Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Puerto Rico’s Financial Woes Revive Calls for Independence

The following excerpts are taken from the NY Times article "Puerto Rico’s Financial Woes Revive Calls for Independence" (August 16, 2016)

>> SAN JUAN, P.R. — In March 1954, Rafael Cancel Miranda smuggled a gun into the United States Capitol and, with three other Puerto Rican nationalists, opened fire from the visitors’ gallery. Five members of Congress were wounded.

The attackers, three men and one woman, were swiftly arrested and tried. Mr. Cancel Miranda, then 23, received the longest sentence, 85 years. He served 25 years before his sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.

Today, Mr. Cancel Miranda is the last surviving attacker. He lives with his wife, Angie, on a quiet lane of bungalows in a part of San Juan ... His eyesight is failing, but he still turns out for the occasional independence event, where younger people receive him as a legend.

His ancient enmities are now fresher than ever because of the island’s catastrophic $72 billion debt, which has placed Puerto Rico into what amounts to federal receivership. A seven-member panel appointed by Congress and President Obama will soon hold sway over the island and its finances ... To longtime nationalists like Mr. Cancel Miranda, it is yet more proof that colonialism is alive and well here.

This helps Mr. Cancel Miranda explain something odd that happened this summer. In June, the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro J. García Padilla, traveled to New York City and told a special committee of the United Nations that despite all appearances, Puerto Rico was still a colony of the United States...

“Puerto Rico is hungry and thirsty for justice,” Mr. García Padilla said.

The special committee has called on Washington to “allow the Puerto Rican people fully to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.”

To understand why Mr. García Padilla’s remarks were so unusual, it helps to know that his Popular Democratic Party claims to have already freed Puerto Rico from the colonial yoke...

The party says it achieved that in 1954, and that Puerto Rico has been an “associated free state” since.

“It’s a lie!” Mr. Cancel Miranda said in a recent interview. “We never controlled our own country.”

Unusual events this year have brought many Puerto Ricans to much the same conclusion. In January, in a double jeopardy case, the United States Supreme Court held that Puerto Rico had no independent prosecutorial authority — just the authority bestowed on it by the United States Congress.

[...] Next, Mr. Obama’s administration invoked the territories clause of the Constitution as it pushed for a law allowing Puerto Rico to restructure its big debt ... its use sent a strong signal to Puerto Rico that the island had no power to carry out its own law.

When Congress passed the debt-restructuring law in June, it placed Puerto Rico’s financial affairs under federal oversight, handled by a seven-member board. This was widely seen as proof that “associated free state” was a meaningless term.

“Seven unelected people are going to be controlling our lives,” said María de Lourdes Santiago, a senator from the Puerto Rican Independence Party ... “It’s a dictatorship.”

She said the debt crisis had set profound changes in motion and she hoped Puerto Rico could finally “have a legitimate process of decolonization.”

[...] In an interview at his home, Mr. Cancel Miranda said the previous decolonization — the one carried out by the Popular Democrats — had been a sham, and had provoked the attack on Congress. He played grainy black-and-white video footage of himself as a young man, refusing to apologize for the shooting during questioning. Then he filled in some details.

The United Nations had declared the 1950s a “decade of decolonization,” he said, and Puerto Rico was put on a list of colonies to be freed.

But, he said, Washington had merely appeared to go along with the proceedings — its main preoccupation was the Cold War. It wanted to remove Puerto Rico from the list of colonies, but not give it full autonomy, Mr. Cancel Miranda said, which might have meant losing the island’s ports, airfields and other strategic assets.

Historians say United States officials helped to draft Puerto Rico’s first Constitution, adding a provision — now in dispute — that general-obligation bonds be paid before everything else if money was tight. Washington also poured money into infrastructure on the island and offered tax breaks to American companies that came to Puerto Rico and created jobs.

For better or worse, those programs won over some elected island officials who had previously favored independence. They devised the term “associated free state,” which was said to mean that Puerto Rico was a sovereign coequal of the United States, pursuing common interests by mutual agreement...

In 1953, a United Nations special committee held hearings on whether Puerto Rico’s name could be removed from the list of colonies. Mr. Cancel Miranda said he was there, listening as American delegates testified that Puerto Rico now had free elections, a Constitution and other essentials of self-government. Other witnesses, however, said it was all window-dressing.

When the committee reconvened and voted, Mr. Cancel Miranda said, Washington’s view prevailed.

“That’s when the nationalists said, ‘We have to send a message,’” Mr. Cancel Miranda said. “That was the reason for the attack on Congress.”

[...] Now, it seems that most Puerto Ricans believe the associated free state was a sham, even if it is not clear what they will do about it.

“You saw what I said in 1954: ‘I’m not sorry,’” Mr. Cancel Miranda said. “And 62 years later, I’m still not sorry.” <<


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