November 27, 2008

Re: Re: Referendum or Restitution?

So the never-ending status question has been raised again, this time with the can of worms by Gil the Jenius and then the can of snakes from DONDEQUIERA. In this second post a series of questions are posed and in my usual fashion I've decided to respond. Not in order of the questions, of course, but in the order they fall in naturally. If we're going to stick with metaphors, let's call this the can of anacondas, shall we?

The first thing that caught my eye was the question of why Puerto Rico doesn't carry the same grudge for Spain that it has for the U.S. This is pretty simple to explain; when has anybody ever not wanted what they can't have? And yet during Spanish colonization there was plenty of animosity towards the Spanish--perhaps not as much as in most Latin American countries, for a few reasons: one, the size of the country--the population was very small and very spread out, with most small towns nearly unreachable--two, Puerto Rico was a bastion for the last Spanish empire supporters of Latin America, as many of the former politicians, military leaders, and richer families supporting Spain fled to the island, where they continued to have positions of power, and three, Spanish rule and the system of hegemony accompanying it maintained the careful racial and political system of the time. Puerto Rican hacendados were desperately clinging to the power they had, especially in light of the revolution in Haiti, which frightened the rest of the Caribbean, and el Grito de Lares, which greatly depended on the effort of many slaves. But there was still plenty of discontent, some of which was concentrated into the efforts of Cuba, some of which waited for the new autonomous government which came into existence in 1898, a couple of months before the U.S. invasion. It's important to note that the autonomy that the Spanish government bestowed upon Puerto Rico actually granted a few more rights than the current setup does, in particular real government representation in las Cortes de Cádiz as opposed to the voteless Resident Commissioner in Congress.

However, to continue to link Puerto Rico with Spain and Latin America in many ways is unfair. While the similarities and shared cultural aspects are countless, Puerto Rico has gone down a very different political path, one that involved many abrupt changes, slow cultural shifts, and everything in between. In this sense we can't link all of Puerto Rico's problems to its Latin heritage. In this same manner the status and other issues mentioned in the blog post above aren't the cause of crime. I'd say that, among these contributing factors, the biggest one is poverty.

... which brings us to my main point. Although the U.S. has not necessarily done the damage that, say, Russia has done to Georgia (in the previous post's example), even in regards to Vieques, it also has not done it justice, especially concerning the poverty of the island. Most people at this moment will point to the great economic changes that have taken place in the island, especially in the last 50 years. Believe me when I say these changes are superficial. For one, both the U.S. and Puerto Rican political efforts have sought temporary fixes for permanent problems. But the biggest cause I see of poverty is the importation of U.S. products. This culture of dependency thing that a lot of people rail about is much more serious than we think. After all, Puerto Rico gets over 90% of its imports from the U.S., which is a huge amount considering that nearly everything that is consumed in Puerto Rico is imported. In comparison, how much does the U.S. import from Puerto Rico? While technically the island exports more than it imports, nearly all of it is pharmaceuticals--which means the money is still going to the American companies who own the factories on the island, rather than the Puerto Ricans working in them. This great disbalance would help to explain why the Puerto Rican economy is nearly stagnant and unable to catch up to the American one.

It also helps explain why the U.S. continues its hold on Puerto Rico. While the U.S. has very little to lose from the independence of Puerto Rico in the traditional colonial sense, it has everything to gain from keeping it. A great percentage of the money spent in Puerto Rico is returning directly to American corporations, who in turn pay taxes on it to the U.S. government, who in turn pays only a tiny percent of Medicaid and other social services in comparison to how much it should be paying based on the poverty level. Because all the money is literally flowing out of Puerto Rico, the government is crippled with a lack of funds and (even if it were in theory capable of such a move) couldn't begin to create a system to replace or supplement U.S. aid.

Skeptics (including myself) now are rightly bringing up a couple of questions: one, can the Puerto Rican government actually be effective and not corrupt, and two, why does the Puerto Rican people not act against such a cycle? The first one doesn't have a clear answer; I'd honestly love to promise that such a government is possible, but politicians are politicians so it's only fair to be cynical. Therefore we should try to find a solution acknowledging the inevitable problems, or perhaps in spite of them. The second question, on the other hand, is much more difficult to answer. In fact, it is one Puerto Rico and many of its political movements have been grappling with since the times of Luis Muñoz Marín and the development of today's Commonwealth--how to engage and awaken a fiercely loyal and admittedly stubborn voting public? Unfortunately, most see this as near impossible feat, understandably. It seems that the only thing that would provoke a sudden change in opinion would be a dramatic and traumatic event, not necessarily Russia-Georgia scaled but perhaps another Vieques.

That's not to say I wish that something would actually happen to Puerto Rico ('cause I don't) nor that I think we should be forcing people to believe in something they don't want. That's not fair. However, I think more awareness about history, politics, and economics would begin to tilt things in another direction, or at least allow people to make a more informed decision. Confidence would also make a big difference--Puerto Ricans should understand that there's no reason an independent Puerto Rico would reflect the image they carry of stereotypical Latin American corrupt governments and devastating poverty (which, by the way, are not uniform nor mandatory for all countries during all time periods) and that indeed Puerto Rico could reach a greater level of success should it so desire it. That it is to say, there is no inherent reason for Puerto Rico not to do well independently, just as nothing really is inherent at all. Naturally we could expect plenty of difficulties from every direction, and a well-designed process towards independence would anticipate and plan for as many as possible. But the obstacles alone, as scary as they may seem--and they are, because they represent the loss of security which Puerto Rico clings to through the continuation of the current status--, should not frighten anyone from making a decision that ultimately would be the best for the country. The options are these: either accept that a few sacrifices today will mean a changed country tomorrow, or Puerto Rico stays as it is and faces a future that contains few profound and necessary changes, thus condemning it to simply getting by rather than any chance at excelling... or, of course, statehood, which would bring more security but far less cultural freedom. All of these choices have sufficient reasons behind them, which I respect as someone who can't really be a part of the politics. But when people vote with fear, or rather because of it, as in they don't really want what they're voting for but fear what they really want (whether or not they realize this is the reason they vote as they do), there is a problem. I'm not talking the lesser-of-two-evils problem that many people face when at the polls, since usually the impact that decision will have on the person's life is many times minimal if they don't hold any of the issues that highly. Instead, I'm referring to the continuation of a system most people don't want to be a part of (hence that 50-some percent "none of the above" vote in the '98 plebiscite) and the denial of the great potential Puerto Rico has. Deny it as you may, there's no way to foresee what an independent Puerto Rico could accomplish or what it could fail at. But based on the Commonwealth's track record, consisting of dependency, poverty, and corruption, it's pretty easy to predict how Puerto Rico will continue to get by and nothing more, all while trapped deeper in the mire.

All that said, I'm not about to pick up the torch. Since I'm not exactly on the island, nor do I feel it fair for me as a non-Puerto Rican to have a say in Puerto Rican politics (useless blog posting does not count!), there's not really much I could or should do. If I've touched on a truth here or there, eventually it will be discovered and then perhaps change can come--or perhaps not. Knowledge doesn't imply change, or even the ability to change. The cynic (realist?) in me can't imagine anything changing anytime soon, except maybe the transition to statehood at some point. And honestly, it's not my place to admonish anyone should that happen.

That brings me to my other point, which is my coming out of types as a supporter of independence for the island. This is despite the fact that, again, I would never dare vote in the Puerto Rican elections because I don't believe in letting my vote cancel out someone's more legitimate vote, as well as that an independent Puerto Rico would make my relationships with the island and my friends there that much harder to maintain. Because of this admitting it to myself has been kind of difficult, but I'm reassured by the fact that it won't really affect anyone. So don't take it too seriously, especially in light of what I said above: that there are plenty of valid reasons for any position and I don't really oppose any of them. In fact, if any one status option is finally selected as a permanent answer, whoever leads the government has to account for all of their concerns or face huge problems.

I think that's about all I have to say for the moment. As always, I encourage friendly and not-overly-passionate debate (being overly enthusiastic on the internet is a waste of time, as far as I can tell) and any questions. I think I sufficiently addressed most of the questions in the original blog post referenced above but if anyone has any pressing desires for a direct answer to one or two let me know.

1 comment:

Gil C. Schmidt said...

Gil The Jenius here. Thank you for your comments here. I'll have a response soon, not in the spirit of argument, but to further the conversation. Keep writing!