“When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson
After nearly two weeks of protests, the governor of Puerto Rico has resigned and will be replaced by Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez. The protests took place after a nearly 900-page chat was leaked that showed the governor and his inner circle using degrading language to refer to women and gays, joking about the bodies that piled up at the morgue after Hurricane Maria, and expressing other deplorable ideas. However, this is just the straw that broke the camel’s back. For years, there has been pent-up anger on the island against both the federal and local governments. Here are some of my observations.
The Age of Trump
The first and most obvious observation is that Trump has lowered the bar in terms of what it means to be presidential, or dignified, in the execution of politically important responsibilities. This has made many other functionaries lax in their role. Ricky Rosselló’s attitude initially took for granted that people would be willing to put up with embarrassingly corrupt and inefficient leadership because we’re stuck with Trump and there’s nothing we can do. These protests give us hope because they show that there are, after all, limits to how undignified a politician may act–at least in some places.
The Center for Investigative Journalism
CIJ-Puerto Rico is credited with leaking the 900-page Telegram chat that led to the protests. I studied Journalism and Communications at NEIU in Chicago, and did an internship with the Chicago Innocence Project many years ago, and I’m aware of how relentless and persistent one has to be sometimes to acquire information, or to get to the bottom of complex issues. There are huge ethical repercussions to what one does as a journalist: from the choice of words, to the citing of sources, to the extent of how subjective one chooses to be in presenting events, all these things one has control over and have specific effects on the readers. For many years, the professionals at CIJ-PR have helped to inform the world in both English and Spanish about what’s happening on the island, and time and again have advocated for what’s in the public’s interest. They deserve accolades for their work.
The Puerto Rican Flag
Many people think of the island flag as “American flag, Jr.” because it has the same colors, and even Captain America could be mistaken for Captain Puerto Rico. But waving the PR flag only was very controversial at one point on the island. In the mid-20th Century, during the height of anti-communist fervor, a so-called “gag law” made it illegal to wave the island’s flag. For many decades after this law was found to be unconstitutional, the colonial reality of the island was such that–unlike what we see on the mainland during the Puerto Rican parades–many people were apprehensive about displaying only the Puerto Rico flag without the American flag. During these protests, the PR flag was seen everywhere and all segments of society were united. This is a paradigm shift.
Today is Commonwealth Day
In the lands that made up the former British Empire, the word Commonwealth means something very different from what it means in the U.S. There, it refers to all the lands that recognize the Queen of England, even if her role is merely ceremonial. Puerto Rico is one of two non-state Commonwealths of the United States. A Commonwealth is somewhere between an organized territory and a state. They have their own Constitutions, which are very similar to state Constitutions, must be Republican in nature and include all the items in the US Bill of Rights, and were ratified by both Congress and the people of Puerto Rico and of the Northern Mariana Islands (the other Commonwealth). Everyone born in a Commonwealth is an American citizen by birth. If a foreigner wants to move there, they have to have a green card and the process is identical to the process of moving to the United States. For instance, Cubans, Spaniards, and Dominicans who migrate to Puerto Rico frequently acquire U.S. citizenship after a few years.
The current Constitution of Puerto Rico was approved on July 25 of 1952. When I was growing up on the island in the 80’s, this was considered a holiday and was celebrated. We were taught that we had two flags, two languages, and two cultures and that we should be proud of both. That’s what it meant to be a good Puerto Rican back then. Today, people are more cynical about this, and few people would celebrate the bonds of colonialism in this manner. Recent events–like the PROMESA board and recent judicial decisions–have made it obvious that the Commonwealth political status is just a way to legitimize and “dress up” colonialism to make it seem respectable, and that the island’s status is not the “best of both worlds”, as we had been told. The island is still governed under the territorial clause of the US Constitution, which means that it lacks the sovereignty of a state.
Commonwealth status is clearly meant to be transitory towards either independence or statehood. At least islanders have another reason to celebrate today: they’re getting rid of this governor and their protests were the largest in modern history.
A People’s History
Many years ago, I started to read A People’s History of the United States by the Social-Democratic intellectual Howard Zinn. His premise was that history is not written by a few great men, but by the masses in struggle. Today, I think history is written by both great intellectuals, as well as the masses.
The protests of the last couple of weeks are a colossal break with inertia in terms of the people’s awareness of their power to write history. For the last 120 years under American hegemony, people in Puerto Rico have been barred from participating in all the decision-making processes at the federal level: they have no electoral votes for president, and they lack their two senators and however many representatives in the lower House of Congress. They only vote in presidential primaries, and are used to not having any significant political power. It remains to be seen whether this small taste of popular power will transform the prevailing inertia and cynicism into greater popular engagement and, ultimately, decolonization.