On June 13, the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City hosted a panel discussion called “Turning Point: End of U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico? How we got here and where we are going after the November 6, 2012, referendum.” The first of several engagements on the status question by the Puerto Rico Democracy Project, the panel was organized in response to the November referendum in which island-residing Puerto Ricans expressed, by a slim margin of 54 to 46 percent, their desire to change the island’s current commonwealth status.
The event was moderated by Ismael Betancourt, Jr., president and CEO of the Institute for Multicultural Communications, Cooperation and Development, Inc. The panel speakers were Antonio Nadal, deputy chairperson of the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies and co-coordinator of the Caribbean Studies Program at Brooklyn College; Olga I. Sanabria Dávila, adjunct professor of Puerto Rican Studies and History of the Dominican Republic at BMCC and executive secretary of the Committee for Puerto Rico at the United Nations; and Edwin Meléndez, professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
Leading off the discussion, Nadal provided the historical background needed to contextualize Puerto Rico’s status debate. Highlighting the attainment of sovereignty by the majority of Spanish colonies in the early 1800s, Nadal explained the process whereby the United States imposed their “manifest destiny” ideology onto the Caribbean by targeting the remaining Spanish colonies at the end of the century. In regards to Puerto Rico, Nadal emphasized that the U.S. viewed the island as a “strategic location” and a “Caribbean outpost.” He argued that, because Puerto Rico was not involved in the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris (which ended the Spanish-American War), the incorporation of the island into the U.S. essentially constituted a “naval invasion” and “military takeover.” He also noted that a Liberal victory in 1897 led to Spain adopting an Autonomous Charter, which defined Puerto Rico as “virtually an independent country.” Describing the crippling economic and political climate that followed U.S. occupation, including the repression of independence supporters, Nadal spoke of the resulting “involuntary migrant” waves created, particularly after WWII.
Speaking second, Sanabria Dávila provided the history of and argument for Puerto Rico’s place within the United Nations. On the premise that Puerto Rico is a nation and therefore within the jurisdiction of international law, Dávila explained that the island was on the list of non-self-governing territories at the beginning of the United Nations’ creation in 1945, largely due to the consistent presence of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party at the international body. International law regarding non-self-governing territories evolved after Puerto Rico was removed from that list following the 1952 establishment of the current commonwealth government; she cited the 1960 adoption of Resolution 1514 regarding the right of all peoples to self-determination and independence, and the 1961 creation of a Decolonization Committee.
Since the first hearings on Puerto Rico in 1972, over thirty resolutions have been passed consistently stating that Res. 1514 applies to Puerto Rico, and that the island currently faces the problems of a large U.S. military presence, political repression and political prisoners. Dávila argued that in order to have a fair plebiscite according to international law, island residents must be educated objectively about each status option and the “economic dependence” that creates “coercion” must be resolved. She also addressed the issue of who can actually participate in Puerto Rico’s status question according to international law. Essentially pointing out the failure of the U.S. to hold status votes that abide by international protocol, she explained that not only would those born in Puerto Rico be able to take part, but also those born outside the island whose parents were both born in Puerto Rico, or just one of them.
Speaking third, Meléndez provided a number of statistical facts and addressed the question of why the Diaspora should participate in the status question. To start, he noted the number of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico (4.8 million and 3.5 million respectively), and the results of the November referendum on the island. He also mentioned that more than 450,000 blank votes were left on the referendum’s second choice where a status option preference was made. Citing the first statistic dealing with the population numbers, Meléndez questioned whether a plebiscite would be legitimate without participation from the Diaspora. Taking into account the majority vote to change the island’s status in the November referendum, Meléndez pointed to family and economic reasons as to why the Diaspora ought to participate in the status question, saying that 63 percent of tourists in Puerto Rico do not stay in hotels and that a large part of this number represents those staying with their island-based families. Furthermore, he emphasized the political power of the Diaspora, which would be needed to hold the U.S. Congress accountable in terms of accepting the results of a plebiscite. Arguing that “transnational politics matter,” Meléndez ended shortly after pointing out the ability of the Dominican, Mexican and Ecuadorian Diasporas to vote in their country’s presidential elections thanks to a dual citizenship that is being increasingly encouraged internationally.
Shortly before the panel came to a close, the moderator noted that the feeling among “statehooders” that “the opportunity is now” is a major reason for the recent urging by Puerto Rican pro-statehood politicians to hold another vote that will force a choice between ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for their preferred option. In the question and answer section of the event, Dávila reiterated that. if a future plebiscite is to follow the guidelines of international law, it cannot be legislated by the U.S., the process must be objective in regards to the status options, and all current political prisoners must be released.
On Monday, June 17, the Decolonization Committee at the U.N. reaffirmed the applicability of Res. 1514 to the case of Puerto Rico. It is uncertain whether the U.S. government will honor this decision, and whether Puerto Ricans will unite to fulfill it, but it is essential.