The year 1998 marks the centennial of the colonization of Puerto Rico by the U.S., which seized the island from Spain.
In 1917, Puerto Ricans were declared U.S. citizens, and in 1952, the island was designated a commonwealth. These changes allowed for self-government over local affairs, gave Puerto Ricans some new rights, and imposed new obligations, including military service.
But the U.S. retains control over immigration, foreign policy, trade, and the vast bulk of the economy. And Puerto Ricans pay no federal taxes, cannot vote in federal elections, and the 60 percent who live in poverty do not receive welfare.
Now, in a December 1998 referendum, Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Roselló is asking the people of the island whether they favor the status quo, U.S. statehood, or independence. But the vote is nonbinding and is designed mainly to boost support for statehood, which Roselló is pushing with a well-funded campaign.
But contrary to Roselló’s agenda, independence is the course that offers the real possibility of winning freedom and a decent life for Puerto Ricans — as well as of revitalizing liberation struggles throughout the hemisphere.
Unions battle privatization. For a century, the Puerto Rican people have valiantly resisted colonial oppression and its miseries, with women acting as dynamic leaders. A general strike in July 1998 against efforts to sell off key Puerto Rican industries to U.S. corporations was a part of this militant tradition.
Roselló is intent on making the island more attractive to U.S. investors and more “competitive” internationally. His campaign includes a law-and-order crackdown, unionbusting, and a massive privatization drive. His plan to sell GTE, the nationalized telephone company, which generates much-needed revenue for the island, sparked the two-day strike.
Six thousand phone workers were joined on the picket line by students, teachers, Teamsters, and other unionists. At least 200,000 people walked off their jobs and shut down major industries.
Women like Annie Cruz, president of the Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Workers and head of the strike coalition, were prominent in the revolt.
Roselló did not back down, however, and the more conservative officials within the telephone workers’ union agreed in the end to a settlement that accepted some reprisals against the strikers.
But the fight is not over, and some of the protesters have joined a new group, Telephone Workers Against Privatization, that promises to continue the battle.
Statehood won’t end subjugation. Along with privatization, Roselló sees statehood as central to fostering an even more business-friendly climate.
His pitch is gaining increasing favor with U.S. politicians. Although statehood would increase federal costs, the U.S. already provides some benefits to impoverished Puerto Ricans that are not offset by payment of federal taxes. Moreover, the government loses nearly four billion dollars every year via special tax shelters provided to U.S. businesses on the island.
To the Puerto Rican people, Roselló argues that statehood would bolster economic well-being by guaranteeing more federal benefits — and nearly half the population does support statehood. But it is more likely that statehood would only aggravate the material and cultural deprivation Puerto Ricans experience, including the possible imposition of laws against speaking Spanish as the primary language. One need only look at the fact that people of color, immigrants, and social programs are currently under such attack in the U.S. to see the evidence for this.
In numbers roughly equal to those who incline toward statehood, many Puerto Ricans support the current status of commonwealth, believing that this is the best means of retaining access to U.S. services while not completely surrendering national identity. But as long as Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, it will remain under the heel of U.S. big business, with increasingly devastating results.
True independence via socialism. To give the island a fighting chance to break free from this domination, Puerto Rican socialists and the labor movement have long called for independence, despite decades of fierce repression.
Independence would be an advance not only for Puerto Rico, but for all struggles against colonialism and its legacy. An independent Puerto Rico would offer tremendous inspiration to embattled Cuba and to the revolutionary movements of Latin America, which have suffered such severe setbacks in recent years.
Independence under capitalism, however, will not solve the deep economic crisis afflicting Puerto Rico. Independence alone will not free the small island from the tyranny of U.S. profiteers. Even if it could, would Puerto Rican workers be content to be similarly exploited for the benefit of “their own” ruling class? Not likely!
U.S. troops out! The destiny of Puerto Rico ought to be in the hands of its people; commonwealth, statehood, or independence, the choice should be theirs.
But for Puerto Ricans to be able to make a free and democratic decision, several things must happen. The U.S. must withdraw its military forces, which currently occupy 13 percent of the island’s territory. The U.S. government and Puerto Rican officials must free all Puerto Rican political prisoners and halt their brutal campaign against champions of independence. And a period of open, uncensored, and unrepressed debate over Puerto Rico’s future must be provided for.
Once these conditions are met, Puerto Ricans will be able to exercise the self-determination that is their sovereign right.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rican workers have made one thing crystal clear. In the words of the July strikers, ¡Puerto Rico no se vende! Puerto Rico is not for sale!