If this is your first time in Puerto Rico, you could be forgiven for thinking it a very strange place. The familiar features of a tourist destination are as usual: flight delays, taxi drivers that overcharge you, the discovery that your hotel’s website description is embroidered beyond recognition. Puerto Ricans have a charming Spanish-Caribbean accent – “glacias”, not “gracias”, “Puelto Lico”, not “Puerto Rico” – and are passionate about politics. But, walking on the streets of the hotel quarter or El Viejo San Juan, you feel like there is somehow a lack of identity, a combination of Latin American culture and North American styles of behaviour and attitude that confuses the senses.
“We live in a limbo”, says my host, a film producer, “and we need to solve that problem”. I know what he means. Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been an Estado Libre Asociado, Free Associated State, an ambiguous status that gives Puerto Ricans the right to live in the USA and hold an American passport. However, the status is full of bizarre contradictions: for instance, Puerto Ricans can take part in the primaries that choose the US presidential candidates for the main parties, but cannot vote in the actual election for president.
The US government has tried to solve the problem. On 6 November 2012, during the US presidential elections, a non-binding referendum asked Puerto Ricans if they wanted to maintain the current political status of Estado Libre Asociado. More than 52% said no. When asked in the same ballot whether they wanted to be an independent country, a Sovereign Free Associated State or become the 51st state of the Union, the largest group of those who voted – 44% – chose statehood, while 24% chose sovereign free associated state, almost 5% voted for independence, and 26% left their ballots blank. Some 28% did not vote at all.
Two things are clear. Nobody is happy with the current status, but support for full US statehood does not have a clear 50% majority. The pro-statehood movement wants the US congress to move towards the integration of Puerto Rico to the USA, but the pro-independence movement claims that the referendum did not confer a clear mandate for this. Even Governor-elect Alejandro Garcia Padilla wrote to president Obama asking him to ignore the referendum due to the lack of clarity in the results.
It is curious that both camps call the current status “colonial”. Maria de Lourdes Santiago, the only pro-independence senator in the local legislature and a leader of Partido Independentista de Puerto Rico told me that the situation in unsustainable, because the current scale of economic subsidies has prevented Puerto Rico from developing as a nation. She argues that 60% of Puerto Ricans live on social security and that the US imposes rules and regulations that are alien to the culture of the island.
Ricky Rossello, the son of a former governor and a pro-statehood politician told me that most people in Puerto Rico want to be part of the US and that when this happens, their influence on US politics will be huge.
Both told me that the “colonial” status cannot be maintained. And media sources in the US suggest that the Senate is likely to ignore the result of a referendum that was not legally binding.
Luis, my host, despairs. Although he wants independence for his beloved island, he is sufficiently fed up to vote for statehood if that can resolve the current political impasse. “We can deal with independence later” he says, but he wants to get out of the limbo.
Indeed, for many people in the Caribbean and Latin America Puerto Rico is a kind of invisible community with which they cannot deal as an entity. For instance, this substantial island state (with a population larger than Jamaica’s) cannot establish international relations with any of its Caribbean neighbours because the US does that for them. The case of Puerto Rico is currently with the UN Decolonisation Committee, which has urged Washington, to no avail, to come to some kind of solution.
The current status has also led to abuses by the US military. Until 2003, island of Vieques, to the east of the Puerto Rican mainland, was used as a firing range by the US navy. The legacy is disastrous: lead, mercury, depleted uranium, napalm, magnesium, lithium and copper have contaminated land and damaged fishing stocks. President Obama promised to solve the problem. Nothing has been done because such an ’irrelevant’ territory is hardly in the list of the priorities of the US presidents, says Robert Rubin, a US Vieques activist whose impeccable Spanish has acquired the disctinctive Puerto Rican accent.
In September 2011, the US Department for Justice issued a report accusing the Puerto Rican police force of violations of civil rights and illegal practices. Another report by the Puerto Rico branch of the American Civil Liberties Union called the territory “The island of Impunity”. Human rights lawyer Judith Berlan told me that she has tried to put pressure on the local government to solve the situation, but she has been told that there is very little they can do about it because the federal government is in charge. Judith looks at me in despair as she explains that important legal matters relating to Puerto Rico are dealt with by a judge in a tribunal based…in Boston, Massachusetts!
Under the baking tropical sun, on the pristine northern beaches facing the Atlantic, not to mention the even hotter Caribbean shoreline in the south of the island, there is a sense of incompleteness, the need to become citizens of somewhere.
“We think we are citizens, but we are not”, says Luis. On this, everybody agrees in Puerto Rico.