The Price of Paralysis in Puerto Rico

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In Puerto Rico, we are at a crossroads. Our social, economic, and political crisis is deeper than we dare to admit. As the floor is removed from under our feet, old paradigms are more useless than ever before.

In its current paralysis, Puerto Rico will continue to deteriorate, still under the domination of the United States, a country going through its own crisis, undergoing a wave of authoritarianism. With the federal government in the hands of a destructive narcissist and his enablers, only the will to freedom of the American people will prevent tyranny. But that will can only be rooted in self-confidence, which in turn is yielded by knowledge, by the clarity of thought of inquiring, critical minds. All that seems to be a rare commodity in today’s United States.

Like in the U.S.A., and seemingly elsewhere, the amorality of the Puerto Rican ruling class also seems to know no limits. The administration of the current governor has displayed an abysmal lack of empathy, expertise, and intellect—similar to that of governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis. Its actions in the face of the 2020 crises, from the earthquakes to the pandemic, have been appalling. There is no discernible willingness to merely alleviate the suffering that overwhelms Puerto Ricans. Meanwhile, the crisis of Puerto Rico’s “colonial experiment” has been left unattended for more than 50 years.

How We Got Here

America’s acquisition, in 1898, of Puerto Rico and other “overseas territories” is only intelligible as a new stage in capitalist expansion. Facing the reality of a new empire, Puerto Rico’s political elite went from hope to confusion. Back then, that elite conceived the United States as a republic of republics. Thus, it expected Puerto Rico would eventually become a state of the American union. Unlike Spain, the United States was a liberal, democratic country, and therefore incapable of indefinitely keeping Puerto Ricans as colonial subjects. Or so they thought.

In 1900, Congress enacted the Foraker Act, putting in place a civil government, with a governor appointed by the president. It also established, in language which is still on the law books, that federal legislation applies in Puerto Rico, as Congress may see fit. In 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Puerto Ricans could be held indefinitely as colonial subjects, since as an “alien race,” they were neither fit for self-government, nor for statehood. That is still a cornerstone of American dominion over Puerto Rico.

Racism makes no sense, as humans everywhere have merit and boundless talent. Puerto Ricans are no exception, as shown by so many who excel in all walks of life. But, a radical political and mentality shift is required to tap that human potential in the pursuit of a new path.

Given the disappointment caused by the American policy of perennial colonialism, the 19th-century autonomist ideology was reactivated. Regrettably, since the dawn of the 20th century, autonomists and those who favor statehood have operated out of perplexity and weakness. Today, Puerto Rico is in the same colonial limbo in which it found itself in 1900, with no real chance of attaining social and economic development.

For 120 years, claims for greater self-government have been met with the refusal of U.S. rulers to even conceive that Puerto Rico can or should possess powers that states lack. Statehood claims have not even crashed, but have been ignored. However, Puerto Rican politicians—static and ineffective—insist on operating from weakness, and articulating the same old slogans and clichés that have made patent that pusillanimity, and futility, for more than a century. 

The Urgency of Optimism

Human cultures are comprised of ideas, and the concomitant praxes. Practices and ideas stabilize, even stagnate. Cultural paralysis ensues in societies that tend to be static, rather than dynamic, innovative, and with an ethos of critical thinking.

Progress—material and moral—requires action, creativity and experimentation. The opposite—conformity, inaction, and stagnation—yields backwardness and moral turpitude. Thus, the most urgent task is a radical change of mindset—a cultural shift.

I propose that, after 120 years of American colonial domination, the central problem of Puerto Rican culture is its paralysis. The pessimism of stasis must be replaced by the optimism of internalizing the fact that, while problems are inevitable, they have solutions, by relying on creativity, knowledge, and a critical and experimental attitude.

People often talk about the importance of education as the means of transforming societies. But that raises many questions, including: Who will educate? How? With what skills and tools? With what mentality? Are those in power interested in the existence of a true citizenry, one comprised of critical thinkers? Or do they reckon that their interests are best safeguarded by keeping the masses as sheep, with no confidence in their ability to dispense with being told what to think and do? 

A colonial setting is not the only one that yields a society of cows and sheep, as we can see all over the world. Plus, in any static society, teachers, parents and figures of authority transmit the ideas and practices that reproduce paralysis and pessimism. Thus, we may be talking about an intractable problem. I certainly do not pretend to have the answer to how to attain cultural transformation. 

In any event, being a colony would be less harmful if Puerto Ricans had built a more dynamic society. Of course, eventually a respectable dose of dynamism is antithetical to political and economic subordination, and to the ignominy of being isolated from the rest of the world. The current dead end, which is moral, political, ecological, social, economic and demographic—of sheer viability—is the price we are paying for stagnation. And it is getting late.

Roberto Ariel Fernández is the author of six law journal articles about constitutional issues, including the Puerto Rican colonial history. His 2004 book, 'El constitucionalismo y la encerrona colonial de Puerto Rico,' can be found at the libraries of Princeton and Yale.

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