Puerto Rico’s Colonial Status Dealt Another Blow

Jan 19, 2016
11:56 AM
While walking along Norzagaray Street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Harvey Barrison/Flickr)

While walking along Norzagaray Street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Harvey Barrison/Flickr)

Puerto Rico’s political status has been thrust into the spotlight once again, this time in dramatic fashion.

On Wednesday, January 13, arguments were heard in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Luis M. Sanchez Valle, et. al., which is a case that considers the Constitutional issue of double jeopardy, which basically considers if states can charge persons for a crime that they have already been charged with at the federal level. Normally the courts consider that only “separate sovereigns” can charge a person for the same crime, and because the states of Union are considered by the U.S. Constitution as “sovereigns” as well as the federal government, then both as separate jurisdictions can process persons for the same charges separately. In this case, however, the entity seeking to process someone for gun charges after federal prosecutors have already done so is the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, bringing to the fore age-old debates over power and sovereignty, and of course, the island’s political status.

The island’s lawyers argued that they are in fact “sovereign” and can charge the person for the crime. They stated that in 1952 the island’s political status changed from that of being a classic colony and territory of the United States to a “Commonwealth” that enjoys political autonomy including the passage of criminal law, and that this fact makes them a “sovereign” with the power to process crimes already prosecuted in federal courts. They claimed that Puerto Rico, upon instituting its own Constitution, enjoys the powers of sovereignty in this context. However, lawyers for the defendant were joined by lawyers from the Obama administration in arguing, for the first time in a Supreme Court setting since the famous “insular cases” (which held that Puerto Rico, as an unincorporated territory, belongs to, but does not form a part of, the United States), that the archipelago is merely a territory of the United States subject to the authority of the U.S. Congress and as such is not a “sovereign” and has no power to process these charges. Their argument holds that since Congress authorized the Commonwealth status and reviewed and authorized Puerto Rico’s Constitution (and even eliminated sections of it), that the ultimate wielders of power over the island are not its residents but the U.S. Congress.

At one point in the proceedings, Justice Breyer directly states that the outcome of this ruling have “enormous implications” because if the Supreme Court rules that Puerto Rico has sovereignty or if the court rules that the island has none and is simply a powerless territory of the U.S., then it will lead to enormous debates within the United States, Puerto Rico and international arenas such as the United Nations, which was told in 1953 that the island was no longer a colony and removed the island from its list of non-self-governing territories allowing the U.S. to cease annually reporting on the progress of their colony. As Justice Breyer puts it, “How did we tell the UN it wasn’t a colony? Why are we not reporting on this colony every year?”

The exchanges, which featured arguments from the Obama administration saying that the Commonwealth status of Puerto Rico could be changed unilaterally by an act of Congress and reiterating that Puerto Rico is basically a territory of the United States subject to the authority of Congress, provoked an eruption of heated debate and rhetoric on the island.

Understandably, those who support the island’s Commonwealth status (or “Free Associated State” as it translates in Spanish), including the island’s governor, were visibly angered by the position adopted by the federal government. They insisted that Puerto Rico entered into a mutual compact in 1952, that the island is not a colony, and that the federal government was now basically admitting that the United States of America committed fraud by lying to the international community in 1953 when they stated that the island’s status had changed.

Statehood and independence supporters, however, expressed no surprise at these arguments. Statehood activists, in recent years, have adopted a modified argument for statehood that condemns the island’s colonial status and demands statehood on the basis of “civil rights.”

What is more interesting, however, is that there are several historical antecedents of this issue.

Alejandro García Padilla (Photo via US Dept of Labor)

Alejandro García Padilla (Photo via US Dept of Labor)

First, the position of the Obama administration really is no surprise. For supporters of Puerto Rican independence, the condemnations over the Commonwealth status began even before its inauguration in 1952. As early as 1950 when the process was initially passed as Public Law 600, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party was adamantly denouncing the fraudulent nature of the proposed status and its implementation. Having enjoyed majority support through the 1940s, the island’s independence movement was alarmed at this new movement which promoted a continued colonial presence of the United States in Puerto Rico even indirectly as the Commonwealth seemed to legalize. Indeed, the Nationalists’ island-wide armed rebellion in October of 1950 was a testament to their concern and fury and their attempt to call international attention to the issue. In the United Nations in 1952, countries such as India expressed their dismay over the new status as fraudulently un-colonial. Once again, in 1954 Puerto Rican Nationalists, angered over the implementation of the Commonwealth status and demanding freedom from colonial status, opened fire in the U.S. Congress.

Moreover, ever since the implementation of the Commonwealth status, politically radical and revolutionary elements on the island have consistently called for an end to colonialism and for the freedom and independence of the island as a remedy. The actions of revolutionary groups on the island in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional in New York and Chicago in the 1970s and the Los Macheteros group, whose audacious attack against a U.S. military base on the island in 1981 (35 years ago this month) led to its notoriety, and whose leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios was attacked and killed by an FBI raid as recently as 2005, point to the fact that elements of Puerto Rican society have been denouncing this status consistently since its inception. These groups base their actions on United Nations resolutions dated from the 1960s that justify armed struggle as a means for colonized countries to free themselves and establish their independence. Indeed, the UN’s Decolonization Committee has called for Puerto Rico’s self-determination and independence since the 1970s, a call ignored by the United States which until now has maintained that it is an internal matter.

But their position is now unsustainable.

The surprise and widespread condemnations being heard here on the island have a lot to do with perspective. However, both President Bush’s and President Obama’s administrations had previously released documents studying the issue of the island’s status which pointed out that the island is a territory subject to the “plenary powers” of the U.S. Congress. President Bush’s report even alleged that the U.S. could transfer sovereignty of the island over to another country. Independence activists were quick to point out the similarities this had with the practices of slavery, reducing colonialism to this nefarious and criminal practice.

Once again, the colonial nature of Puerto Rico’s political status has been exposed. The litigants in this case expect a ruling by April, but truly one is not needed. The official policy of the executive of the United States government is its true foreign policy, and it is clear what Obama’s United States of America thinks, the same as the Bush administration: Puerto Rico is a colony, a territory and basically the property of the United States of America. If the world has denounced slavery in all of its forms, why is colonialism being allowed to continue?

It is not of paramount importance if the majority of the island’s citizens want to continue to live within a colonial context — whether as a Commonwealth or whether as a state of the Union (as both fall under the purview and power of the federal government). There is overwhelming electoral support on the island for both. But, alas, to once again refer to the slavery metaphor, it was true that there were slaves who preferred to remain so as long as they lived in the master’s house. Their choice was inconsequential given the blatant need to destroy the inhumane and criminal system of slavery. The same goes for colonialism, which would exist under both the Commonwealth and statehood options.

Puerto Rico is a nation of 3.7 million human beings militarily invaded and subsequently administered colonially by the United States since 1898, with a range of serious human rights violations perpetuated in the interim. Independence supporters, historically and consistently the guardians of the island’s dignity and hopes for freedom, have now been vindicated. One can even argue that every action taken by the Puerto Rican independence movement, from marches and condemnations to the armed actions undertaken by underground insurgent groups, have been vindicated by the Obama administration’s arguments. This is because it is the same argument held by the UN, which authorizes colonized peoples to resist their occupation.

Oscar López Rivera, former FALN member and political prisoner of the United States since 1980

Oscar López Rivera, former FALN member and political prisoner of the United States since 1980

Even the issue of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López takes on a newfound resonance. López was arrested in 1981 for being an anti-colonial activist and charged with seditious conspiracy and is now serving year 35 of a 70-year sentence. His release enjoys overwhelming support on the island, with calls coming from all corners of the globe. Several figures have interceded on his behalf with the Obama administration, but the issue has been met with only silence. With the United States now openly admitting that their island is a colony, how can they morally justify keeping in prison an activist imprisoned for fighting against the colonial system? It is inconceivable and outrageous.

“We knew it!” screams the independence movement in Puerto Rico. Now what remains is justice. And the only justice available for the island, whose wealth has been sucked dry by the colonial status and whose crushing debt is the responsibility of the colonial power, is one where Oscar López is freed and the island is allowed to exercise full sovereignty over itself in the form of free political independence. Only when Puerto Rico joins the international community as a free country can justice be served. Only then will the question of being a sovereign be truly and definitively answered.


Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera is a social worker, professor, activist and writer currently based in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. He has done activist work with various organizations in New York and Puerto Rico and has contributed articles to online media such as Latino Rebels, La Respuesta, CounterPunchNY Latino JournalSocialism and Democracy, and the North American Congress in Latin America.