By: Hector Luis Alamo
Scotland covers an area of little more than 30,000 square miles, about eight times the size of Puerto Rico, and occupies the upper third of the island of Great Britain, which it shares with England and Wales. It has been a vassal state of the United Kingdom since 1707. Before they were allowed to form their own parliament in 1998, the Scots were entirely governed by the UK Parliament in London; now they’re only mostly governed by the UK Parliament.
While the Scottish Parliament is able to pass laws on issues concerning education, agriculture, tourism and other minor matters of local government, the list of areas considered off limits is long, including foreign affairs, national security and defense, drug policy, trade, abortion, employment, media, and financial and economic matters.
Unlike Puerto Rico, where U.S. colonial rule has gradually eroded its independent spirit, the Scottish people have preserved a great deal of their nationhood, and the dream of a free and independent Scotland has only spread since gaining greater autonomy 15 years ago. In 2011 the pro-independence Scottish National Party formed the first majority government in the parliament’s history.
Today the people of Scotland are getting ready to decide the future of their country in a referendum on September 18. The ballot is simple: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Their options are clear: “Yes” or “No.” For the people of Puerto Rico, who are used to foggy plebiscites with foggy choices that inevitably lead to foggy results, a straight up-down vote may seem like a novel way of gauging the people’s preference. It’s as if the people of Scotland actually expected to reach a decision on their status.
Of course it was just recently that Puerto Rico held its own, non-binding referendum, a two-parter which first posed the ambiguous question: “Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?” A majority chose “No.” (It’s worth noting that the Scots rejected “Do you agree…” for the wording over their referendum, as they viewed it as a leading question.) The second part of the Puerto Rican plebiscite offered two clear options – “Statehood” or “Independence” – plus a third option that left many voters scratching their heads.
Even now, no one’s quite sure what “Sovereign Free Associated State” means. What it means, in fact, is an undefined version of the current status, one whose terms would have to be agreed to by the governments in San Juan and Washington. So, in effect, the people of Puerto Rico were asked to choose between one of three destinies: statehood, independence, or whatever’s behind door number three. Given those options, it’s no wonder 26 percent of Puerto Ricans voters left that part blank, and no option won a majority.
In terms of their politics, Puerto Rico and Scotland are mirror images of each other. No one in Scotland, for instance, wants the equivalent of statehood. Opinions on Scotland’s political status break into two camps: “Better Together” (which prefers the current status, if only with a little more autonomy) and “Yes Scotland” (which prefers full independence). Among Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, members of the pro-statehood penepés and the pro-status quo populares make up an overwhelming majority — the independentistas, which once secured 19 percent of the electorate, failed to win a measly 3 percent in the 2012 election for Governor.
Both Puerto Rico and Scotland are part of two of the most powerful economies the world has known. (The U.S. economy is actually eight times the size of the U.K.’s, but who’s counting?) As you would expect, the debate in both countries tends to focus on the ability of each to thrive, as it were, on its own. About half of Scots think their economy needs to stay under England’s roof. Union supporters doubt there’s enough North Sea oil to support the current standard of living, and worry about the number of contractor jobs Scotland would lose when the U.K. military leaves. They cite the recent economic crises in nearby Ireland and Iceland as examples of what might happen to an independent Scotland outside the Bank of England’s protection.
Living in one of the strongest economies in Latin America but with few natural resources, at least 90 percent of Puerto Ricans believe their island’s economy benefits from its colonial status. Puerto Rico looks to its island neighbors in the Greater Antilles — of which Puerto Rico is the smallest — as evidence of what it might become should it cast off its dependence on the United States. “If being independent means being like Haiti or the Dominican Republic,” goes one popular refrain, “it’s better to be a colony.” Never mind that the D.R. has a larger economy than Puerto Rico, less debt, and fewer of its people live in poverty. And while Puerto Ricans boast one of the highest GDPs in Latin America, it’s still twice as poor as Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state.
That’s due in large part to Puerto Rico’s colonial status, which, among other things, prohibits Puerto Rico from entering into its own trade agreements with other countries — like China, Mexico, Venezuela or Brazil, to name a few potential partners. Thus, the island is forced to do business with the United States under Washington’s terms. As is, Puerto Rico is merely a place for the United States to make its products cheaply, which it then sells back to the island’s captive consumer market. Puerto Rico’s internal issues – like its 15 percent unemployment rate, its exploding debt, and the 41 percent of its population living under poverty – are left to the Puerto Ricans to solve, even though they’re denied the tools to solve them.
The economic dependence argument was popular in the American colonies and India, of course, before they gained independence. Now India is one of the largest developing economies in the world, and we all know what happened to the American colonies. Wales, England’s other vassal state in Great Britain, is also toying with the idea of independence, though most of its people, too, are certain they can’t afford independence. Yet, as one Welsh entrepreneur recently told the New York Times, “[The people of Wales] are poor because we are not independent, rather than the other way round.” For their part, those pushing for independence in Puerto Rico and Scotland argue the same thing, convinced the economies and financial situations of both countries would improve if they were controlled by the Puerto Ricans and the Scots themselves.
At the very least, however, you shouldn’t put a price on self-determination, on the right to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. No conscious person, if promised to have their bills paid forever, would give up their right to make basic decisions for themselves. On the same basis that the American people vehemently defend their sovereignty against the United Nations and the Brits are leary of EU influence, the peoples of Scotland and Puerto Rico should demand their right to self-determination be restored to them. A nation, if it truly is a nation, should be able to decide its own future.
Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond summed it up best during a recent televised debate:
“We’ll have opportunities as an independent country, and the means of taking advantage of them. We’ll have challenges as an independent country, and we’ve got to rise to these challenges to solve them. … This is what a ‘Yes’ vote can guarantee: at each and every election, in an independent Scotland, we will get the government that we vote for. The choices that the people of Scotland make will be reflected, and that means that the policies and the positions of Scotland will be placed in Scottish hands. … This referendum is about the future of Scotland, and the future of Scotland should be in the hands of the people of Scotland. It’s about believing that we can govern ourselves better than anyone else can. … This is our time, our moment. Let’s seize it with both hands.”
The people of Scotland are staring down a great moment in their history. They realize how important and rare an opportunity this is for their country, and they want to get it right. They’re debating their future, and the people of Puerto Rico should be listening.