by Marie Cruz Soto
Last June 23rd, I participated for the first time in the U.N. Decolonization Hearings on Puerto Rico. My statement addressed the detrimental effects the U.S. Navy has had on Vieques and how these did not magically disappear with its official parting from the island eleven years ago. The horrors of the past cannot be done away with so easily, especially when the conditions that facilitate them persist. I thus emphasized how the colonial status of the Puerto Rican archipelago has facilitated the abuses committed in the island-municipality. Petitioner after petitioner, from their different perspectives, similarly stressed the detrimental effects of colonialism. And at the end of the day the Special Committee unanimously approved a call on the U.S. to, “allow the people of Puerto Rico to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence, as well as take decisions, in a sovereign manner, to address their economic and social needs.” The statement is in accord with the view shared by, arguably, the majority of Puerto Ricans who hold that the present relationship to the U.S. is unacceptable and that islanders have the right to self-determination. Yet, self-determination is commonly understood as choosing between independence, statehood, and (an enhanced version of) commonwealth. Puerto Ricans are not dreaming of independence. Or at least not of the independence offered by traditional party politics. The option received 5% of the votes in the latest referendum, which coincides with the numbers of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño in general elections. The question is: Why? With the centrality of nation-states to modern liberal democracies and global world order, why is the political imagination of islanders captive to a triad in which independence seems to fulfill the role of scaring people to vote for the other two options? A look at two recent initiatives may throw some light on the issue.
Anyone following the news these days will know that things in Puerto Rico are heated. And not just because of the summer temperatures. The Puerto Rican government is currently confronting a fiscal crisis, credit rating agencies, and unions. The talk about austerity measures and strikes may have opened up some space for stories to circulate about unorthodox political thinking. And, indeed, it may appear as counterintuitive for separatistas in a colonial setting to be against nation-state and for empire. But this is the case with two initiatives that have caught the attention of the media. On the one hand, a group called Movimiento de Reunificación con España (MRE) has declared null the 1898 Treaty of Paris and expressed desire to be annexed to Spain. According to its founder José Nieves Seise, the Iberian metropole granted political autonomy to Puerto Ricans with the 1897 Carta Autonómica. Puerto Rico stopped then being a colony and thus could not be ceded to the U.S as booty of war the following year. Islanders had to be consulted for the Treaty of Paris to be valid. And since they were not, the transfer of sovereignty to the U.S. was illegitimate and so have been the last 116 years of U.S. rule. He further states that Puerto Ricans have supported options other than annexation “because in school we were taught a distorted version of history, one that demonized Spain and that hid the fact that we were Spanish citizens and that we are the descendants of the conquistadores.” For him, Puerto Rico is (in a good and inalienable way) a product of Spanish colonialism, and annexation a matter of putting things right. Not only does annexation corrects a historical wrong, but it also opens up a brighter future with a more benevolent empire. Spain, for the MRE, stands in stark contrast to a U.S. Empire that has long neglected Puerto Ricans and denied them of political representation and economic opportunities. In this sense, U.S. rule is, more than illegitimate, highly undesirable. But so is a Puerto Rican nation-state.
On the other hand, there are the Viequense separatistas. These seek independence from Puerto Rico in order to establish a more direct relationship with the U.S. The initiative steers clear of identity politics and nostalgic looks at the long colonial past of the Puerto Rican archipelago. There is no counter-slogan to the MRE’s “Somos puertorriqueños Somos españoles No gringos.” It assumes instead a rather pragmatic stance that has surprised, if not disturbed, many Puerto Rican main islanders. Indeed, the initiative cannot but make main islanders uncomfortable given that it is built on a searing critique of Puerto Rican politics. According to the spokespersons Yashei Rosario and Julián García, the Viequense island-community suffers from underdevelopment and from the neglect of San Juan-based politicians who take detrimental decisions from far away. Not knowing or caring about the people on the other side of the Vieques Sound. Water is here a divide that separates Viequenses from constituents actually benefited by the actions of their elected officials. In this regard, Rosario further states that Vieques is doubly colonized: by Puerto Rico and by the U.S. The agenda of these separatistas is thus not built on a romanticized vision of the U.S. It is not even built on the typical colonial mentality of the incapacity of the colonized. Rosario, on the contrary, identifies the U.S. as an oppressive power and Viequenses as individuals who can develop themselves successfully. If only allowed to. The goal then is to sever ties to Puerto Rico and work with the remaining metropole in the securing of economic well-being.
The MRE and the Viequense separatistas while embracing different empires concur on their rejection of a Puerto Rican nation-state. In order to do so, the MRE opens up the past to the demands of the present. It depends on historical reinterpretations that elide the fact that the Carta Autonómica was only granted after four centuries of imperialism and anti-colonial resistance. Rather than a gift, the Charter was a modest opening that came late and at a high price. For it was not in the nature of the Spanish Empire to be any kinder than the U.S. Both endeavored to discipline the local population and ensure that independence was neither viable nor desired by islanders. Eradicating dissent, by any means necessary, has been fundamental to the fashioning of a profitable colony. And Puerto Rico has been a profitable colony. One historically dependent on the work of enslaved and immigrant peoples. Their central role in the making of modern day Puerto Ricans renders any unqualified claim to Spanish ancestry problematic. The Viequense separatistas accordingly overlook that, while the Puerto Rican government has many times enacted unfavorable policies for Vieques (and the rest of the archipelago), it has also with limited power of negotiation deterred the actions of the U.S. For if San Juan-based politicians backed the onset of the 1940s expropriations, they later avoided the complete takeover of the island by the U.S. Navy. Puerto Rican main islanders and the diaspora, in addition, were instrumental in driving out the Navy. Without their support, it is quite likely that Viequenses would still be living between an ammunition depot and a live fire target range. In these post-Navy days the U.S. federal government has repeatedly invoked sovereign immunity in order to evade responsibility over the welfare of Viequenses. It is thus unclear what sort of support the Viequense separatistas could expect. Yet, they wish to cast their lot with the U.S., and the MRE with Spain.
It would be easy to reduce the actions of these two groups to opportunism, to historical amnesia, or to the otherwise ills of a colonial mentality. It would be more productive, however, to contextualize their actions diachronically and synchronically. All Puerto Ricans are the product of a long colonial history throughout which dissent has been persecuted and the capacity of islanders has been questioned. Over the years the violence of colonialism has been normalized and made part of the invisible workings of the everyday. It is then not surprising that Puerto Ricans have trouble imagining a future without a metropole. And this daring feat only becomes more difficult when the metropole shuns the term empire and claims to be the defender of liberal principles, human rights, and economic development. Anti-imperial critiques are thus rendered nonsensical. Yet, Puerto Ricans are also of this world characterized by Arturo Escobar as ruled by imperial globality and global coloniality. The terms highlight the U.S.-led, “economic-military-ideological order that subordinates regions, peoples and economies world-wide.” Nation-states, in this context, take back seat to global dynamics that “heightened marginalisation and suppression of the knowledge and culture of subaltern groups.” This is not to say that nation-states are irrelevant in the potential offsetting of such global dynamics, or that the search for independence is not a worthy endeavor, but rather that the optimism which once permeated mid-20th century decolonization movements is lost. Nation-states can no longer be considered the panacea to the problems faced by historically marginalized groups. Neither can nationalism be understood as inherently anti-colonial or empowering discourse. New political imaginings are needed to envision a more just world.
 Escobar, Arturo. “Beyond the Third World: Imperial Globality, Global Coloniality and Anti-globalisation Social Movements.” Third World Quarterly 25:1 (2004): 207.
 Escobar, “Beyond the Third World.”
Marie Cruz Soto teaches at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University. She has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research interests and publications focus on the island community of Vieques, militarized colonialism, reproductive rights, knowledge production, and coloniality. She is currently working on a book manuscript that delves into the five-century struggle of peoples to inhabit the island of Vieques and of empires to control it.