Commonwealth Failed: It’s Time for Puerto Ricans to Make the Ultimate Political Decision in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

Unity March for Puerto Rico in Washington, DC. Sunday, November 19, 2017. (photo by Phil Velez.)

Less than two weeks before this year’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade celebration, a new Harvard University study estimates 4,645 Puerto Ricans died from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. As Boricuas prepare to celebrate our culture and mourn the lives lost, it may also be time to seriously reevaluate Puerto Rico’s political status.

As a Puerto Rican born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, also known as a Nuyorican, I’ve known that for 120 years my people have continuously debated between being an independent sovereign nation, a commonwealth/territory of the United States, or the 51st State of the United States of America. Commonwealth has always won out. Puerto Rico has operated as a commonwealth since 1898 after the U.S. defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. It’s classified as an “unincorporated territory,” meaning the island is controlled by the U.S.

The more than 4,600 Puerto Rican deaths from Hurricane Maria clearly illustrates to me that commonwealth failed Puerto Rico. The United States government pretty much abandoned Puerto Rico at its most dire time. If Puerto Rico had been a State when Hurricane Maria hit, there most likely would have been more U.S. resources allocated for the archipelago’s recovery, thus leading to fewer hurricane-related fatalities.

I dare to speculate that if the citizens of Puerto Rico had decided long ago to be an independent nation, they may have been greater prepared to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The proposed Republic of Puerto Rico would have been able to reach out to the international community for assistance as opposed to relying only on the U.S. for help.

The fight for independence has a long history in Puerto Rico, becoming fiercely intense. In 1950 Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate U.S. President Harry Truman and in 1954 nationalists shot-up the U.S. Capitol.

The struggle for independence has never been popular with the majority of Puerto Ricans with historically only about five percent of the citizenry voting in favor. In last year’s plebiscite, 97 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for Statehood, however, only 23 percent of the population voted. Independence and Commonwealth supporters boycotted the status referendum suggesting the vote was rigged in favor of Statehood.

As a Puerto Rican born in the States, I have no say in the matter. At first, I thought the status-quo political stance of Puerto Rico was fine by me. It seemed like the best of both worlds. Later I thought my people should make a decision already. If I had a vote, I would vote to cross off Commonwealth and let the people of Puerto Rico finally achieve self-determination. Do you want La Isla del Encanto to be a U.S. State or an independent country?

Becoming a State makes the most sense since it already acts as a State and the position is strongly supported politically. Puerto Rico would be like the Hawaii of the East Coast. We Puerto Ricans can finally live happily ever as officially part of the U.S. with all the benefits that come along with that, like having full representation in Congress and the ability to vote for the U.S. President.  Most recently, I had personally wholeheartedly supported this idea.

Then I  conducted research on the history of the independence of Puerto Rico and came across Eugenio Maria de Hostos, a Puerto Rican educator, author, and revolutionary. Hostos furiously fought for the independence of Puerto Rico but the U.S. was interested in keeping the potential Caribbean nation a colony. Hostos was upset with this power and the fact that his people did not collectively fight for independence, that he left Puerto Rico and lived his last years in the Dominican Republic where he is buried. Hostos’ final wish was to have his remains stay permanently in the Dominican Republic until the day Puerto Rico is completely independent.

If the government of Puerto Rico negotiates independence with the U.S., it could stipulate that for 10 years the U.S. must financially and structurally help Puerto Rico get on its feet to operate like its own country. It’s a fantastic possibility, but I try to be a true optimist. Maybe the spirits of Puerto Rican freedom fighters are still calling the Boriken subconsciousness.

In any event, I think it’s time to take the Commonwealth option off the table. Puerto Ricans must accept the fact that sitting on the political fence has not worked for our people. It will take some time for Puerto Rico to get on its feet and it may take years to feel some sense of normalcy. During this time of healing, Puerto Ricans need to do some real soul searching to finally decide its political fate. We owe it to the 4,645 Puerto Ricans who lost their lives due to Hurricane Maria. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves.


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