Whenever an artist or social activist says something sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle against the occupation or calls attention to Puerto Rico’s colonial status, it’s bound to receive little attention in the media. Most Americans are happy believing that the Palestinians are a bunch of Muslim fundamentalist who need to be controlled and that the status quo is accepted by a majority of Puerto Ricans.
So when Residente of the Puerto Rican group Calle 13, who is both an artist and an agitator, compared American colonialism in Puerto Rico to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it hardly made a ripple.
The Grammy-winning frontman was in Bethlehem shooting scenes for the group’s new music video when he told reporters that the situation in Palestine is similar to that in his native Puerto Rico. He also equated Palestine to Puerto Rico by saying both had “cosmetic” governments.
I know a lot of non-Puerto Rican Latinos probably view such a comparison as unfair. A few friends and colleagues of mine have suggested that while the situation in the Occupied Territories constitute a real human rights issue, Puerto Rico’s colonial status isn’t as serious since it was chosen and continues to be supported by the Puerto Rican people — though last November’s plebiscite marked the first time that a majority of Puerto Ricans voiced their opposition to the status quo.
One person of Mexican descent argued that Puerto Ricans didn’t have it as bad as other Latinos since Puerto Ricans are born with U.S. citizenship.
Yet the American citizenship granted to Puerto Ricans since 1917 is as cosmetic as the self-government allowed them since 1952.
Despite that Puerto Ricans are allowed to elect their own governors and other members of the insular government, the island of Puerto Rico is still under the complete authority of the U.S. federal government. While Puerto Ricans are granted a few basic rights, they are not entirely protected by the Bill of Rights, and their American citizenship may be stripped away at anytime by Congress. (In fact, the United States would have much more legal ground to stand on than the Dominican government has in stripping away the citizenship of Haitian descendants.) Any law passed by the U.S. federal law that can also apply to Puerto Rico is automatically the law of the land in Puerto Rico, and although Puerto Ricans are ultimately governed by the U.S. federal government, they aren’t allowed voting representation in Congress. Because Puerto Ricans are considered natural born citizens of the United States, Puerto Ricans are eligible for the presidency, even though they’re denied the right to vote in presidential elections.
The Palestinian territories are arguably much more autonomous than Puerto Rico, in that they’re increasingly recognized as a separate state by the international community, though Israeli security forces are still in charge of maintaining order in those areas. Traffic of all kinds is highly restricted, and the Israeli government is reluctant to grant Palestine the level of autonomy that much of the world believes it deserves.
Comparing Puerto Rico to Palestine is justified in enough ways, especially since both represent the colonial vestiges of a supposedly post-colonial world. But you don’t have to search halfway around the globe to find people being equally treated, even by the same government.
The U.S. government infamously rode roughshod over the lands and rights of native peoples who originally laid claim to North America. Treaties were regularly agreed to and broken by all three branches of government, until in 1903, the Supreme Court ruled that the tribes and their lands were under the authority of the federal government.
Delivering the opinion of the court in an unanimous decision, Justice Edward White asserted that Congress’ plenary power — the same plenary power which governs Puerto Rico to this day — gave it the right to unilaterally void treaties concerning Native Americans and their lands. “These Indian tribes are the wards of the nation,” he wrote. “They are communities dependent on the United States. Dependent largely for their daily food. Dependent for their political rights.”
I cite this ruling only because it was delivered by the same court that heard the landmark Insular Cases, a string of early 20th-century disputes concerning the United States’ newly acquired territories immediately following the Spanish-American War. It was in those cases that the Supreme Court declared Puerto Rico an unincorporated territory — “belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States” — and therefore, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t fully apply to the island.
So imagine a place ruled entirely under the authority of Congress that is not fully protected by the Constitution. Such a place exists; it’s called Puerto Rico.
Of course those Puerto Ricans pushing for statehood instead of independence are less likely to compare Puerto Rico to Palestine and more likely to compare it to pre-statehood Hawaii or Alaska. While a two-state solution seems to be the only viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, independence is only supported by a tiny sliver of Puerto Ricans, greatly due to the efforts of the federal and insular governments to stamp out pro-independence sentiment.
Truth is, however, though Puerto Rico may be like Palestine, pre-statehood Hawaii or Indian Territory, its situation is also unlike any other. For over a hundred years — 115 years this Tuesday, to be exact — Puerto Rico has remained a colony of a great nation whose founding principles are opposed to all forms of colonialism. Since 1917 Puerto Ricans have been granted American citizenship at birth, but it is a second-class citizenship, one that allows them to fight and die for America on some distant battlefield, but doesn’t grant them the right to vote and be heard at home.
Now that a majority of Puerto Ricans have called for an end to the status quo, the current situation in Puerto Rico is completely undemocratic. If the United States wants to continue making the world safe for democracy, they should start with this tiny island of theirs.
¡Pa’lante Palestina! ¡Viva Puerto Rico libre!