Whenever possible, in the game of colonialism, both the colonizer and the colonized often engage in the exercise of legitimizing colonialism. The colonizer wants to demonstrate its benevolence by giving the impression that there is a true democratic process and freedom of will in the nations subjugated to their political power—but the colonizer seldom participates in the laborious activity of asserting their power. The colonized, specifically that one who enjoys the privilege of colonial power, steps into the arena to save their master from any trouble or questioning of authority. Knowingly, the colonized is always willing to play by the rules that always result in their own humiliation. A game of submission that enables the colonizer to vanish the reality of the colonized from history itself.
The dynamics of this game were easily observed in the colonial government of Puerto Rico, as it held a plebiscite on its political status on Sunday June 11. This is the fifth time Puerto Rico created a special election in attempts to resolve its colonial status since 1967. As statehood had a much-anticipated victory, those who followed the developments of the last plebiscite in 2012 must be having the feeling of a déjà vu. A lot of discussion will follow in several media outlets, but of course, just like in 2012, the colonial frame will dominate the discussion, creating fanfare for the results and giving the impression that this time, statehood will be seriously considered and possibly granted.
Not so fast.
As in the decades when Puerto Ricans lived through the denial of existing under colonial rule through the commonwealth, subject to the silence and dismissive approach of the U.S. government, in 2012, the people entered into a new cycle of the same silence and colonial submission with the statehood option as a mirage on the colonial horizon.
The new victory for statehood is the result of embarrassing colonial theater.
The newly elected governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, and his colonial political party, the New Progressive Party (PNP; as in Spanish) were the only ones who participated in this plebiscite. There was no official opposition advocating for any of the other alternatives of the plebiscite (the commonwealth or independence).
From the beginning of his administration, Rosselló actively gave the impression that he will get things done. The new plebiscite with the June 11 date was quickly announced during the beginning of spring, seeking the momentum of the recent victory of a pro-statehood administration on the Island. Initially, Rosselló’s strategy was to only include the options of statehood and independence/free association in order to give follow-up to the 2012 election results, where 54% of Puerto Rican voters rejected the current colonial status. Since that last election, the Obama administration, seeking more time for a future White House administration to handle the colonial matters of Puerto Rico, set aside $2.5 million for another election on the island’s status. The use of these funds were to be authorized once the U.S. Attorney General—in this case, Jeff Sessions, reviewed and approved the language of the options for the election.
On April 13, shortly after the announcement of the election, Roselló was put on his knees by the Trump administration as thee Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter, indicating that the current colonial status must be included in the plebiscite. By simply arguing that the Island may have gone through significant demographic changes in the last five years, the Trump administration displayed effortless colonialist moves with the same superficial inconsistencies that plagued his administration from its very beginning.
As expected, Rosselló obeyed the directive from his master, included the requested language, portrayed the act of submission to his supporters as a positive move and continued reassuring the public that the DOJ will authorize the funds for the election. Later in May, however, DOJ released another statement, indicating that it had not reviewed nor approved the language in the ballot. Within a day from the election, El Nuevo Día confirmed that DOJ made the review of the language for the election conditional, depending on whether or not the date of the plebiscite was delayed. Rosselló decided to maintain the date of the election as originally planned.
The act of abiding to the rules of the DOJ to exercise the right for self-determination demonstrated that the process was strictly colonial from the very beginning. In this case, by being halfway obedient, the Rosselló administration gave the White House an excuse to discard the election’s results, regardless of the outcomes. The communications from DOJ prior to the election showed that they will play the card to prevent any semblance of democracy in Puerto Rico.
In addition, independence and commonwealth groups boycotted the vote. Particularly for commonwealth supporters, their state of denial regarding the colonial nature of the formula they support has paralyzed them to a point of having no further political direction. Boycotting was their way out. One reasonable argument from these groups suggests that Rosselló was unwilling to delay the election because his administration is due to release the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. This is expected to infuriate his own political base, in the new era of PROMESA and fiscal control boards. Indeed, Independence supporters were initially willing to participate in the election as an act of rejecting La Junta, but saw more of the same colonial games of the last 60 years in the moves from DOJ. In a desperate response, Rosselló brought a fake organization called Marchemos to allegedly represent the Independence option during the election. The move was immediately unmasked, as nobody in the pro-independence movement knew such organization or the individuals behind it.
While the PNP and its supporters will celebrated their victory and deliver speeches in front of crowds with U.S. flags —feeling that they will finally become who they are not— the cloud of silence from the White House will slowly come to erase the victory.
Time is used as their most effective strategy to normalize colonialism in Puerto Rico. There will be another year or more before the next plebiscite to solve the status question. The excuses to invalidate the current and future results will always be the same: the debt crisis; the results are not clear; the rules were bogus; we already know them.
The more Puerto Ricans vote on this matter, the more the counter narrative from the media and the colonizer will be used against the people in order to normalize the conditions and geopolitical circumstances that perpetuate colonialism. The elections will continue legitimizing oppression, vanishing Puerto Ricans from their place in history and silencing our voices.
Meanwhile, let the labyrinth towards the next plebiscite begin, as they have proven to be a barrier to decolonize Puerto Rico in the first place. The Puerto Rican people will survive the hardships of this new phase of colonialism under the statehood façade—overcoming the heavy traffic, working shitty underpaid jobs, diluting black-market baby formula and curing the pains of aging with remedies from botánicas.
When all the myths of colonialism vanish —just as the sky clears after the hurricane— the Puerto Rican people will be there to finally start the nation all over again from scratch. Let’s never forget that since the invasion of the Spanish more than 500 years ago, our world has ended and started several times.
The next time, we will do it without chains.