Puerto Rico: The Trials Of The Last Colony Of The World (Discussion)

Before we start, I want to clarify that the book is in English. Trías Monje, the author, selected the language in what I assume is an attempt to educate the USA Congressmen and lawmen about the economic and governmental crisis the colonial/territory status exerts on Puerto Rico and its people, subjects he is familiar with as a world renowned attorney and judge. The comments herein are based on the book’s content and do not reflect my points of view.

Puerto Rico is a small island in the Caribbean Sea, bordered in the north by the Atlantic Ocean. It is about 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, and is considered the smallest of the Greater Antilles. Since 1898, it has been under the protectorate of the United States of America, seceded by Spain as a spoil of the Spanish-American war. For over 100 years, the island has been the subject of many acts, legislation and discussion in Congress about it status and the unalienable rights of its people under the Constitution. To this day, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico isn’t a true commonwealth by definition, and the title is empty since the territory is not granted sovereignty over its affairs nor its people.  As I type this the Supreme Court of the USA is reviewing and discussing the islands sovereignty.

This “elephant in the room” is what the author addressed in a little over 200 pages of history, factual data, law reviews, executive action briefs and Supreme Court rulings.  The intention of the 1890s Spain was to make Puerto Rico an equal partner in government, with representatives in Parliament, and with full constitutional and citizenship rights. Although the process of annexation and recognition as an independent republic had started, Puerto Rico had to go back to the drawing board when the “Americans” showed up. Needless to say the Boricua leaders were very upset about losing all the benefits of their hard work and lobbying. They couldn’t understand why would a people who had earned Spanish citizenship and rights had to quietly accept the new colonists and their rules with no say or objection. That part still remains a mystery to me but the author proposes a few hypotheses as plausible reasons.

The bottom line is that the leaders of the USA at the time thought of Puerto Ricans as uneducated savages that needed protection. Thus my mention of a protectorate. Before allowing the people to rule themselves under the practices and tutelage of the democratic superpower, the inhabitants needed to reach certain levels of literacy and gross national productivity and income. The quality of life had to be raised from its appalling standards or poverty and disease, and people needed aspirations worthy of the American Dream. The problem was that due to the restrictive nature of the colonital government, which had placed white English speaking foreigners at its head, the locals couldn’t enact their own policies and laws to promote social change and industrial growth. Trying to force them to speak English wasn’t winning them points either. No one could tame the Spanish speaking people,  nor break their vibrant spirit. The Puerto Rican leadership was stuck in neutral for the first 40 years of occupation, as they addressed these issues therefore not many improvements occurred. (The unemployment rate actually incresed almost two fold during this time, from 17% to 30%.)

Luis Muñoz Rivera, Jesús T. Piñero, José Celso Barbosa and many other illustrious Puerto Rican leaders resolved to unify the masses and bury the status crisis once and for all. They tried to show that when guided by their elite and educated contingent of the Island, by its own blood, the people could band together to safeguard their culture and values while accepting the USA, deserve citizenship rights and could practice an acceptable version of “American” democracy.

Unfortunately, the cultural differences between the Boricuas and the colonists was so great, and still is to an extent, that no one could see eye to eye. Eventually, and as proof of their efforts, a Puerto Rican born governor was appointed and later, laws in Congress allowed the island to draft its own constitution and elect their first democratic leader. This suspiciously gained traction after WWII and many discussions at the UN which resulted in other colonies’ independence or annexation to the empires that conquered them centuries earlier. Only Puerto Rico and a few other superpower possessions were left to resolve.

To this day, Puerto Rico is still considered a territory or colony of the USA. It is the last bastion of the old imperial age, and the last island in the Caribbean that is not autonomous or affiliated to a central government in which it actively participates. Although it is a commonwealth by name, it cannot create any laws, pay Federal taxes, participate in Presidential elections, have egalitarian representation in the House and Senate, nor conduct international commercial trade without Congressional approval. Like a teenager on the verge of becoming an adult, Puerto Rico is grown enough to be responsible for its own actions but ultimately has to ask for permission to the parentals to go out and play with its friends. Mom repeatedly says no, and dad usually replies no too because Mom said so!

The irony or rather consequence of this impasse is that Puerto Ricans have migrated – well that’s not technically correct, they moved – to the mainland. As citizens with full rights under the law, they can vote in general elections and run for office as residents of one of the 50 States. They can run for all offices except for President because they weren’t technically born in the USA. There is no need for a visa or work permit, though. Confusing, no?

In the end, the author closes by stating that Puerto Ricans have been treated like second class citizens for over a century and that the world needs to take notice and support decolonization policies. The Boricuas need a patron that can finish what 19th century USA started. Sadly, nothing has been done in Washington D.C. to guide the colony towards a clear path, be it independence or statehood, as promised in the treaties. It lingers in a state of limbo, with the free associated state mentality reigning over a majority of the residents of the Island of Enchantment, who were charmed into inaction by the English speaking conquistadors. The latter still have no clue how to deal with their coming of age adolescent child.

I wish I could say the island is close to solving the issue of affiliation status but sadly there is not an overwhelming majority in pro of any of the viable options. The massive desertion of the country has made many wonder if now that Puerto Ricans are overcrowding areas like New York City, Chicago and Orlando, someone in Congress or the White House would bail out the floundering economy or at least take action to give the government more freedom to determine its own destiny. (It appears that no one has noticed the long term damage the cabotage laws have had on the shrinking colony.) Too bad it cannot collapse on its own merits; that it cannot officially fail as a nation.

I must mention that the book’s chronology ends around 1997, and that after that date a couple more plebiscites were held to try and reach a consensus on the issue. Neither party has made strides in validating that the island is ready to govern itself without Federal oversight. To echo Muñoz Rivera’s sentiment, I don’t think I will live to see the day the identity and governmental crisis is resolved. Maybe during my lifetime it will get some better traction. Don’t hold your breath though: 118 years of occupation, and counting.


As of today, February 1rst 2016, Puerto Rico is still the world’s oldest and last colony.

Note: The book’s English is very academic and literate; those with limited vocabulary or knowledge of jurisprudence will have a harder time getting through the narrative. Grab a dictionary and a very passionate and well versed Boricua, and you should be fine. 🙂

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