DORADO, Puerto Rico — Year after year, decade after decade, the United Nations General Assembly’s special committee on decolonization has taken up the issue of Puerto Rico’s status as a dependent commonwealth of the United States. Puerto Rico is self-governing but without the full representation in Washington enjoyed by the 50 American states or the ability to act independently in international organizations and the global arena generally.
In June of last year, the UN committee called again on the US government to open the way to Puerto Rican independence. Besides speeches from numerous Latin American nations, there were strong remarks by Iran, representing the Nonaligned Movement, and Syria — which without apparent irony declared that Puerto Ricans suffered “violence, intimidation and imprisonment” at the hands of the US. Again, the call was ignored or dismissed in Washington as largely irrelevant to the wishes of Puerto Ricans themselves.
Not content with the result, several regional nations took up the cause at the end of January this year at a summit meeting in Cuba of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which the US and Canada did not attend. The campaign in the regional organization (as in the UN General Assembly) was led by Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, with some support from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina, and others. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, was quoted as saying that it was “an embarrassment” that the region still had colonies.
When the subject of Puerto Rican independence comes up, as it has from time to time for a century — it was, in fact, proposed in the 1940 and 50s by some American politicians — the problem for the advocates of “decolonization” is that the most recent referendums and plebiscites on the issue seem to indicate that the movement for independence is all but dead. In the last vote, held in November 2012, a majority of Puerto Ricans who voted — 61 percent — chose full statehood within the US as their first preference. Most of the other voters opted for the status quo.
The leading political organization in favor of a break with the US mainland, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, has struggled to secure even the smallest following in public opinion or the island’s legislature. This reality is routinely denied in the UN decolonization committee.
The governments supporting the Puerto Rican independence movement from outside say that the island’s culture, language and history should dictate its geopolitical status in the Caribbean and the world, not its dependency on an alien English-speaking American system and society. The argument has lost traction here, as the Spanish-speaking proportion of the US population grows, and more Puerto Ricans live on the US mainland — permanently or temporarily, since they have American citizenship — than actually remain full time in Puerto Rico.
It is hard to find anyone who is met in day-to-day encounters here who sees the logic in independence, however proud Puerto Ricans are of their island heritage and culture. More people are moving to the mainland US, figures show, because the island’s economy is in deep trouble. The island’s credit rating has been reduced internationally to junk status, and human development indicators are stuck below the levels of the poorest US states. Many people are returning home to retire here, close to their roots. Independence, they say, would make this perpetual movement and family connections more difficult.
There is another awkward reality facing the Latin American advocates of independence for Puerto Rico, which was ceded to the US by Spain (along with the Philippines, Guam and Cuba, which became independent in 1902) after the Spanish-American War in 1898: a dozen or more Caribbean islands are still dependencies of European nations and also recognized as colonies by the General Assembly decolonization committee.
These include British Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and Montserrat and the Dutch territories of Aruba, Curaçao, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten (shared with the French), Sint Eustatius and Saba. The islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are overseas departments of France.
In Latin American conclaves, a lot less is heard about these other dependent islands.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.