If Only Puerto Rico Could Learn from Scotland

Now that Scotland has decided to remain a part of the United Kingdom by saying “no” to a very simple question, “Should Scotland become an independent country?, the wall-to-wall global news coverage of the country’s historic referendum will surely subside. By last week before the vote, everyone I knew in my media circles was talking about the vote, analyzing its implications and sounding like political status experts (even my Boston Irish mother-in-law had opinions). It clearly showed that when it comes to matters of status and independence, the U.S. media has an extreme Anglo bias. People in the United States were into it. People in social media were into it. It was 24/7 all Scotland, all the time. What do to now that the vote is done?

Imagine if the global media could now “go Scotland” when it comes to Puerto Rico, where the issues of self-determination, political identity and status have been playing on a constant loop ever since U.S. forces landed on the island’s southern coast in 1898. Close to 8 million Puerto Ricans are spread across the island and the U.S. mainland, making the population the second largest group in Latino USA. No matter how you spin it, it is clear that Puerto Ricans live in a spiral of paradoxes: on the island, they lack basic rights for U.S. citizens, and on the mainland, as one Latino Rebels contributor so aptly put it once, they live a “special immigrant status.” The paradoxical limbo is a product of too many forces: a colonial mentality that has seeped into Puerto Ricans’ psyche (whether they believe it or not); a territorial colonial status stuck in a 20th century world that no longer applies to the new challenges of the 21st century; mediocre politicians from all sides of the status aisles (status quo, statehooders, independentistas) who continue to promote their own status interests to feed into the cottage industry that is the status question (five referendum votes since 1968!); a U.S. Congress that doesn’t care because it doesn’t want to care (colonial masters at their finest) and a President who has no problem weighing in on Scotland but when it comes to addressing the rights of fellow U.S. citizens, barely a talking point or two.

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It’s as if every internal and external voice is daring Puerto Ricans to take the matter into their own hands. And by that, I don’t mean relying on the island’s status quo governor (a Democrat), its pro-statehood Resident Commissioner (another Democrat who has no vote in Congress—how’s that for powerless) or those in the island’s independence movement, who promote a 1960s narrative to a 2014 population that is weary of the message. Island leaders will never cut it any more, and if Puerto Rico wants to get the attention that Scotland got, Puerto Ricans must do something different. And quickly. (At this stage, here is the part all defenders of the current strategies will tell me that Puerto Rico is not Scotland, that it lacks a voice, economic power, etc. All those arguments just fall into the same colonial traps of thinking small or only focusing on your own interests.)

What needs to happen in Puerto Rico is so simple: put Puerto Rico first. Work together as Puerto Ricans (from the island to the diaspora) to create a binding Scotland-like binding referendum. The question would be simple: “What do you favor for Puerto Rico? X Statehood X Independence.” Done. Nothing more. Nothing less. No more talk of a “commonwealth” system, whether it is the current status quo (which was rejected in 2012) or some bizarre “enhanced” concoction that is as complex as the IRS code.

I have been saying this for the past few years and I strongly believe that it is the only solution that unifies Puerto Ricans to work together and get it done. It is bold. It will upset many. But it will get attention, since it would be coming from a united people who care first for the island. And by the way, I am not the only one saying this. That same Latino Rebels contributor I referenced before? He agrees that we should begin a real “Scotland-like” discussion about Puerto Rico.

If more Puerto Ricans can connect those dots, then we will have something. In fact, a new commentary published earlier today by the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP) said it best: “The Scots taught us that a clear and viable message, intense organizing, and a keen understanding of community are grounds on which the future can be built.” Conversely, another opinion piece makes the same mistake so many in the Status Cottage Industry have made for years.

Because quite frankly, no one is paying attention to Puerto Rico when it comes to the island’s political future. The Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, has already presented statehood bills to Congress, and guess what… no one cares.

The current governor continues to deflect the issue because of the island’s economic problems, but he fails to acknowledge that such a colonial system is why were are in this mess in the first place. Instead, Governor Alejandro García Padilla is getting slammed by the American Future Fund for being a place that is “not a safe place to invest.”

You would think that García Padilla and Pierluisi, both Democrats, would look at each other and admit that these attacks on Puerto Rico just need to stop. You would think that they and others would fight back hard, with the notion that you need to put Puerto Rico first. But this is what happens when colonial minds rule. You can’t upset the big U.S. apple cart. The colonial master won’t allow it.

Besides, you have to keep the Status Cottage Industry churning along.

Memo to all: the United States does not care about Puerto Rico. Except those who run hedge funds. Now what are you going to do about it? (And yes, this one is specifically directed to those U.S. members of Congress who ARE Puerto Rican.)

What if we saw real actual debates, real conversations, instead of the typical shallow-minded game that has happened for years and continues to happen? Listen, as with any Puerto Rican family, I have people from all sides of the debate. I have fervent statehooders. I have fervent independentistas. Yes, I even have people who defend the current colonial system. Our debates are intense and they go way back (just Google my great-uncle). Yet, in the end, everyone in my family and everyone I know who is Puerto Rican care deeply for the future of the island. They are Puerto Ricans first, (insert status choice) supporters second.

It is time for all of us to be “Puerto Ricans first.” Status comes later. Enough with the ambiguity and the excuses. There is nothing stopping us from trying to establish a real, tangible and binding referendum similar to that of Scotland’s. There is nothing stopping us from capturing the imagination of the global consciousness.

The only thing that really stopping us?

Ourselves.

One binding vote. Statehood or independence. It’s pretty simple. Now let’s make it happen.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, his personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  Univisionand The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream.

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