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On the 100th anniversary of the U.S. invasion, Puerto Rico still deserves independence
by Martin Espada
One nation should never be the property of another. Yet Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. July 25 marks the centennial of U.S. occupation; in 1898, U.S. troops landed in Puerto Rico and seized the island as a prize of the Spanish-American War.
The colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico has not fundamentally changed since that time. The island remains a political anachronism, a throwback to the age of gunboat diplomacy and the handlebar mustache.
The invasion of Puerto Rico was directed by Gen. Nelson Miles, who once hunted down Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. He promised Puerto Ricans the "blessings" of an "enlightened civilization." That civilization imposed a series of North American governors, prohibiting Puerto Rico from electing its own governor until after World War II; greedily exploited the labor and natural resources of the island; established a menacing, strategic military presence; forced English on the public schools and the court system; and repressed the independence movement.
Since the 1920s, the federal law of seditious conspiracy has been used almost exclusively against Puerto Ricans, according to historian Ronald Fernandez. In 1936, the leaders of the militantly pro-independence Nationalist Party were imprisoned after two sedition trials. The head of the party, Pedro Albizu Campos, spent nearly three decades in prison. In 1937, police gunned down pro-independence marchers in the Ponce Massacre. One independentista recalls: "My mother went to the march in a white dress, and came home in a red dress." A Nationalist revolt was suppressed in 1950, with more killings and jailings. In 1978, a police firing squad murdered two young activists at Cerro Maravilla. Many Puerto Rican political prisoners are still incarcerated. Many more advocates for independence has been surveilled, harassed or fired.
Without an appreciation for the fear and despair caused by this century of repression, the small percentage of votes cast for independentista parties makes no sense. By the time Puerto Ricans were finally permitted to vote on status, in 1967, the political climate was safe for the powers that be. Nevertheless, the sentiment for independence away from the polls is surprisingly strong.
Colonialism is inherently anti-democratic. In Puerto Rico, the population cannot vote for president of the United States, but can be drafted to fight and die in the wars of the United States. The island is represented in Congress only by a non-voting resident commissioner, yet Congress controls virtually all significant aspects of Puerto Rican political life. Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been a "commonwealth," though this, too, is part of a colonial strategy, an illusory liberalization which has actually perpetuated U.S. control. Commonwealth or not, Puerto Rico's rate of unemployment is far higher than in any state. Per capita income is half that of Mississippi.
I would believe in independence for Puerto Rico even if I were not Puerto Rican. National independence is a prerequisite for democracy and self-determination; not an end, but a beginning.
Puerto Rico is the oldest colony in the world: four centuries under Spain and a century under the United States. In 500 years, Puerto Ricans have not determined their own destiny for five minutes.
The poet Clemente Soto Velez spent six years in prison for "seditious conspiracy." I hope that my son, named after him, will see the independent Puerto Rico of the poet's vision, the vision that made the poet so dangerous.
Poet Martin Espada teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Copyright 1998, Martin Espada. Re-print or electronic distribution without permission is prohibited. Call the Progressive Media Project for information, 608-257-4626.