project. That project needs to end, and it cannot end with statehood: international law dictates that empires should free their colonial possessions—not keep them. Independence is the natural political condition of all peoples and nations, and Puerto Rico, despite the imposition of American citizenship, remains a unique and culturally distinct Latin American nation whose people deserve independence.

Nothing short of full political sovereignty—not statehood, not a continuation of the “Commonwealth” colonial status—will do. 

The United States has long exploited Puerto Rico. In the mid-20th century, Operation Bootstrap rapidly industrialized Puerto Rico, which provided cheap labor on the island for largely U.S.-owned companies. It also facilitated massive outmigration, thereby also providing cheap labor stateside from new arrivals. In the 1940s, fewer than 100,000 Puerto Ricans lived in the U.S. By the 1960s, it was close to a million. As historian Johanna Fernández explains:

After World War II, U.S. policies in Puerto Rico led to an exodus from the island so great, in proportion to its population, that it exceeded the vast relocation of European immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Between 1947 and 1970, one-third of the people of Puerto Rico were dispersed to the continental United States, mostly New York. Their settlements immediately transformed the racial and ethnic composition of neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

Meanwhile, the explicit policy goal of reducing the island’s “surplus” population also led to the coerced sterilization of about a third of Puerto Rican women.

Puerto Rico also became a captive market for U.S. products; to this day, the island imports close to 80 percent of its food, in no small part due to the decimation of local agriculture caused by Operation Bootstrap. Thanks to the 1920 Jones Act—a law so bad, even the Cato Institute hates it—all those imports must arrive on vessels built, owned, and operated by Americans. Those ships are invariably more expensive; the law essentially serves as a subsidy for the U.S. maritime shipping industry while significantly raising the cost of living in Puerto Rico. And when hurricanes strike Puerto Rico, knock out power, and leave homes and hospitals running on generators, Puerto Ricans must wait for the United States president to grant a waiver so the closest ship with critical fuel can dock on the island.

More recently, Puerto Rico has become a tax haven for billionaires and corporations and a profitable source of windfalls for vulture funds and unscrupulous bondholders. A fiscal oversight board, established by Congress in 2016 to oversee Puerto Rico’s historic debt crisis, has added insult to injury. It has both forced crippling austerity on Puerto Ricans and, essentially, returned the island to the days of direct U.S. rule.

All board members are appointed by Congress and the president—past and present members have included MAGA zealot Justin Peterson and David A. Skeel Jr., who believes that teaching Puerto Ricans to pay their debts is a mission from God. The board, which Puerto Ricans have aptly nicknamed La Junta (in reference to Latin America’s military dictatorships of the past), can set Puerto Rico’s budget and veto Puerto Rican laws even as it operates in near-total secrecy. Teachers have had their pensions slashed while McKinsey & Co., the board’s main consulting firm, has raked in about $120 million for its consulting.

If this is all news to most American readers, it may be because the media largely underreports on Puerto Rico. That, too, is a symptom of the colonial disease: it’s best not to shine too bright a light on what the United States may be doing, or abetting, in its far-flung possessions. In the aftermath of Hurricane María, Puerto Rico got a fraction of the news coverage afforded to Florida and Texas after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. The following year, when a study revealed that 4,645 Puerto Ricans may have died as a result of Hurricane María, cable news coverage of the updated death toll was dwarfed by attention to a comedian getting cancelled around the same time.

That journalistic neglect can be both cause and consequence of widespread ignorance about Puerto Rico in the United States. A poll conducted days after María made landfall found that only 54 percent of Americans knew that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Like all colonizers, the United States has politically dominated Puerto Rico through the tried-and-true tactics of violence and oppression. The U.S. spent the better part of the 20th century surveilling and suppressing the Puerto Rican independence movement. In 1937, under orders from Governor Blanton Winship, police killed 17 unarmed civilians at a peaceful pro-independence march that became known as the Ponce Massacre. For more than 60 years, and as recently as the 1990s, the FBI collected more than a million pages of secret files on pro-independence leaders, teachers, and students. Many ended up in jail; some ended up dead.

That political repression often occurred with the active collaboration of the Puerto Rican government, but the directive came from Washington: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote that the goal was to “disrupt [pro-independence groups’] activities and compromise their effectiveness.” It largely worked. As Félix Matos Rodríguez, former director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, has said: ”In the 1940s, independence was the second-largest political movement in the island, (after support for commonwealth status), and a real alternative. But it was criminalized.”

To this day, Puerto Ricans are learning and untangling family histories straight out of spy novels, in which friends and neighbors turned out to be informants who infiltrated pro-independence organizations. 

That history of political repression and economic dependence partially explains why islanders’ measured support for sovereignty has, until recently, been relatively low. In the past six decades, Puerto Rico has held six status plebiscites, which are ballot measure-style votes that allow Puerto Ricans to express their preference on the island’s political future. The “Commonwealth” status quo won the first two votes in 1967 and 1993, and “none of the above” won in 1998. Statehood won two plebiscites that were partially or fully boycotted by supporters of other status options in 2012 and 2017, and it garnered a slim 53 percent majority on the most recent plebiscite in 2020. But Congress has refused to make any of these votes binding and has invariably failed to act on the results. Independence has never garnered more than 6 percent in any plebiscite, but it is hard to gauge support for it in the past decade. The 2017 plebiscite was heavily boycotted, and the option was excluded in the 2020 plebiscite, which featured only a Yes or No vote on statehood. 

But views and attitudes have changed over the past decade, especially after the disastrous federal response to Hurricane María in 2017 and the ousting of a pro-statehood governor two years later. There are strong signs that support for independence (and its cousin free association, the sovereign status of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands) has skyrocketed. While the 2020 plebiscite only asked a yes-or-no question on statehood, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which won just 2 percent of the vote in the 2016 gubernatorial election, increased its vote share sevenfold, to 14 percent, in 2020. In a recent survey conducted in February 2024, the pro-independence gubernatorial candidate is polling above 20 percent and running second in a four-way race.

Polling also suggests that direct support for independence has grown. In a 2020 ranked-choice poll, independence and free association garnered a combined 21 percent on the first ballot and 40 percent once other options were eliminated. In the February 2024 poll cited above, both options combined for 35 percent. It seems that Puerto Ricans increasingly recognize that independence is the right alternative politically, economically, culturally, and to redress a profound historical injustice.

The cultural part of the debate is essential: whether Puerto Rico’s national identity could survive if the island were to become a state is an open question. There’s no precedent, for example, for once-Spanish-speaking territories keeping Spanish as the primary language of education, government, and public life after statehood.

As a state, Puerto Rico would face the choice to struggle to preserve Spanish or preference English in order to enjoy full opportunity and inclusion in its new nation. Many Puerto Ricans born and raised in the United States have already faced that choice and buckled under the extraordinary pressure to assimilate. The experiences of second- and third-generation Latinos in the U.S. are instructive: they are increasingly less likely to speak Spanish, feel connected to their country of origin, or self-identify as Hispanic. It’s tempting to assume that a Puerto Rican state could just be bilingual. But even a multicultural state like Hawaii, which has officially been bilingual since 1978, has struggled to keep its native language alive.

Less questionable is that statehood would put an island of three million Puerto Ricans at the mercy of national politics in a nation still steeped in racial disparities. Anti-Latino and anti-immigrant sentiments in particular remain a key feature of Trumpism and the Republican Party, which was willing to deny aid to Ukraine and even defy the federal government so they could treat (often Latino) immigrants as cruelly as possible.

If independence achieved nothing else, it would ensure that Puerto Ricans are never again subjected to laws passed, rulings handed down, and paper towels thrown by some of the worst actors in American politics.

Independence may also be the best path to economic sustainability and prosperity. Political sovereignty would give Puerto Rico the tools of economic development it has lacked as a colony: control over its monetary and fiscal policy, the ability to set customs duties and tariffs, and the power to sign trade agreements with other nations on terms favorable to Puerto Rico, not to the United States.

Moreover, only independence would free Puerto Rico from U.S. neoliberal exploitation through laws and structures like the oversight board and the Jones Act, which would remain in place if the island became a state. And while independence would entail the loss of billions in federal transfers, that could be compensated by an economic transition plan as a form of reparations for more than a century of colonialism. The most recent status bill introduced in Congress envisions a likely decades-long period of continued block grants to Puerto Rico.

Statehood, on the other hand, would increase federal funding to Puerto Rico. But it would also burden Puerto Ricans with full federal taxation, which would hurt an already small and vulnerable middle class and likely cause corporations to flee the island once they could no longer treat it as a foreign jurisdiction for tax purposes. Statehood would also accelerate gentrification and displacement in Puerto Rico. The island would become even more attractive to ultrarich Americans who want to enjoy year-round warm weather and cheap oceanfront real estate while enjoying the full rights of U.S. citizenship. Currently, most Americans lose their ability to vote for president when they choose to establish residency in a U.S. territory.

Ultimately, all decolonization processes are difficult, and the transition to independence after more than a century of exploitation will certainly be challenging. But Puerto Ricans would be fully empowered to confront those challenges by building just political and economic systems that work for our people. The historical precedents are encouraging: a recent study on the economic consequences of changing Puerto Rico’s status concludes that independence usually leads to increased prosperity. Its author, Dr. José Caraballo Cueto, wrote: “Except for Gabon, all former colonies that had relatively similar GDP per capita levels to Puerto Rico when achieving independence today have relatively high GDP per capita levels.”

A demand for independence is also necessary to break through political inertia in Congress. Because it still benefits the United States, and because it requires no political action to maintain it, the status quo in Puerto Rico enjoys de facto bipartisan support. In the past, both major parties have feigned support for statehood, but neither has meaningfully acted on it: no bill to resolve Puerto Rico’s status has ever made it to the president’s desk. As Jaquira Díaz wrote in the Atlantic in 2022, “The political consensus in Washington is that, as a practical matter, the most likely future for Puerto Rico is an indefinite continuation of the status quo.” 

Congress’ persistent refusal to grant—or even seriously consider—statehood is the elephant in the room of the Puerto Rico status debate. In recent years, Republicans have not hidden their fervent opposition to Puerto Rican statehood. Mitch McConnell has called it “full-bore socialism,” Lindsey Graham has railed against it on the stump, and Donald Trump took out ads accusing Ron DeSantis of being a statehood supporter during this year’s Republican primaries. Democrats, for their part, are somewhere between divided and apathetic. They responded to the 2020 status plebiscite result in Puerto Rico not by pushing for statehood but by passing a watered-down bill in 2022—calling for yet another vote on the island—that was destined to die in the Senate. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said outright that he wouldn’t support statehood. President Biden said he supported statehood at a 2020 campaign event in Florida, but his White House Task Force on Puerto Rico decided not to address the status issue at all.

In a moral universe, Puerto Ricans’ political future would not be up to Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell. But it is, and their bipartisan rejection of statehood reveals that begging Democrats and Republicans for inclusion is not a path to political liberation. 

Politically, economically, culturally, and morally, statehood is the wrong answer for Puerto Rico. And after more than 125 years of colonialism, it is long past time for Americans to take up the cause of independence for their own colony. It’s understandable why many have been reluctant to do so. For starters, they might fairly ask why they should support Puerto Rican independence when Puerto Ricans have historically rejected it. But a preference at the polls does not necessarily align with the right position or with a just outcome. This November, most American voters will consider their choices for president to be between a Republican and a Democratic candidate. This in no way means either choice is a good one.

Puerto Ricans’ decades-long “support” for the status quo did not make that status quo any less unacceptable or undemocratic. That “support” reflected, instead, the ugly consequences of dependence and colonialism, not acquiescence to it. Likewise, the slim majority that backs statehood now does not make it any more just or feasible; nor does the relative lack of support for independence somehow refute its political righteousness. 

Ultimately, Puerto Rico’s status is like any other issue: our position on it should be guided by a clear-eyed reading of the facts and by our deeply held principles, not by scanning the polls and unthinkingly siding with the majority.

The commonly stated opinion of Americans that Puerto Ricans must decide for themselves their status sounds good and is often well-meaning. But it has become a mealymouthed talking point parroted by everyone from influential activists to Congressional leaders. In April 2021, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the cheek to say “it’s up to them to decide” mere months after Puerto Ricans had voted for statehood and while two Puerto Rico status bills had been introduced in the House of Representatives. 

Americans must dispense with the notion that it’s not their place to take a position one way or another between statehood and independence. This stance is politically and morally inadequate. Any status change will entail an act of Congress, and action from American leaders requires significant political pressure from the American people. Unless U.S. voters and constituents take a position and push legislators to take action, elected leaders will continue passing the buck. Remember that, in practice, these leaders’ unwillingness to support statehood or independence becomes de facto support for the colonial status quo. And Americans’ unwillingness to push these leaders on the issue also amounts to support for the status quo. If you’re against colonialism, you have to be in favor of ending it.

The importance of advocating for Puerto Rican independence is especially pronounced at a time when many Americans are raising their voices to support Palestinians’ struggle against colonialism and right to self-determination. If it’s appropriate for Americans to speak up in the case of Israel-Palestine, then it must certainly be appropriate to speak up about the case of the United States’ own 125-year-old colony.

Puerto Rico and Palestine may be colonized in different ways. But all colonial relationships must end, and they should all end in the same way: with liberation. 

Free Puerto Rico! 

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