AOC is right: Puerto Rico is a US colony and should be independent

Granted, the New York congresswoman made the statement way back in the mists of time otherwise known as September 2018, and hasn’t circled back to it again. A lot of water has flowed down the Potomac since then.

That does not change the fact that the Caribbean island is a colony and that its people deserve the same kind of self-determination and democracy the US says it wants for the entire planet. May as well start right at home, no?

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Puerto Rico spent centuries as a Spanish colony, before it was taken by US troops in July 1898 and ceded by a treaty in 1899. Most other territories seized by the US in the course of the Spanish-American War, such as Cuba and the Philippines, have since become independent. Not so Puerto Rico, which remains an “unincorporated territory” of the US.

Puerto Ricans were given US citizenship in 1917 – right on time to be drafted into Woodrow Wilson’s war in Europe, the cynics said – but they can’t vote in presidential elections and are represented in Congress by a non-voting resident commissioner. If they live on the island, that is: at this point, more of them live on the US mainland (5.6 million) than in Puerto Rico itself (3.2 million). 

The UN Special Committee on Decolonization determined in 1978 that a “colonial relationship” existed between the US and Puerto Rico, and called on Washington to “expedite” self-determination for the island back in 2016. It is 2019 now, and the age of colonialism should be long over. What gives?

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Back in September 2017, the island was struck by hurricanes Irma and Maria in quick succession, losing electricity. Officials said 64 people died, but later accepted a Harvard estimate of over 3,000 victims. Recovery was intensely politicized, with Democrats accusing President Donald Trump of “racism” for allegedly not doing enough to help the colony. San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz went so far as to accuse Trump of “genocide” during her metaphorical 15 minutes of fame as a fixture on cable news channels.  

It took almost a year to restore electricity to all residents of the island, which was probably not helped by the media outrage over the company contracted for the repairs being based in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The company left the island before doing any work.

This week, thousands of Puerto Ricans turned out to protest Governor Ricardo Rossello, citing disparaging remarks he allegedly made on Telegram about journalists and local officials during and after the hurricanes, and demanding his resignation. 

Last week, a mayor and two former government officials were arrested on charges of corruption and accused of embezzling $8 million in federal and local funds between 2013 and 2016. The island is also struggling with a $70 billion public debt incurred over the past several decades, and has been placed under a de facto trusteeship of a federal oversight committee. 

A Puerto Rican independence movement (FALN) in the 1970s resorted to over 70 terrorist attacks, of which the most prominent was the 1975 bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan’s financial district. Four people were killed and more than 50 injured. Oscar Lopez Rivera, who was imprisoned for the attack in 1981, was released by President Barack Obama just before he left office in 2017.

Most Puerto Ricans these days seem to prefer becoming the 51st state. A 2012 referendum saw 54 percent favoring a change in status, with 61 percent of those wanting statehood and 33 percent preferring “free association” – basically, becoming a client state like Palau or the Marshall Islands. Congress decided to ignore it, because 500,000 blank ballots were cast. Another referendum in 2017 saw 97 percent vote in favor of statehood – but the turnout amounted to just 23 percent.

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There doesn’t seem to be any appetite in Washington for making Puerto Rico a state, however, on either side of the aisle. While most Republicans see it as giving Democrats more electoral votes, Democrats are more than happy to simply resettle Puerto Ricans on the mainland, as a voting bloc in swing states like Florida. Both amount to cynicism, frankly.

There is no denying that after 120 years of US rule, Puerto Rico is in bad shape. So why not do the right thing and grant the island full independence? As a bonus, AOC – that great visionary of our time – can then get a shot at implementing her Green New Deal and transforming the island into a socialist tropical paradise. It’s a win-win! 

By Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic is a Serbian-American journalist and political commentator, working at RT since 2015

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