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Unmanifest Destiny: What to do with Puerto Rico
by Richard Brookhiser
June 19, 2000
CONSIDERING all the places the United States has coveted, it is moderately odd that we should have ended up with Puerto Rico.
We invaded Canada even before we declared independence, in the fall of 1775; Benedict Arnold distinguished himself in the doomed, gallant assault on Quebec. In 1812, we tried again; former president Thomas Jefferson said the conquest of Canada would be a "mere matter of marching." We had our eye on Cuba for a long time too. In 1822, Jefferson called it "the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States." In 1895, a group of imperialists including Henry Adams and Henry Cabot Lodge began plotting to drive Spain from the island; Theodore Roosevelt, who was one of them, helped invade it in 1898. Yet Canada and Cuba ultimately eluded our grasp, while Puerto Rico, which was never high on anyone's list, is on our hands.
We acquired it in the 1890s, during the same burst of expansion that brought us Hawaii, half of Samoa, and the residue of the Spanish empire-the Philippines, Guam, and (briefly) Cuba. Puerto Rico became a territory; the designation, though not the substance, was changed to "commonwealth" in 1952. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and can immigrate here freely and serve in the armed forces. They vote for their own governor and legislature, but not for president or for voting members of Congress.
This status pleases most Puerto Ricans, and the Popular Democrats, one of the two major local political parties, favor maintaining it. Their rivals, the New Progressives, support statehood. The pro-independence party always trails a distant third in Puerto Rican elections, though the cause gets periodic publicity from its partisans. Pro-independence terrorists tried to assassinate President Truman and shot up the floor of the U.S. House in the 1950s; in the '60s and '70s, they robbed banks and planted bombs in the United States. Naval exercises, which have been conducted since World War II on the island of Vieques , off Puerto Rico 's southeast coast, have been a fruitful point of contention for opponents of the status quo. When a civilian security guard was killed by a Navy shell-in a 1999 accident, a few hundred demonstrators set up camp on a bombing range and were evicted only this May To be sure, much of the most heated rhetoric came from Puerto Rican American politicians. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.) and Nydia M. Velazquez (D., N.Y ) got themselves symbolically arrested on Vieques ; Rep. Jose Serrano (D., N.Y.) managed the feat protesting outside the White House. "For me personally, it is very painful," Serrano said. "I was born in the colony, and now I'm a member of a Congress of a colonial power that holds the colony."
But the fate of Puerto Rico is too important (except in one hypothetical case) to be left to Puerto Ricans. The primary question is not what is best for Puerto Rico, but what is best for us. That may sound harsh, but that is what being a commonwealth, or a territory-or a colony-means.
In the lame-duck days of his presidency, Gerald Ford advocated Puerto Rican statehood. Following his lead two decades later, Newt Gingrich and the Republican congressional leadership pushed for a fast-track congressional vote on Puerto Rican statehood in the event that 50 percent plus one Puerto Rican voter decided to support it. The Republican position, however, ignores history. For all its expansionism and its expansionist bluster, the United States has almost never absorbed alien nations or cultures. We destroyed the Indians in our midst, or penned them in reservations. Vermont and Texas were independent states before they became U.S. states, but they were populated by Americans; Sam Houston had been governor of Tennessee. The southern apex of the Louisiana Territory had a French and Spanish population, and this worried some Americans when we bought it in 1803. "The otters would as soon obey our laws," wrote the Federalist Fisher Ames, "as the Gallo-Hispano-Indian omnium gatherum of savages and adventurers" in Louisiana. When we took one-third of Mexico at the end of the Mexican war, there were pockets of old Spanish culture in the deserts, particularly around Santa Fe. But Louisiana and the ex-Mexican territories were so soon filled by emigrants from the East, looking for land or gold, that the French and Spanish Catholics on the ground didn't seem like much of a problem. One reason for our diminishing desire to seize Canada-apart from the fact that Britain stopped us twice-was its gradual evolution into a distinct society (or rather, a new English society wrapped around the old French one).
The one partial exception to the rule that America does not ingest foreign countries is Hawaii, which, before we annexed it, had been an island kingdom with its own language and its own (pagan) religion. But Americans had been moving there too, since the early 19th century, as planters and missionaries-Americans converted the islands to Christianity. The Hawaiian presence in their own kingdom was further diluted by the importation of Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese laborers. Annexation, when it came, was not a bolt from the blue. America's emotional tie to Hawaii came after Hawaii had formed an emotional tie to America, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Statehood, 18 years later, was a delayed reward for the islands' steadfastness. Meanwhile, Alaska got statehood so Republicans could balance Democratic Hawaii, and as compensation for its exposure to both the Japanese and the Soviets.
Puerto Rico is an old society. The first settlement, near San Juan, was established in 1508-long before Jamestown or Plymouth-by Ponce de Leon (he of the Fountain of Youth). The native tongue for half a millennium has been Spanishand why should Puerto Ricans learn another, however the bilingualism debate shakes out here? They didn't come here; we went there. Though Americans flock to Puerto Rico as tourists, they do not move there in significant numbers. The Puerto Ricans who fought and died in our wars form a tie; so do the many thousands who move back and forth between the island and the mainland. But Filipinos also fought for the United States, and many Italians and Irish have crossed and recrossed the Atlantic. Yet those countries were never deemed ripe for statehood.
If the island will never become a star, can it stay as a commonwealth? Even as America pushed from the Alleghenies to Manila, there were always Americans who were squeamish about it. Mostly they belonged to minority parties who feared their ox would be gored by expansion, but there was also a shade of principle in American reluctance. The man who bought Louisiana, Jefferson, fretted that he lacked the power to do so: The Constitution made no provision, he wrote, "for incorporating foreign nations into our Union." But the possibility that Napoleon might rethink the sale made him abandon his scruples. There was also a feeling that colonial status deprived the people who lived in colonies of the "just consent of the governed."
The American solution to these anxieties has been to give its possessions local self-government, and to put them on the road either to statehood or to independence (we gave up Cuba after four years; the Philippines after 48). Is it American to hold perpetual territories? Hawaii spent 61 years as a possession; Alaska, 92 years. Puerto Rico has crossed the century mark.
In fact, Puerto Rico is an anomaly: an authentic potential nation, in a junior partnership with a larger, actual one. It would be unique and unsuitable as a state, and its present status arguably makes little constitutional sense. But as long as both nations are content, statesmen should let sleeping dogs lie.
The exceptional situation, where the opinion of Puerto Ricans should rule, would be if a large majority of them became seriously committed to independence, and we had no strategic interest in overriding them. There is no strategic reason for holding the entire island; if the Navy needed San Juan Harbor, we could make an arrangement to keep or lease it, as we did with Guantanamo or Subic Bay. Puerto Ricans , for now, clearly have no commitment to independence. If a controversy like Vieques produces more than symbolic arrests and rhetorical shadowboxing, then we should put the island on a responsible road to independence: by surrendering it not to mad bombers, but to local establishment politicians.
There is one other possible scenario: What if the United States were to enter a new imperialist phase, like the 1890s, with the goal of becoming a continental republic? Then we might offer statehood to Puerto Rico and Cuba (Elian could be the first governor). We would also pick up Canada. This time, Benedict Arnold would win.