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Embarrassing Colony

Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment

by Raymond Carr
A Twentieth Century Fund Study, New York University Press/Vintage, 477 pp., $25.00; $9.95 (paper)

There is some irony to the subtitle of Raymond Carr’s book, “a colonial experiment.” Not long ago many Puerto Ricans believed that the island’s commonwealth status represented a “compact” acknowledging Puerto Rico’s cultural identity and its right to self-determination. Today, in the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations, the United States still regularly resists being held accountable as Puerto Rico’s “colonial” mentor. But in this instance the exercise of American world power requires more than the usual disclaimer; and the world “experiment” implies conditions of scrutiny and control that scarcely apply to the case of Puerto Rico, which Carr chronicles as a history of mutual misperception, selective inattention, and abdicated responsibility.

For at least a century Puerto Rican politics have turned on the issue of political status. In the closing years of Spanish rule the choices facing the islanders were those of continuing to accept annexation, working for autonomy, or demanding independence. Any change would have required concerted pressure by the island’s leaders on the regime in Madrid. In 1897, in a futile effort to stave off what was about to become the Spanish-American War, Spain granted Puerto Rico a charter of autonomy whose provisions, it is often alleged, were more generous than even the terms of the present commonwealth “compact.” In any case the new legislative assembly dissolved when a week after it was convened, American troops landed.

After the occupation the shell game went on. Since 1952 the possible choices have been statehood, commonwealth status, and independence, but now each requires broad electoral endorsement, which the Puerto Ricans are reluctant to give. Although for a while it seemed that the prize lay under the commonwealth shell, economic pressures and political frustrations of the past decade have reopened the game, so that Carr likens the commonwealth to a palimpsest: “The message inscribed in 1952 is fading, to reveal beneath it an older inscription: statehood or independence.”

Raymond Carr, the warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and an accomplished historian of Spain with a broad knowledge of Latin America, was picked by the Twentieth Century Fund, after a long search, to conduct its study of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican and American scholars were found to have excessive parti pris. A scholar of “dispassion and sensitivity” was needed, or, in the sporting tradition, a referee. Carr has done the job with more dispassion but less cultural sensitivity than Gordon K. Lewis—another Oxonian and a professor at the University of Puerto Rico—whose book on Puerto Rico has for two decades been acknowledged as the best account in English of the island’s politics, society, and culture.1 It was this book that kindled Carr’s first interest in Puerto Rico, and he now confirms many of Lewis’s gloomier predictions.

Carr, however, was asked to concentrate on the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, and thus he tends to emphasize what some young Puerto Rican historians call the “leadership vision” (visión del procerato), which includes the various attitudes Puerto Rican politicians have taken toward the US. Lewis wrote from socialist convictions and with sympathy toward the “delectable mountains” of the island’s culture and the emotional tone of its social life. He would not have referred, as Carr does, to Puerto Rican “cultural identity, however confused, provincial, and ambiguous it may be.” Yet both condemn the preoccupation of Puerto Ricans with their political status. For Lewis, only full independence “perhaps can forever end the Puerto Rican magnificent obsession with status.” Carr, without advocating any particular solution, quotes former governor Luis Muñoz Marín, the architect of the commonwealth, to the effect that politics centering on the island’s status have always impeded the realization of civilized ideals. They still do, he concludes.

Puerto Rico came under American rule in 1898 as a by-product of the war with Spain. The Treaty of Paris ceded the island to the US as compensation for expenses incurred during the hostilities. The irony here was that the United States did not acquire Cuba, an island that had long been coveted by American investors and expansionists, but instead acquired an island whose existence had been more or less ignored. The conquest of Puerto Rico met the demands of the new Manifest Destiny, however, and opened the way for large-scale sugar investments that transformed the island’s economy.

On July 28, 1898, Puerto Rico’s new military governor, General Nelson Miles, proclaimed that his troops had arrived to bestow justice, humanity, and prosperity with “the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government.” Any hopes raised by his conciliatory declaration soon collapsed, and Puerto Ricans began to refer to their new rulers as the “czars and sultans.” In 1900 the Foraker Act made Puerto Rico an “unincorporated territory” subject to the will of Congress. The US president appointed the governor, the Executive Council that doubled as a legislative upper chamber, and the island’s Supreme Court. Denied American citizenship, living in a land that lacked status as a nation, the Puerto Rican was a man without a country. A San Juan newspaper complained in 1901: “We are and we are not a foreign country. We are and we are not citizens of the United States…. The Constitution…applies to us and does not apply to us.” Economic arrangements were less murky. Puerto Ricans paid no taxes, for they were not represented in Congress, but they could ship goods duty-free to the American market, which created a situation that immediately benefited American corporations.

Island politicians were soon proposing various alternatives to abject colonialism. José de Diego, who had been the minister of justice in the short-lived parliament created by the Spanish charter of autonomy, became a prophet of the modern independence movement. José Celso Barbosa, a black physician trained at the University of Michigan, supported statehood and US citizenship as an assertion of collective dignity. Luis Muñoz Rivera split with Barbosa to favor a vague system of home rule resembling the British government’s grant of a parliament to Canada. His Unionist party dominated island politics from 1904 to 1932; his son Luis Muñoz Marín, also a master of the ambivalent discourse of colonial politics, many years later sought and got support for a more populist version of home rule, but far short of the Canadian formula of autonomy.

The Jones Act of 1917 granted a passive form of citizenship to Puerto Ricans—they would have a special representative in Congress but no vote there—and it modestly enlarged the sphere of home rule without relinquishing the veto power of the US president and his appointed governor. Offering too little too late, the Jones Act only sharpened colonial tensions. The years between 1917 and 1941, Carr feels, were “largely wasted,” a view implying that history is the work of heroic leaders, not subterranean forces. By 1930 the island was no longer simply a nuisance but a Caribbean poorhouse, suffering from the worldwide Depression and the ruin left by a devastating hurricane in 1929.

The New Deal conceived for the mainland in the 1930s produced no basic reforms for Puerto Rico. Here lay a classic dilemma, emphasized by Carr: a policy designed for industrial America “could not cure a feeble island economy confronting the problems of a banana republic.” What was needed, he implies, was a new policy fashioned from above by men of good will and common sense who could reconcile the “difference of perception on both sides.” For Carr, Puerto Ricans are a “nation of paranoiacs” who chafe under oppression yet harbor secret enthusiasm for the American way of life.

The spirit of the New Deal finally arrived in Puerto Rico during the governorship of Rexford Tugwell, a gregarious, humane technocrat appointed by Roosevelt in 1941. He found an ally in Muñoz Marín, president of the Puerto Rican senate, who had formed the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in 1938. Muñoz Marín soft-pedaled the status question while insisting on Puerto Rican identity and anticolonialism. He courted the common man instead of neglecting, harassing, or buying him. A “revolution from above” followed, one challenged on the right as a dangerous move into state socialism and by independentistas as a sellout.

In 1947 Puerto Rico was granted the right to elect its own governor—the post held by Muñoz Marín, from 1949 to 1965—and that same year the Industrial Incentives Act was passed, granting a ten-year exemption from local taxes to businesses that established themselves on the island. This inaugurated the economic program known as Operation Bootstrap, which was meant to encourage internal development but in effect created the rationale for the presence of American corporations that were shifting from agriculture to industry.

In 1952 Puerto Rico was established as a commonwealth under Public Law 600, following a referendum among the inhabitants of the island in 1950. “If we seek statehood,” said Muñoz Marín, “we die waiting for Congress, and if we adopt independence we die from starvation—in any case we die.” The “third way” was to accommodate demands for local democracy and “internal decolonization” to the inescapable power of Congress. The Spanish version of the spongy word “commonwealth”—Estado Libre Asociado, or “free associated state”—gave the impression of respecting all three longstanding aspirations of the island’s various leaders—sovereignty, partnership, and statehood. In 1953 the United Nations was informed that Puerto Rico was no longer a colony but a people associated by “compact” (to avoid the less equivocal term “contract,” for no contract had been made).

Yet deep doubts persisted even during the outwardly quiet years of the 1950s and 1960s. Many in Puerto Rico felt that the commonwealth should be “perfected” by more autonomy and an explicit bilateral compact. Then the question arose whether such an arrangement would be merely a stepping stone to one of the other two options—sovereign independence or statehood—both of them irrevocable. The Joint Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico—organized under Kennedy and Johnson—in the mid-Sixties found all three ambitions to be honorable. Independence, however, would mean transitional economic guarantees during fifteen or more years, while statehood, the commission estimated, would “cost” the island nearly $200 million a year in federal taxes and require two preparatory decades of economic growth (a highly optimistic hope, it turns out). From the economic point of view, the choices were dismal: either relapse through independence to the condition of the Dominican Republic, or “catch up” to Mississippi, or remain in limbo as a commonwealth.

In 1967 Puerto Ricans were asked to choose among the three options in a plebiscite. This was a hypothetical exercise, since any scheme chosen could only be carried out by the US Congress. The commonwealth option did not call for continuing the status quo but for the maximum of self-government consistent with equal US citizenship, a common defense and currency, and a common market. The independentistas rejected taking part in the plebiscite, and the commonwealth plan was chosen, but not by a majority of qualified voters. The following year the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), profiting from a split in the PPD, won the governorship and control of the House. Despite the Republican party affiliations of its candidate, the wealthy industrialist Luis Ferré, the PNP appealed to poor people who had migrated to the city as well as to young suburban executives. This was a new urban constituency that had been discounted in the traditional PPD strategy of Muñoz Marín.

The PPD returned to power in 1972, lost in 1976, and won control of the legislature in the disputed, hairline election of 1980. No politician of Muñoz Marín’s stature had emerged, and the economic basis of the PPD’s power was dissolving. For all the apparent success of industrialization by invitation under Operation Bootstrap, an increase of 309 percent in GNP between 1950 and 1977 was accompanied by a meager 24 percent rise in employment. Emigration to the mainland was relied on to act as a safety valve for surplus labor as industries became capital-intensive; but economic recession and the oil crisis were closing this valve by the early 1970s, while lower factory wages in the Far East and elsewhere siphoned off industrial investment. (Nearby Haiti has since been competing with Asia. The average daily wage there is $2.65, while the Puerto Rican hourly factory wage is $4.50.)2

Puerto Rico had become the beggar government that congressmen in Washington had warned against eighty years before. Federal transfer payments, made necessary by the endemic unemployment and poverty, rose from 9 percent of the island’s gross domestic product in 1950 to 29 percent in 1980. In prosperous times the PPD had preached the compatibility of institutionalized democracy, economic advance, cultural identity, and dignified partnership. As Operation Bootstrap faltered, and the contrast between the hopelessly poor and the newly rich became more acute, the PPD’s assurances camouflaged the bothersome ambiguities of the commonwealth less and less effectively.

This, roughly, is the history Carr sets forth. Although his book provides only a slim basis for proposing solutions, he treats us to the canny sort of exercise in irony and tenacious explication that we might expect of a connoisseur of Spanish politics and a devotee of fox hunting. Carr recognizes that the issue of political status has become anachronistic as a vehicle for pressing the interests of the common people, a case of “historical pseudomorphosis,” to use Spengler’s term. He notes an increase in numbers of unattached voters who respond less to a party’s position on the island’s status than to its economic platform. Perhaps a third of the PNP supporters, for example, are indifferent to its demand for statehood. And if it is true that when you scratch a Puerto Rican you find an independentista, then why does only 5 to 6 percent of the electorate support either the “liberal bourgeois” Puerto Rican Independence party or the “radical petty bourgeois” Puerto Rican Socialist party, which professes admiration for the Cuban model?

Carr’s own suggestions mirror the uncertainties he describes. On one hand he holds that the main issue is not relations with the US but the state of the island economy itself. “Rather than engaging in floating ‘alternatives,’ it might be well to work with what is available to solve what remains Puerto Rico’s biggest problem: poverty.” On the other hand he criticizes American resistance to “a fundamental decision” about status. “Colonialism by consent” may be offensive to some, but if nine out of ten Puerto Ricans wish to remain part of the United States, Congress must recognize that the island’s economy cannot survive unaided (however “ineptly” $50 billion worth of transfer payments and investment have been squandered since the 1940s). And Congress must allow Puerto Rico to preserve its cultural identity, however “provincial” that identity may be. The point is made more starkly by Juan García Passalacqua, a member of the Puerto Rican “mafia” of young intellectuals who tried to devise “alternative futures” during the Carter administration. For him it is simply time for the United States to decolonize: “Make us equal or let us go.”3

Construing the matter as a question of the poverty problem versus the status problem lead one to accept the prescriptions and the presumed wisdom of political and academic experts who thrive on simplistic diagnosis. It also allows Carr some nimble comparisons with Ireland and Quebec. But if nearly a century of reluctant partnership has proven anything it is that Puerto Rico, with a population equal to or larger than half a dozen or so independent Spanish American countries, is also a “nation” in Rousseau’s sense and perhaps cannot be easily compared with scores of other “colonial experiments.”

Indeed, if we consider all of Latin America to be a vast region that has doggedly preserved its identity and persevered in an intermittent struggle for internal and external liberation for five centuries, we may well ask whether Puerto Rico is as special a case as the local debate over political status suggests. Is the use of Puerto Rico’s outlying island of Vieques for US Navy target practice more “colonial” than the use of the whole nation of Honduras as a platform for counterrevolution? And is the economic situation in Mexico or Brazil, held in a financial straitjacket by the interest rates of American banks, any more distorted than that of Puerto Rico, whose people enjoy the automatic compensation of transfer payments? Or finally, who are better placed to make themselves heard, the muzzled citizens of Haiti and Paraguay or the Puerto Ricans with their tribunal inside the US itself?

A more generous treatment than Carr’s of Puerto Rican intellectual trends of the past half century might make similarities with the general Latin American case clearer. Three examples must suffice. First we have Carr’s brief appraisal of the famous diagnosis of Puerto Rican “national character,” in Antonio S. Pedreira’s essay Insularismo, written in 1934. Carr takes this as a study of collective “docility,” a view of a society that was derailed in its quest for identity by the abrupt transition from the humanist “culture” of Spain to the materialist “civilization” of America. This argument seems to explain Puerto Rican “schizophrenia,” the more so in that it highlights “bourgeois” manifestations of the two legacies rather than their respective traditions of popular protest and rebellion. But intellectuals elsewhere in Latin America in the Thirties were offering similar analyses of national character, although they were usually couched in less Manichaean terms, since most writers had long ago dismissed Iberian traditions, taken en bloc, as unworkable in Latin America. Like many of his contemporaries, Pedreira had tasted Western disenchantment, and his dual categories of culture and civilization, derived like theirs from Spengler and Ortega y Gasset, point beyond specifics of time and place, to the menace of rationalist Western schemes of salvation.

For a generation or more, intellectual debate in Puerto Rico was shaped by Pedreira’s scheme of ideas. A change occurred in 1970 with the founding of the Center for Studies of the Puerto Rican Reality (CEREP), which Carr mentions with guarded respect in a footnote or two as composed of radical, anti-imperialist young revisionists attracted to Marxism-Leninism. Ideology apart, however, the contribution of the group has been in its efforts to translate political slogans into a calculus of social forces and economic interests. For this work, Anglo-American empiricism is no less handy than the constructs of Marxism and it is no accident that CEREP receives support from the Ford Foundation. CEREP, in fact, has adopted a perspective similar to that of dozens of other Latin American research centers as it tries to place the Puerto Rican case in a hemispheric setting and to explain what Carr dismissively calls the “wasted years” between 1917 and 1941 and the present time of “muddle and frustration.”

Pedreira’s attempt to recover tradition and CEREP’s attempt to expose it have led to a more historically informed emphasis on “praxis,” of which Samuel Silva Gotay’s Christian Revolutionary Thought in Latin America and the Caribbean is symptomatic.4 Carr describes Silva Gotay as supplementing “European Marxist-Christian dialogue…[with] dependency theory, which adds the colonial struggle of the exploited periphery to the class struggle.” But one can hardly dismiss Silva Gotay’s book as a reprise of formulas from the 1960s. In it he discusses the Protestant Reformation as a period in which a crisis in material conditions coincided with a theoretical crisis in relations between church (or public hierarchy) and society. He treats subsequent history in this light, and, through arguments based on “liberation theology,” sees Puerto Rico’s future as tied to that of Latin America generally. The future, he feels, is once again open-ended and depends not on management from above but on popular initiatives.

If, as Silva Gotay and CEREP suggest, the Puerto Rican people must finally define themselves, a word must be said about their popular culture. Carr sees it as pathological. He speaks of Puerto Rico as “a cultural hybrid,” its inhabitants victimized by the pervasive schizophrenia I mentioned earlier. Their language itself, a “stereotyped, colorless speech,” betrays them. Such Spanish, “adulterated” by Americanisms, becomes the “mumbo jumbo” of the characters in Luis Rafael Sánchez’s La guaracha del macho Camacho (1976), a book that Carr calls “indispensable” for those who want to savor the “vulgarity and pretensions” of everyday life in San Juan.5 But such a reductive reading of the novel proves only that Carr is more at home with the previous generation of writers, like René Marqués and Pedro Juan Soto, who created, Sánchez has said, a “literature of guilt” that fulfills a civic duty rather than illuminating specific lives.6 La guaracha del macho Camacho has no villainous gringos or noble Puerto Rican nationalists. The text itself might seem to demonstrate how the process of colonization denies the poor the possibility of expressing their own complex feelings. However, what Carr takes to be incorrect, mumbo-jumbo Spanish is a popular language that Sánchez prizes for its precision and for rhythmic echoes of the tribal beat of the guaracha. Reading his novel the reader becomes an accomplice in transforming a colonial reality (in this case linguistic) from below. 7

Carr has given us a sagacious guide-book to contemporary Puerto Rican politics and public issues, presumably the best one available. What it requires as a supplement is the investigative and imaginative writings of the Puerto Ricans themselves. As any Englishman knows, the game can’t start on a field with referees and no players.

  1. 1

    Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean (Monthly Review Press, 1963).

  2. 2

    Clyde Farnsworth, “Haiti’s Allure for US Business,” The New York Times, June 17, 1984.

  3. 3

    Juan M. García Passalacqua, Puerto Rico: Equality and Freedom at Issue (Praeger, 1984).

  4. 4

    Samuel Silva Gotay, El pensamiento cristiano revolucionario en América Latina y el Caribe (Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 1981).

  5. 5

    Translated as Macho Camacho’s Beat by Gregory Rabassa (Pantheon, 1981).

  6. 6

    Luis Rafael Sánchez Speaks about Macho Camacho’s Beat,” in Review (Center for Inter-American Relations), January-April 1981, pp. 39–41.

  7. 7

    In Saying and Meaning in Puerto Rico: Some Problems in the Ethnography of Discourse (Pergamon Press, 1981), Marshall Morris suspends the question of the “correctness” of Puerto Rican speech to explore the social messages of a “general convention of indirectness” that outsiders interpret as “simple” lack of precision. The analogy with status politics versus liberation politics is close.

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