The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Puerto Rico:
An “Associated Free” Colony

Dec 31, 1980

In the past year, there were two elections in Puerto Rico. Because one of the two major parties in Puerto Rico, the New Progressive Party (PNP), advocated statehood, while the other, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) was advocating a continuation of the present commonwealth status, the elections came to be seen almost as plebiscites on the question of Puerto Rico’s political status. There was a high voter turnout for each of these elections, over 90 per cent, and the PNP and PPD together drew over 94 per cent of the vote in the November election.

When these results were reported in the press in the United States, the conclusion was drawn that the elections were a proof that the vast majority of Puerto Rican people either are satisfied with U.S. - Puerto Rican relations or want an even closer relationship to the United States. To support this conclusion, the media was careful to point out that the Puerto Rican parties that had run on programs advocating independence for Puerto Rico had received less than 6 per cent of the vote.

But if it is as the U.S. press would have us believe–that the Puerto Rican people are satisfied with U.S. - Puerto Rican relations–why is it that the U.S. government has consistently deemed it necessary to conduct a campaign of repression and harassment against Puerto Rican activists?

This campaign has not been limited to any one group of activists. Whether opposition to U.S. domination has taken the form of demonstrations at the university in support of independence; or demonstrations against the U.S. Navy using the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra as military targets; or whether the opposition has been the activity of legal political parties and organizations like the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) or El Comite; or whether the opposition has come in the form of illegal or so-called terrorist acts–across the board the United States has attacked those organizations and individuals alike who participated in activities opposing U.S. imperialism in Puerto Rico or those calling for independence for Puerto Rico.

The list of attacks is long. In the last 10 years alone, five young people were killed in various demonstrations at the university for independence. The people of Vieques and Culebra have faced numerous arrests and imprisonment for their activity. And earlier this year, one of these activists, an outspoken supporter of independence, Angel Rodriquez Cristobal, was found dead in his Florida prison cell. The authorities claimed his death was a suicide–the Vieques Fishermen’s Association said that he was murdered.

Claridad, the newspaper of the PSP, has had its offices bombed on three separate occasions. The national headquarters of the PIP was fired on on several occasions. The car of one of the leaders of the PSP, Juan Mari Bras, was dynamited. While it is not possible to directly link this terrorism to the U.S. government, it is known that right-wing groups often made up of Cuban exiles have received funds from the CIA. And these groups have claimed credit for many of these attacks.

In the last year, the FBI has arrested members of the FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation of Puerto Rico, in both New York and Chicago. These militants were given long sentences. And in the search for these activists the cops virtually laid siege to the Puerto Rican community, conducting a house to house search.

People who protest U.S. domination are arrested and treated as criminals, and this is not a new policy.

After World War II, when the movement for independence had gained some active support in the population, there were mass arrests of hundreds of persons; activists were held in prison incommunicado for long periods of time. After an attempted revolt in 1950, in which at least a hundred people were killed, hundreds more people were arrested based on nothing more than having been known to have said something against the government.

The government began to use Public Law 53 which had been passed in 1947. It was modeled after the Smith Act in the United States; but, now, after the revolt, it was used in a much broader sense against a larger section of the population. For example, an editor of a newspaper was charged and imprisoned for having quoted a famous radical of the 19th century in his newspaper. And people were arrested for just attending a religious ceremonial function to commemorate the heroes of the Nationalist movement since 1868. During the early and mid 1950s, many political activists were prosecuted and sentenced to long prison terms in the federal prisons of the United States.

80 Years of Colonial Status

Despite the claim on the one hand, by the U.S., that Puerto Rico is an “associated free state”, free to choose and determine its own destiny, and despite the claim on the other hand that the Puerto Rican people are citizens of the U.S., free to enjoy all the privileges of U.S. citizenship–Puerto Rico remains a colony of the United States, a colony taken through military conquest over 80 years ago.

No matter that for the last 30 years, the United States has tried to hide this fact. The political status of the Puerto Rican people hasn’t been determined by them. Each step along the way they have had imposed upon them a relationship defined and determined by the U.S.

Puerto Rico has its own governmental apparatus, but all laws can be overruled by the U.S. Congress; and its relations with other countries are determined by the U.S. government. And Puerto Rico is subject to all U.S. federal laws, except where the U.S. Congress makes an exception. These exceptions are almost always made to the benefit of the United States; for example, the minimum wage law does not apply in Puerto Rico, to the benefit of U.S. corporations.

Despite the pretense that the Puerto Rican people are citizens of the Unites States, even symbolic democratic rights have been denied them. Certainly these rights are no guarantee of democracy, but nonetheless, they are always pointed to by the bourgeoisie as proof of democracy. To this date the Unites States has not granted the Puerto Rican people even the minimal symbol of democracy in the U.S., the right to vote for congressmen and for president.

Of course, if tomorrow these formalities of democracy were granted, this new designation would not change the real status of Puerto Rico. But the fact that even these formalities are not granted shows the colonial status of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a nation that was conquered by the Untied States in 1898; it is this conquest that has determined Puerto Rico’s real status ever since.

In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. Puerto Rico, a colony of Spain, was invaded by the U.S. army, which then placed Puerto Rico under military occupation. In the treaty between Spain and the United States, Spain “ceded” the territory of Puerto Rico to the United States. Thus, through military conquest and an agreement between two oppressor nations, Puerto Rico became a colony of the United States.

In the early 1900s, Puerto Rico was governed under the Foraker law. At this Point, the U.S. Congress was unwilling even to designate Puerto Rico a territory, because territorial designation could imply an intent eventually to grant statehood. So Puerto Rico was called–openly–a possession. Congress appointed a colonial governor to rule Puerto Rico.

However, when it came to World War I, when the United States had a need for men to be cannon fodder in the war, the U.S. Congress became willing to change the legalities of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. And so in 1917, Puerto Rico was designated a territory, Congress imposed U.S. citizenship on the Puerto Rican people, and thus Puerto Rican men became subject to the draft and were drafted to fight in the war. The governmental apparatus of Puerto Rico was changed so that the island now elected its own legislature, but veto power was left with the colonial governor and the U.S. Congress maintained the right to annul any legislation.

Not until 1948, did Congress appoint a Puerto Rican, Munoz Marin, governor of Puerto Rico. In 1950, Congress passed Public Law 600, which provided for the organization of a constitutional government by the people of Puerto Rico. Congress then ordered a referendum for the people of Puerto Rico to give their stamp of approval to the constitution. Upon approval of the new Puerto Rican constitution by the U.S. Congress in 1952, Puerto Rico was designated a commonwealth. Certain cosmetic changes were granted, Puerto Rico was allowed to have its own flag and anthem, but essentially little changed–the United States kept political control.

From possession, to territory, to commonwealth; the labels changed but the reality remained–the Puerto Rican people have never taken part in determining for themselves their destinies. Puerto Rico remains a conquered territory–a colony of the United States.

Puerto Rico: Preserve for U.S. Corporations

This colonial domination has affected not only the political life of Puerto Rico but has also created serious consequences for the country economically and socially. Even the briefest examination of U.S. economic and social policies in Puerto Rico will serve to show that U.S. domination has created a legacy of destruction for the country and misery for the population.

U.S. companies have a monopoly over investment and industry in the country. Eighty per cent of all manufacturing and retail trade are either completely or almost completely owned by U.S. corporations. All basic resources are essentially controlled by U.S. corporations. A report to the governor of Puerto Rico, by the Committee to Study Puerto Rico’s Finances, estimated that the average rate of profit in manufacturing for most U.S. firms in Puerto Rico had been on the order of 35 to 60 per cent a year. That compares to an average rate of profit for firms in the United States of around 12 per cent. U.S. corporations can make such enormous profits, because of laws in Puerto Rico that exempt U.S. corporations from paying Puerto Rican taxes. It is estimated that U.S. corporations save 300 million dollars yearly because of these exemptions and because the laws of Puerto Rico and the exemptions made by the U.S. Congress allow these corporations to pay the workers starvation wages. It is not surprising that, under these conditions, 120 out of the 500 largest U.S. corporations have established plants in Puerto Rico.

U.S. agribusiness imports food into Puerto Rico and has driven most of the small farmers off the land. It is estimated that today over 60 per cent of all arable land in Puerto Rico lies fallow; and yet Puerto Rico imports overs 800 million dollars of food each year just to feed its population.

Today the U.S. military has bases and missile sites all over Puerto Rico. Thirteen per cent of Puerto Rico’s land and many of its best harbors are owned and controlled by the U.S. military. Islands like Culebra and Vieques are used by the military for maneuvers and target practice. The overwhelming presence of the U.S. military stands as an ever present reminder of the threat of repression.

All told, U.S. domination translates into a standard of living for the Puerto Rican people that is appropriate to an underdeveloped country.

Half of the Population below the Poverty Line

If you apply the U.S. government’s definition of poverty to Puerto Rico, over half of the Puerto Rican people have an annual income below the poverty line. In the United States, the government estimates that around 15 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. Even so the figures for Puerto Rico are more extreme than they appear, since the prices of goods and services in Puerto Rico are at least 25 per cent higher than in the United States. This means that the same wages buy even less in Puerto Rico than they do in the United States.

Per capita income in Puerto Rico in 1976, was $1,989; this was one third of the income level in the United States. Mississippi, the poorest state in the United States, had a per capita income that was nearly twice that of Puerto Rico. Even more extreme, over 20 per cent of the Puerto Rican population was earning less than one thousand dollars a year. In 1977, over 70 per cent of the entire Puerto Rican population was eligible for the food stamp program, compared to only 35 per cent of the population in the United States. In that same year, officially unemployment was over 21 per cent in Puerto Rico, yet even government officials agreed that real unemployment was probably twice as great.

For all practical purposes, the majority of the population in Puerto Rico is kept in a constant state of poverty.

No longer able to live by working the land, after World War II, thousands of people fled to the cities of Puerto Rico looking for work. Usually they found none; however, they stayed or moved on to the cities of the United States. In 1970, over 60 per cent of the population lived in the urban areas of Puerto Rico. Today there is an acute housing shortage, shanty towns ring many of the larger cities. With no way to support themselves, the lumpen proletariat is becoming an ever increasing section of the population.

The misery and deprivation in Puerto Rico is so great that today there are over one and a half million Puerto Rican people living in the United States. These are for the most part people who were forced to leave Puerto Rico and migrate to the United States in hopes of finding work. In general, the immigrants’ standard of living may have improved in absolute terms. But, because the standard of living in the United States is so much higher, even with their improved standard of living, the Puerto Rican people in relation to the rest of the U.S. population suffer from great deprivation.

Nearly one-third of the Puerto Rican people living in the U.S. have incomes below the official U.S. poverty line. The average yearly income for a Puerto Rican family in the United States in 1974, was only $7,628 compared to $12, 836 for the rest of the population. In that year, over 11 per cent of all U.S. families lived in poverty. But over 32 per cent of all Puerto Rican families in the U.S. were living in poverty. There is no reason to believe that conditions have improved in the last 6 years.

Living conditions in the U.S. are little better than the slums of Puerto Rico. In New York City, for example, 85 per cent of the one million Puerto Rican people living there lived in what the government officially calls low-income neighborhoods. Behind these words stand some of the nation’s worst slums, areas like the South Bronx. Although today one-third of Puerto Rico’s people live in the United States they have not escaped the effects of imperialism.

In their own country and in the United States, the Puerto Rican people are subjected to discrimination and prejudice. Certainly in the United States, Puerto Ricans are treated as foreigners, and in both the U.S. and Puerto Rico they are treated as second class citizens. This is reflected in the fact, that for a long time the United States decreed and tried to institute English as the official language of Puerto Rico. Even today, long after this law has been retracted, signs and announcements in public places, such as the airport, are often given first in English and then only in Spanish, if at all.

Every day, U.S. domination foists this type of indignity and insult on the Puerto Rican people.

Despite the claims made in the bourgeois press in the United States that these elections are proof that the Puerto Rican people are satisfied with U.S. - Puerto Rican relations–the real situation is that of a colonized country.

The facts and figures speak all too well to this and behind these facts and figures is the all too real poverty, suffering and injustice caused by U.S. imperialism. There is no denying this reality; the people in the slums of San Juan, people in the lines for surplus food and the one and a half million people who have had to migrate to the United States are all witnesses and can testify to the effects of U.S. imperialism.

The Nationalist Opposition

The people who most clearly express the reality of this colonization are the people who today are choosing actively to express their dissatisfaction–choosing to struggle against the domination of the United States; the people like the fishermen of Vieques or the activists of the various organizations whether in Puerto Rico, Chicago or New York.

Even if the supporters of independence didn’t gain a big vote in the last election, this doesn’t mean that they don’t often find a sympathy in the population. Examples of this sympathy are not uncommon. Just last April, when three nationalist prisoners were released from U.S. prisons after having been imprisoned for more than 25 years, for having attacked the U.S. Congress; these people were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to Puerto Rico. They were met by more than 10,000 people in San Juan, and celebrations were held in their honor all over the island.

Certainly, independence, in and of itself, is not sufficient for the poor layers of the Puerto Rican population. First because so long as power is not in the hands of the workers and peasants, they have no guarantee that their interests will be respected. If power rests in the hands of the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie, that power, independence or not, will be used against the poor layers of the population. Second, because if the poor layers of the Puerto Rican population are to change fundamentally their situation, they can do it only by taking back the wealth which has been stolen from them over the years by U.S. imperialism, wealth which now rests in the United States.

What is needed, if the problems of Puerto Rico are to be solved is: first, the power in the hands of the Puerto Rican workers and peasants; and second, a part of the riches now held by U.S. imperialism. But to have these things would require something more than simply the independence of Puerto Rico; it requires the proletarian revolution, inside Puerto Rico, as well as in the United States.

A movement or a party which wants to express the real interests of the Puerto Rican working class and of the poor has to fight for this; it has to fight for the proletarian revolution not just in Puerto Rico, but also in the United States where the Puerto Rican people are a significant section of the poor population of some of the biggest cities.

Certainly, the fight for the proletarian revolution is not the goal of the nationalist parties of Puerto Rico, or of the independence movement. But it is clear that American revolutionaries must defend the right of self determination for all the people who are oppressed by U.S. imperialism, including, especially the Puerto Rican people; just at they must be in solidarity with all people who fight against U.S. imperialism, and, therefore, with all those Puerto Rican people who are persecuted by this imperialism.