July 17, 2023


A Puerto Rican Unionist Speaks

By: Rodney Rios

Some time ago, an essay by Mario Loyola was published explaining why Puerto Rico should be “freed,” as if the U.S. were somehow enslaving the island. This is a common rhetorical trope regarding Puerto Rico. Despite that mistaken supposition, the argument in favor of Puerto Rican independence fails to consider the consequences of independence for Puerto Rico and the United States.

Recent events show that the world is experiencing a return of great power competition among nations. This requires that America take extreme care with its national security. A traditional aspiration for America’s security in the world has been superiority in the Caribbean Sea, to turn that sea into an “American lake.” The United States annexed Puerto Rico in 1898 as part of that strategy. To lose Puerto Rico would be to continue retreating from the Latin American region, to America’s detriment.

Regardless of the status issue, the fact is that Puerto Ricans are Americans and, furthermore, during 1950-1952, Puerto Ricans followed a constitutional process very similar to Statehood in which they formed their own Constitution  “within our union with the United States of America” as the document declares. This union was freely ratified by the Puerto Rican people and Congress and has been reaffirmed in numerous referenda many times. The dominant political parties in Puerto Rico are pro-union, be it Commonwealth status or Statehood. Freedom of speech, assembly, religion, the rule of law, due process, and free elections exist. Hardly the picture of an oppressed colony. As President George H.W. Bush said, “Freedom is not the same as independence.”

Regardless, some policymakers assume that the way to resolve Puerto Rico’s economic problems is by letting it choose between Statehood or Independence. This is only partly correct. For example, Puerto Rico in 1952 became like a State before admission. The problem with the current status is that Puerto Rico lacks its political rights as a state. It lacks voting representation in Congress and the residual sovereignty (federalism) that states possess under the Constitution. The remedy to these problems is not to condemn Puerto Ricans, against their will, to independence but to finish the task begun in 1952 and admit it into the union.

Former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick wrote that sometimes America errs in supporting regime change when three flawed assumptions are present: The belief that there is a reliable democratic alternative to the incumbent government, the idea that continuing the status quo is impossible, and the belief that any change will be for the better.

As the economist and sociologist Thomas Sowell wrote, “History can be cruel to theories, as it has been cruel to peoples.” Many who discuss Puerto Rico, in the rare moments it enters into the national conversation, make the mistake of viewing the status problem in the way Kirkpatrick discussed. Historically, the independence movement in Puerto Rico has been supportive of America’s enemies and terrorism. And though these movements are not a majority on the island, they have misled voters of their intentions, feeding into legitimate frustrations over the lack of economic growth, corruption, and gridlock regarding the status problem. Unfortunately, these parties grew grew somewhat in support in the last elections. They have also been trying to form a coalition for the next election. It is possible that they could win a slim victory to the Governor’s mansion given the right circumstances. That might allow them to institutionalize themselves in Puerto Rican society, transform it and impose their will.

Recent history is filled with examples of separatist parties achieving a small victory and transforming their societies according to their traitorous image, creating problems for the national government. Such is the case of Catalonia in Spain, Quebec in Canada, and Scotland in the United Kingdom. Moreover, expunging these ideas and movements is difficult once they become institutionalized. 

An anti-American, separatist government would mean that a part of the American Republic would side itself with America’s enemies. It would mean a friendly government for China’s challenges to America—an even more worrisome in the face of Chinese-Cuban cooperation in the Caribbean. Moreover, there has never been a political entity of American citizens in the history of the United States that has separated from the union. To allow Puerto Rico to do so would mean a new enemy regime in America’s primary sphere of influence, with the loss of a reliable source of soldiers, natural resources, and strategic land in the Caribbean. For Puerto Rico, it would mean sinking into extreme poverty and likely political instability since the pillars of Puerto Rico’s stability (the dollar, U.S. citizenship, the common defense, market, etc.) would be lost. The misery of independence is a worthy price to pay only for people who will not remain on the island to suffer the consequences.

There are many other reasons to oppose independence, and I’d gladly discuss them with anyone in good faith. The entire progress and building of modern Puerto Rico has been due to its union with all the United States. It has benefited not only the island but also the American mainland. In short, Puerto Rico’s independence would be contrary to Puerto Rico’s interest and the rest of the United States. That is why Puerto Rico should become a State or, if not, remain a Commonwealth. For that reason, to quote the great American statesman and unionist Daniel Webster, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”