Should We celebrate ‘Commonwealth’ on July 25?
by CARLOS ROMERO BARCELÓ
July 30, 2009
Carlos Romero Barceló is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-’84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-’00) and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-’78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.
What happened on July 25, 1952 that we should celebrate and honor with an official holiday? Nothing. On the contrary, instead of celebrating the adoption of our local constitution on that day as a giant step toward full local self-government, we should declare July 25 a day of shame and mourning for being the day when our people voted to become a “colony by consent.”
Until July 25, 1952, we were a colony by conquest in the Spanish-American War of 1898. At the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, we had been a colony for more than 450 years. In the Treaty of Paris, signed at the end of the Spanish-American War, Spain gave up Puerto Rico to the U.S. and we became a colony of the U.S. by conquest.
During the first two decades of our colonial relationship with the nation, two very important acts of Congress established the colonial government in Puerto Rico. The Foraker Act in 1901 and the Jones Act of 1917 determined and defined the Republican form of government established in Puerto Rico. As established in the Jones Act, the Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives were organized, and all people born in Puerto Rico after the enactment of the Jones Act would be natural-born citizens of the U.S.
Since the Foraker Act, the governor of Puerto Rico was appointed by the U.S. president and, as a result, the highest-ranking and most-powerful elected public official after 1917 was the Puerto Rico Senate president.
It wasn’t until 1948 that we were allowed to elect our own governor by virtue of an act of Congress during President Harry Truman’s administration. Precisely during those years, right after World War II, Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín began conversations with the White House and Congress in an attempt to achieve full local self-government in Puerto Rico.
The attempt failed and all we obtained was:
First, a change of official name from the Territory of Puerto Rico to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico;
Second, the consent of Congress to allow us to draft a local constitution, which would define the Republican form of government with its separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches as were already established under the Jones Act of 1917 as amended, including the right to elect our own governor, which had been bestowed upon us in 1948;
Third, the right to appeal our local Supreme Court decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit, was eliminated and our Puerto Rico Supreme Court decisions could only be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In everything else, Puerto Rico remained under full congressional authority in all laws including, but not limited to, labor, tax and other revenue, transportation, commerce, banking, health & health services, criminal, immigration, environmental and all other areas subject to congressional jurisdiction.
All attempts to interpret the legal and political relationship with the U.S. as one that granted Puerto Rico full local self-government, have fallen by the wayside. For many years, Muñoz Marín and “Commonwealth” supporters claimed we had full control over minimum-wage laws and other labor relations. However, when Congress decided to legislatively apply federal minimum wages in Puerto Rico, it did. There was nothing the Popular Democratic Party and those who claimed full autonomy on minimum wages and other fair-labor standards could do about it.
For decades, Muñoz Marín and all Commonwealth supporters claimed full fiscal autonomy. However, when President Clinton and Congress decided to eliminate the tax credits of Section 936 to companies established in Puerto Rico, there was nothing “Commonwealth” supporters could do other than beg and plead with the president and Congress. All they could obtain was an extension of the time to eliminate the tax credits.
More and more people in Puerto Rico have realized the so-called Commonwealth status is nothing other than a “disguised colony.” Or, as that memorable constitutional lawyer, Dr. Santos P. Amadeo, used to say: “The Commonwealth is nothing other than a perfumed cologne” or, a “bonsai,” as Peña Clos says.
As a result of Puerto Rico’s continuous colonial relationship, an undesirable colonial mentality has been creeping into our behavior and sense of relationship with the federal government and even with our own local government.
That is why every time a member of our executive or legislative branch of government goes to the White House, Congress or any federal government agency, it is to ask or beg for money or other resources, while here, in Puerto Rico, Commonwealth supporters blame the federal government for all of our problems, albeit past, present or future.
While those of us who work and struggle to achieve political and economic equality, not only in terms of rights and privileges but also in terms of duties and obligations, those who support the colonial relationship ask for more money and equality in privileges and funds, but refuse to accept any more responsibilities or obligations, particularly payment of taxes and acceptance of other fiscal responsibilities.
The colonial relationship has undermined the self-respect and sense of pride of those who continuously beg and plead but refuse to accept responsibilities and obligations. They make our people appear as beggars and leeches. When Commonwealth supporters go to Washington to beg and plead, while at the same time they refuse to accept any more duties or obligations as citizens, they not only demean our people, they also give the bigots and prejudiced groups arguments to use against us in our quest for equality and to create and provoke prejudice against Puerto Ricans.
The result of the undermining of our self-esteem as a consequence of our colonial relationship and the sponsoring of a beggars attitude is clearly demonstrated by a widely held fear that even if we have a majority support for political equality in a referendum, Congress wouldn’t grant us statehood. Those who make the argument and believe we will never be granted equality even if a majority asks for it, have a clear inferiority complex. The nation’s history clearly demonstrates that not a single territory has ever been denied admission as a state once a majority has voted for it.
The political reality of the world and the nation today makes it even more improbable that we wouldn’t be accepted as a state if a majority votes for it. It is precisely the colonial mentality that we must rid ourselves of. It is the colonial mentality that creates doubt in many of us as to what we can achieve with a majority vote.
It is our misfortune that a majority of our people were misled into voting for “Commonwealth” under the belief we were achieving a full measure of local self government.
Instead of celebrating July 25, we should proclaim it a day of shame and a day of mourning in our struggle for political and economic equality. Next year, on July 25, those of us who want full measures of democracy and political and economic equality should wear black ribbons on our chests and put black flags on our cars.