Puerto Rican issues have long been sidelined in D.C. Puerto Ricans are denied representation in Congress as well as the right to vote for president. They are unable to contribute to the decisions that affect them, and historically, their issues have seldom been discussed in mainstream political conversation. But recently, Puerto Rico has made headlines for its massive debt, natural disasters and political protests — and major figures in the Democratic Party are starting to take stronger stances on Puerto Rico. While increased attention on Puerto Rican issues is an important step in the right direction, it is crucial that we consider what this discourse actually looks like. More specifically, we should consider how Democratic rhetoric might inadvertently contribute to the U.S. government’s treatment of Puerto Rico as a colony — denying the territory true say in its own future. Democratic rhetoric fails to capture a complete vision of Puerto Rican self-determination because it excludes the possibility of an autonomous process for determining the island’s political status.
The stances of the leaders of the Democratic party, including the three front-runners for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — illustrate the shortcomings of current conversations on U.S. policy for Puerto Rican issues.
Through his relative silence on Puerto Rico, Biden has tacitly signaled his intention to continue the trend of excluding Puerto Rico from political conversation. He has failed to outline a policy plan that addresses Puerto Rico, and his weak statements on the issue have only expressed discontent with the Trump administration’s treatment of the island. His most recent comment on Puerto Rico’s political status was in 2015, when he expressed in vague terms that it is up to Puerto Ricans to “fight hard until you reach your goal of equality,” which seemingly absolves the U.S. government of all responsibility for helping the island’s people.
On the other hand, both Sanders and Warren have much more comprehensive stances on Puerto Rico — though their rhetoric does not capture all of the possibilities for the island’s future. Both candidates have released debt-restructuring bills and have called for a people’s referendum to deal with Puerto Rico’s ambiguous political status. Sanders and Warren provide a beacon of hope to Puerto Ricans, who are used to mainstream rhetoric that merely affirms the island’s lack of economic sustainability and political autonomy without offering avenues for change.
But even the progressive rhetoric of Warren and Sanders is unsatisfying. Though their stances are in some ways a refreshing departure from colonial attitudes by amplifying voices on the island, their consistent dismissal of independence as a viable option reaffirms these traditional attitudes. In a speech to Puerto Ricans, Warren demanded self-determination for Puerto Rico, saying she would support statehood if that’s what residents chose. Tellingly, she made no mention of whether she would also support independence if Puerto Ricans were to decide on national sovereignty instead.
Sanders has called for restoration of “self-rule in Puerto Rico by ending the rule of greedy Wall Street vulture funds.” To me, this suggests that Sanders believes that building democracy in Puerto Rico would not require substantial change in the island’s relationship to the U.S. government; it is not politics that is causing the problems, he seems to say, it is corporate interests. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), though not a presidential candidate, is notable here for holding one of the most radical stances on supporting Puerto Rico. Yet even her stance does not genuinely consider the possibility of the island’s independence. She has called for canceling Puerto Rico’s debt and dismantling La Junta, the fiscal control board, in favor of oversight that Puerto Ricans can hold accountable. Imposing a governing body on Puerto Rico, even one that is completely accountable to its people, still does not address the bigger issue: a lack of sovereignty.
I do not wish to express too much criticism of U.S. politicians who are inserting Puerto Rican issues into political discourse — their voices are certainly better than silence. I merely hope to point out that all policy that relates to Puerto Rico must be viewed in the context of its historical treatment as a colony. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that independence is what the people of Puerto Rico want. The island is extremely fractured on the topic of political status, and the Independence Party has hardly received any votes over the last decades. I would like to suggest, however, that Puerto Ricans might lack confidence in independence because they have been told for centuries that they do not have what it takes to build a sovereign state. Current Democratic rhetoric that excludes independence is contributing to a tradition of sidelining Puerto Rican voices and, in so doing, falling short of what Puerto Rico desperately needs: policy that calls for genuine self-determination.
Democrats ought to show support for nascent movements advocating the self-determination of Puerto Rico and be explicit that they would accept whatever the island decides. After a summer of protesting against the current political institutions, many Puerto Ricans are now demanding constitutional assemblies, which would allow Puerto Ricans themselves to participate in restructuring their constitution. Puerto Rico has its own constitution, and yet that constitution has been violated by the U.S. government, U.S. corporations and Puerto Rican politicians time and time again. Politicians like Warren, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, who claim to support Puerto Rican self-determination, should also support the radical movement for constitutional assemblies. It is only through a willingness to listen and accept the true desires of Puerto Ricans that U.S. politicians can break from a history of colonial treatment.
Marysol Fernandez ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.