annexation of puerto rico

4 Reasons Independence Is the Right Path for Puerto Rico

By Maru Gonzalez

Puerto Rico is in a state of emergency. Its public debt, which Governor Garcia Padilla recently declared unpayable, is $73 billion and counting. Unemployment is hovering at a dismal 14 percent and 46 percent of the island’s inhabitants are living below the poverty line, a rate higher than that of any state on the mainland.

Puerto Rico’s recent surge in out-migration is also cause for concern. Spurred largely by the economic crisis, a historic exodus of residents to the mainland translates to a shrinking tax base which, in turn, puts additional strain on an already weakened economy and burdens those remaining on the island with higher taxes and dwindling resources.

Although a variety of suggestions have been proposed to save the island from default, here are four reasons a clearly articulated, multi-year transition to independence is the only long-term viable solution for Puerto Rico.

1. Puerto Rico’s serious and worsening economy is largely rooted in its colonial status.

As a U.S. colony, Puerto Rico’s insolvent municipalities and public corporations cannot declare bankruptcy. And because Puerto Rico is not independent, it is prohibited from seeking help from international financial institutions, leaving it with few options in the face of what seems like inevitable default. Yet while the right to declare bankruptcy is important in helping the island restructure its mounting debt, it is only part of a short-term solution to a crisis that is, at its core, deeply structural.

Puerto Rico’s economy is both limited by and dependent on Washington. Constrained by U.S. federal laws and regulations, the island’s economy lacks the structural capacity to thrive on its own. Puerto Rico has no control over its monetary policy and little control of its fiscal policy. Issues related to immigration, foreign policy and trade are dictated by U.S. law and U.S. regulatory agencies.

Further, because Puerto Rico has no actual representation in Congress, decisions are made with little to no consideration for the needs and general welfare of the island’s residents. Indeed, Puerto Ricans must adhere to laws passed by a government in which they do not participate. Independence would grant Puerto Rico a platform to address the debt crisis on its own terms and afford the island’s 3.5 million inhabitants the right to self-determination.

2. Statehood is a pipe dream.

Economic and cultural arguments aside, statehood has never been a real option for Puerto Rico. Contrary to Alaska and Hawaii, which were deemed “incorporated” territories with the intention of moving toward annexation to the Union, the decision to keep Puerto Rico as “unincorporated” was a ploy to avoid statehood.

Indeed, Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory means that it “belongs to, but is not part of the U.S.” And that is unlikely to change. A Republican-controlled Congress would never admit Puerto Rico — with its massive debt and overwhelmingly Democratic (and non-white, Spanish-speaking) voting base — into the Union, even if such a determination is made by the island’s residents.

3. Other nations have proved that independence is possible.

For far too long, the people of Puerto Rico have chosen to accept the comfort of a familiar yet broken status quo over the uncertainty of real, revolutionary change. Indeed, many on the island and in the diaspora adhere to a colonized mentality, one that believes an independent Puerto Rico is economically unsustainable. But liberated nations across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America have demonstrated otherwise.

Singapore is a prime example. With a size 14 times smaller than Puerto Rico, less natural resources, and a significantly higher population density, Singapore has thrived socially and economically since gaining independence — even exceeding the per capita income of the United States.

4. An independent Puerto Rico would more readily protect the welfare and the rights of its people than the United States.

Since the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898, Washington’s relationship with Puerto Rico has been one of exploitation and convenience. From the Ponce Massacre and government-sanctioned programs aimed at forcibly sterilizing working class Puerto Rican women to unethical testing and human radiation experiments on Puerto Rican prisoners, the U.S. government has a shameful track record of transgressions on the island.

And let’s not forget Vieques: for more than 60 years the U.S. Navy used the island of Vieques as target practice. Though the bombings stopped in 2003, the U.S.’ legacy on Vieques continues in the form of destroyed land (over half the island is uninhabitable), shattered livelihoods, and increased rates of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses — the result of contamination from years of continuous bombings.

Yet because Puerto Rico lacks any real autonomy or representation, these and other travesties — both social and economic — are largely ignored. Independence would hold accountable elected representatives at all levels of government and restore power to the people

…A series of events unfolded within the expanding context of the United States imperialism that contributed to the migration of workers from Puerto Rico to Hawai'i. In 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated more than half of the island of Puerto Rico. It left thousands of Puerto Ricans, who were dependent on subsistence farming, destitute and in search of work. Meanwhile, the Chinese Exclusionary Act, adopted in the United States in 1882, prohibited Chinese workers from entering any part of the United States. Consequently, recruiters of the Hawai'i Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) began to look for non-Asian experiences sugar cane cutters from domestic territories. Puerto Rico was considered a prime territory for cheap, non-Asian labor, and the annexation of Puerto Rico, Hawai'i, Guam, and the Philippines by the United States in 1898 facilitated the transfer of Puerto Ricans from one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico) to the other (Hawai'i). 

Between 1900 and 1901, 5,000 Puerto Ricans left the port of Guánica to immigrate to Hawai’i. It was a long and difficult journey. The first stop of the trip by sea was to New Orleans; the second, by rail, was to San Francisco. The trip was longer than they were told, they were not given proper clothing and medical attention promised on the way to Hawai’i, and the travel conditions were crowded and unsanitary. As a result, almost half of the Puerto Ricans escaped en route… Not only did Puerto Ricans escape and refuse to get back on the ship in California, but the first act of protest of those who continued on to Hawai’i was to seize control of the vessel that was to transport them to other islands in Hawai’i…

Although Hawai’i was a territory of the United States when Puerto Rican immigrated there, in the early part of the twentieth century it was still not a democracy. Hawai’i was managed by an oligarchy of five elite families who controlled it as if it were their personal fiefdom. These families constituted the HSPA. Members of the HSPA were enraged by the negative publicity and by what they considered audacity of the half-starved Puerto Rican peasants to protest their treatment. They implemented numerous strategies to control them. One of the successful strategies they had tried on earlier group was to promote a negative social image of Puerto Ricans as aggressive, and to stereotype them in the local newspaper as temperamental knife wielders. The HSPA also exploited existing differences among the various ethnic groups and invested considerable resources in creating and perpetuating animosities among the workers…

The HSPA used the strategy of scattering ethnic groups throughout the archipelago to prevent them from deriving power in numbers. Although he workers toiled alongside other ethnic groups in the field, they were housed in segregated quarters on each planation, a tactic put in place by the HSPA to keep workers under control and in competition with one another. As Michael Haas notes, ‘One of the ways that the plantation owners fostered interethnic conflicts was by intentionally recruiting Puerto Rican as ‘scabs’ to break up successful union strikes carried out by the Japanese workers in the early part of the twentieth century. Moreover, in contrast to the Chinese and Japanese workers who immigrated before them, Puerto Ricans did not have a government official in Hawai’i to represent them. This may have occurred because once they left, the Puerto Rican government did not want them to return; they were perceived as part of the overpopulation problem that the U.S. government officials had proclaimed in 1899… 

- Iris López, “Borinkis and Chop Suey: Puerto Rican Identity in Hawai’i, 1900 - 2000,” The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives 


A War Over Bananas — The Banana Wars of the 1920’s and 30’s

Before the Spanish American War the United States was a very isolationist nation.  Generally, the government and the military did not get involved overseas unless the nation was directly involved.  Then, quite suddenly American interests began to expand across the globe with the capture of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the annexation of Hawaii.  Suddenly then, America became an imperial colonial power, with whole armies stationed overseas and American corporations spreading out to foreign nations.  It was the beginning of the time when the US would get involved in international affairs.

By the turn of the century, the United States came to dominate the banana industry, which was primarily centered in Central America.  The top dog of the banana business was United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International), which also traded in Central American goods such as coffee, tobacco, and sugar.  There were other American competitors in Central America, such as Standard Fruit Company (now Dole Foods), and Cuyamel Fruit Company.  The fruit companies became so powerful, they influenced and even controlled their host nations laws, government, and elections.  Many government services were run by the fruit companies, whole controlled the national railroads, postal services, radio services, electric services, and telegraph/telephone services.  Essentially, the countries of Central America were controlled and run by the fruit companies (and other American companies) who made a fortune in bananas, hence they were often termed the “Banana Republics”.

The fruit companies tended to install conservative politicians in office who supported policies beneficial to the companies.  However these politicians tended to be highly unpopular with the people living in those countries.  Around the time of World War I, the 1920’s, up to the early 1930’s a series of rebellions and revolutions broke out in Central America, typically liberal revolutions with the purpose of overthrowing conservative (and often oppressive) fruit company controlled governments or pro-America governments.  For the American economy, the financial stakes were very high as a disruption of American business in Central America could lead to high losses for those businesses, high losses for stock and bond holders, high losses for banks, and high losses for subsidiary industries that worked with the fruit companies.  Not to mention, in this age of imperialism, it seemed vital that the United States maintain Latin America as a strong sphere of influence, especially since a destabilized Central America could pose a threat to US control over the Panama Canal.  Finally, it would not be a leap of imagination to assume that the fruit companies had many US politicians in their pockets.

In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt issued the Roosevelt Corollary, the doctrine that the US had the right to intervene in Caribbean and Central American countries in order to maintain economic stability, especially in nations who owed the US money.  Such a policy was totally revolutionary.  During the Spanish American War and Philippine War, the justification for foreign intervention was that it was America’s destiny to civilize “backward” nations and spread American style democracy and Christianity around the world — the so called “White Man’s Burden”.  Now, the US had no grand moral idealistic pretenses, this was all about protecting America’s cash flow.

Thus in the early 19th century up to 1934, a series of military interventions and occupations would occur to put down on control the various revolutions in Central America, with the goal of protecting US business interests. In 1912, US Marines invaded and occupied Nicaragua.  The occupation would last until 1933, would lead to the deaths 125 US Marines, and an untold hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans.  Between 1903 and 1925 hundreds of US troops conducted operations to fight Honduran rebels who threatened the business interests of the United Fruit Company.  Finally, while bananas were not involved, the Dominican Republic and Haiti were both occupied in 1915 and 1916 to protect American business interests in the region, and to end German political and military influence in the region as well.

At the time the use of military and political intervention to protect American business interests was something that had rarely ever been done before.  The Banana Wars would make such a policy normal routine.  From overthrowing the Prime Minister of Iran in 1953 to protect oil interests to supporting tinpot dictators for cheap consumer items, it’s all good business.


Speaking of ridiculous plays, let’s all take a moment and remember that time the Carolina Panthers ran The Annexation of Puerto Rico.


For those of you who think the history of the Fumblerooski begins with the Annexation of Puerto Rico and ends with Cam Newton, check out this video from the 1984 Orange Bowl.


Was anyone else kind of wishing that Seattle would have run The Annexation of Puerto Rico in the Super Bowl?