The Prospects of Independence for Puerto Rico? Don’t Get Your Hopes Up (OPINION)

Feb 3, 2021
2:49 PM

Protesters in favor of Puerto Rico’s independence protest in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sunday, June 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

Editor’s Note: On January 30, the author wrote an opinion piece about the prospects for statehood in Puerto Rico. He followed up with the following opinion about the prospects for independence.

The most romantic and heroic vision of Puerto Rico’s future a Puerto Rican can have is, of course, an independent Puerto Rico. I bet that most Puerto Ricans have thought about it at a certain point in their lives—whether they kept it to themselves, confided it to a few people, or expressed it publicly. How can one not? Wanting to be independent (as an individual, nation, or country) is the most natural thing in the world.

But is it economically or politically viable? And if so, what is stopping Puerto Rico from becoming an independent nation?

Here are a few thoughts on independence. But let’s start by establishing that independence is absolutely viable—both politically and economically. It will require a restructuring of the economy and a transitional period with lots of federal assistance and funding (reparations for colonization). I don’t care if you don’t like it how it sounds, that is what they are, and they are justas y necesarias.

There are, however, many factors impeding independence. Here are just three of them:

  1. U.S. citizenship and its effect on Puerto Rico’s culture, on its society, and in national politics.
  2. Little support in Puerto Rico for it.
  3. The inability of the independence movement to educate the people on independence’s viability.

That Pesky Citizenship Issue and Puerto Rico’s Military Value

U.S. citizenship was extended to Puerto Ricans in 1917 (as the result of a long process) to quench political unrest; to secure Puerto Ricans’ loyalty; to signal the United States’ intention to never relinquish sovereignty over Puerto Rico; and to be able to claim that the United States didn’t have colonies. The U.S.’s World War I allies saw right through it. Puerto Rico remained a classic colony until 1952 when it became a reformed, rebranded colony. Citizenship for its people complicated Puerto Rico’s political history—and choices.

The archipelago’s military value was understood by the Spaniards and by the new imperial power, the Americans. This is well known. Such value only increased before the outbreak of World War II as military capabilities and conflagration made the world smaller.

We need to remember that in the 1930s, Congress had paved the way for the Philippines’ independence (Tydings-McDuffie Bill of 1934). Moreover, because of the Great Depression (and the American public losing its stomach for empire), Puerto Rico could have followed a similar path. It would’ve been rather easy at the time to take away the Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship (years before the Nationality Act of 1940 made it impossible to do so). Next step: keeping a military presence in support of the newly created and uber-pro-American new Republic of Puerto Rico. A new republic under the “protection” of the United States. In fact, withdrawing but staying.

I guess that you must be thinking I started following some type of Q-Anon Boricua cult. That is not true. Those were the actual conversations in the halls of Congress and the White House. The U.S. Marines even had exercises based on this scenario, and well, Congressman Tydings submitted several independence bills.

Nationalism and How Independence Suffered

So what happened?

As I have argued elsewhere, Pedro Albizu Campos killed independence for Puerto Rico. There, I said it.

But how? The shooting war between nacionalistas and the insular police in the 1930s on the brink of WWII ended any possibility that the United States would follow that path.

Hiram Rosado and Elias Beauchamp killed the Chief of the Puerto Rican Insular Police, Colonel Riggs, and were in turn extrajudicially executed while in police custody on February 23, 1936. Those events made the FDR administration walk back any REAL plans for independence. That event strengthened jingoism in Congress.

I know what you are thinking—what about the many independence bills introduced by Tydings? Well, Mr. Tydngs never knew he was been played by the Department of the Interior (FDR administration) to introduce punitive independence bills that if passed and accepted would mean economic ruin for Puerto Rico while still under the tutelage of the United States. Again, withdrawing but not leaving.

Even Ruby Black —a journalist, and biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt and a personal friend of Luis Muñoz Marín— wrote to his wife, Muna Lee, that the act had been a stupid crime because Riggs supported independence for Puerto Rico and the United States’ government could not afford to give up a territory following political violence. It would be seen as having lost a war.

Pardon the long history lesson, but 1936 is a year that put many nails on Puerto Rico’s independence casket. WWII in Europe was just three years away. Spain was in a civil war that turned into a loose coalition of leftists and centrists versus fascism, and the United States’ main interests —Asia and the Chinese markets— were in jeopardy because of Japanese expansionism. Does it sound like the world was in flames? It was.

More Military and Diplomatic Value

WWII solidified the United States’ hold over Puerto Rico. When the war ended, the U.S. had emerged as the first truly hegemonic global superpower—its reputation around the world unmatched, and with mountains of capital to invest throughout the world.

Even more important—the war had gotten Puerto Rico out of the Great Depression and put it squarely on the path to modernization. Before Operation Bootstrap, there was another century of development in a decade due to the military economy, and over 60,000 Puerto Ricans participated in the war. You can bet that independence was not what most Puerto Ricans had in mind at that time.

Then there is the 1950 Nationalist Revolt, a topic I have written about at length. It failed miserably and in fact, it proved to Congress and the Truman administration the viability of a stable Puerto Rico under the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA). You never know who you work for. And though the ELA was not meant to block independence, the revolt kind of had that effect.

The invention of the ELA wasn’t about Muñoz Marín betraying independence but about him throwing independence a lifeline. If anything, he was pressured in Washington to accept a new economic project and to walk away from independence. The biggest threat? U.S. armed forces sending officials to speak on behalf of statehood for Puerto Rico during congressional hearings on Puerto Rico’s status. This was done, I guess, as lip service and intended to scare Muñoz Marín.

With the new military capabilities developed during WWII, Puerto Rico had lost some of its military value, but the diplomatic one actually increased. Empires were being dismantled worldwide and the ELA provided a third way for decolonization. That is how the U.S. presented it to the world. That is why the U.S. was so supportive of the ELA until the Cold War ended.

So What Happened to the Independence Movement?

During that long Cold War period, the independence movement went through highs and lows, mostly lows. Repression and persecution, plus some bouts of progress and the establishment of a vast diaspora are responsible for it.

Even though the PIP (pro-independence party) candidate for governor, Juan Dalmau Ramírez, obtained 13% of the votes in the 2020 general elections, it does not mean that support for independence has grown significantly. A vote for Dalmau was not necessarily a vote for independence, just like a vote for Alexandra Lúgaro (almost 14%) was not a vote for any specific status option. They were votes for change, for new faces.

This is not the first time this happened in Puerto Rico. Remember the PIP candidates for senator at large (acumulación) in the 1980-90s and how even statehooders voted for them? Nothing new under the sun.

The vote for Luis Roberto Piñero, PIP candidate to comisonado residente (Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress) at 6.30% is more indicative of the PIP’s strength. That being said, the PIP is not the only player seeking independence. Altogether, the independence movement could gain 10 to 15 or even 20 percent of the votes.

Prospects for Independence?

To put it bluntly, if asking statehood with about 52-55 percent of the electorate behind you, and as U.S. citizens, puts members of Congress in a difficult position, imagine the same Congress deciding that they are going to support giving independence to Puerto Rico with perhaps 20-25% of the electorate and passing an amendment to remove U.S. citizenship from Puerto Rico-born… well, Puerto Rico-born Puerto Ricans. Even closet and mildly open racists will have a hard time explaining their support for such measures.

I mentioned the military and diplomatic relevance of Puerto Rico for the United States, right? They are both gone. Since the 1990s, Puerto Rico’s military importance has been kaput. And since the end of the Cold War, we are no longer needed as a showcase of how good things are under Uncle Sam (as if). If anything, with the revival of the anti-colonial narrative (joined by estadistas too), Puerto Rico is like pica pica in the middle of the back of the United States. You know, that spot that can’t be reached.

And we find ourselves in a conundrum. Now is the perfect time for the United States to let Puerto Rico go. And you can bet that the GOP would only be so happy for it (and many Democrats too). But that pesky citizenship, plus not being able to generate widespread support for it among Puerto Ricans, puts us in the situation that the door seems open—our luggage packed, el carro público is waiting outside, our plane tickets loaded to our phones, we posted our plans on social media, but we are not going anywhere.

I grew up in Puerto Rico in the 70s and 80s, and some people use the argument that if we wanted independence, the U.S. was “jarto de mantenernos” and we were no longer important, that we just had to walk away or shut up and show appreciation to papito Sam. First, we have never been manteníos—we been paying our bills since 1898. And we only lost our geopolitical relevance as the Cold War ended. So, that is not my argument. But this is the first time since the 1930s in which independence could be achieved if it weren’t for the fact that it doesn’t have much support in Puerto Rico—and that pesky citizenship. The point is that independence is almost impossible to attain. Even if through a legal loophole—SCOTUS decided that the U.S. citizenship of the Puerto Rican-born can be revoked.

A few more things to consider:

  1. Independence will also require to keep an eye on the local elites who have been benefiting from exploiting the colony since they came in great numbers in the 19th century (yes, this is my José Luis González’s  segundo piso moment).
  2. Many Americans in high positions favor independence because that will remove many protections. And, gain, local elites will be only too happy to remove labor protections. Anyone who has worked for decades in Puerto Rico knows this.
  3. Please stop the Stockholm Syndrome and battered wife analogies to describe Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans. It is weak and demeaning.

Finally, in 2021 the problem is not that the United States political establishment is reluctant to give Puerto Rico independence, but that they would have to unilaterally impose it unless the pro-independence movement figures out how to reach the Puerto Rican public and the citizenship question is resolved in a manner that satisfies the Puerto Ricans.

If you have suggestions, I am listening.


Harry Franqui-Rivera, Ph.D. is historian and author of Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952. He tweets from @hfranqui.