In the weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, you will have no doubt seen some variation of the words “Puerto Ricans are Americans.” It’s a well-meaning refrain coming from a wide range of people—including writers on this site—who are outraged over the shameful response from the U.S. government to the crisis on the island.
Technically, Puerto Ricans are all U.S. citizens. They pay taxes and serve in the military and don’t need a passport to come to the U.S. mainland, and they deserve the same help the people of Texas and Florida received when they were hit by hurricanes.
But if we are really to confront the reality of Puerto Rico’s misery—and the reason why the Trump administration has treated its plight with such callous indifference—we need to start talking about Puerto Rico in a far more honest way. Puerto Ricans may be “American,” but Puerto Rico is not part of America in any way that we should celebrate. It is not a “territory” or a “commonwealth” or any other obfuscatory language people have come up with.
Puerto Rico is a colony.
It has been a U.S. colony since 1898, when Spain handed it over to America as a price of its defeat in the Spanish-American war. It remained a colony even after 1917, when the U.S. granted Puerto Ricans citizenship rights just in time to draft them into World War I. It remained a colony after 1952, when the U.S. renamed it a commonwealth after granting it limited self-government. (Congress made it clear at the time that the “fundamental” colonial relationship was not changing.) And it is still a colony now.
The indignities suffered by Puerto Ricans are legion. They can’t vote for president and they don’t have full representation in Congress. A part of their country, Vieques, was used for bombing practice by the U.S. military for generations, causing widespread ecological destruction. (Residents of Vieques suffer from rates of cancer and heart disease that dwarf their neighbors.) Corporations, often backed by American laws, have ruthlessly extracted their wealth.
In a series of confusing early 20th century decisions known as the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court repeatedly ruled that the full protections of the U.S. Constitution do not apply to Puerto Rico. In one of these, Balzac. v. Porto Rico, the Court told a plaintiff that he had no right to a trial by jury because that right did not extend to “unincorporated” American territories.
But you don’t have to look further than 2016 to see Puerto Rico’s colonial reality. First, in response to a crippling debt crisis—which has deep colonial roots—Congress passed the PROMESA Act, which installed a so-called “oversight board” to oversee the island’s financial affairs and which has supreme jurisdiction. (The bill explicitly states that its provisions “shall prevail over any general or specific provisions of territory law, State law, or regulation that is inconsistent with this Act.”) The board promptly imposed harsh austerity measures on the country.
Around the same time, the Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Rico was not allowed to restructure its debt without congressional approval. States can independently restructure their debt, and independent countries can, too. Colonies can’t. For good measure, the Court also reminded Puerto Rico in a separate opinion that it has no sovereign rights apart from the ones the federal government chose to grant.
This is not a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike have been happy to keep Puerto Rico in shackles for more than a century. The colonial relationship is, at this point, a core part of the American state.
Puerto Ricans are split on what they want to do about all of this. At least five referendums have been held on the island asking residents what they want the future of their country to be, with murky results. One was just held this year, though it was boycotted by anti-statehood forces. A broader 2012 referendum found a majority voting both to end the island’s current status and, separately, to become a U.S. state, though the validity of the latter vote was challenged by outside experts. Whatever the case, it seems clear that the status quo is no longer acceptable to Puerto Ricans. Of course, only Congress can change the status quo, because Congress, not Puerto Rico, controls the island’s fate.
Like virtually all colonies, Puerto Rico also has an ongoing independence movement, which has fought for liberation from the U.S. through both peaceful and militant means. Though it does not garner substantial support at elections and in polls, it is nevertheless accepted as a legitimate and meaningful part of the island’s politics, and it has a rich history. (It was once viewed as such a threat that the Puerto Rican government banned people from speaking about independence or even displaying the country’s own flag, lest they inspire nationalist sentiments.) Historical advocates of independence such as Pedro Albizu Campos are regarded as heroes by many.
Whatever happens to Puerto Rico in the future, it should surprise exactly nobody that the U.S. response to Maria was so atrocious. Why would it be anything else? America has treated Puerto Rico with exploitative contempt since the moment it took control of the island. Colonies don’t, as a rule, get the top level of care from the empire.
It’s almost certainly true that someone less racist and incompetent than Donald Trump would have coordinated the relief efforts after Hurricane Maria more effectively, or treated Puerto Ricans more compassionately. Trump’s personal ugliness, his basic lack of human decency, is sui generis. But we can’t make the mistake of thinking that he is the fundamental problem Puerto Rico is facing. The system is the problem. Colonialism is the problem.
On August 11, 1898—the morning after Spain agreed to surrender Puerto Rico (along with Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam) to the United States—the New York Times ran, without comment, the text of a speech given by journalist Alexander McClure about the burgeoning American empire. The speech read, in part:
The same supreme power that demanded this war will demand the complete fulfillment of its purpose. It will demand, in tones which none can misunderstand and which no power or part can be strong enough to disregard, that the United States flag shall never be furled in any Spanish province where it has been planted by the heroism of our army and navy.
Call it imperialism if you will; but it is not the imperialism that is inspired by the lust of conquest. It is the higher and nobler imperialism that voices the sovereign power of this Nation and demands the extension of our flag and authority over the provinces of Spain, solely that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
McClure’s view is still the basic position of the U.S. government towards Puerto Rico. We have allowed our country to maintain its position as a colonial overseer well into the 21st century. Until we accept that and honestly deal with it, no amount of hurricane relief will be enough.