At first glance, you wouldn’t think Puerto Rico has much in common with Crimea.
For starters one’s an island; the other’s a peninsula. One speaks Spanish and English; the other speaks Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tartar. One is in the Caribbean Sea; the other juts into the Black Sea. One is an unincorporated territory of the United States; the other’s an autonomous republic tied to Ukraine. The differences go on and on.
Yet, who knew Crimean politics would potentially shine a light on the politics of Puerto Rico?
Nonetheless, after weeks of rioting in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, the Crimean parliament voted unanimously on Thursday to join the Russian Federation.
A majority of Crimea’s population (58 percent) are ethnic Russians to begin with, while only 24 percent are ethnic Ukrainians. That’s because Crimea had been a part of Russia since the reign of Catherine the Great in the late 1700s until a few weeks before Stalin’s death in 1953, when Crimea was transferred to Ukraine, itself a member of the Soviet Union at the time.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a newly-independent Ukraine decided to keep Crimea, granting the peninsular republic a great deal of autonomy. This made the allegiance of Crimea a touchy subject in Russian-Ukrainian relations, which is where we stand today.
I’ve listed some of the differences between Puerto Rico and Crimea. Now for some similarities.
The clearest similarity, of course, is that both are autonomous entities politically tied to much larger republics. (While Crimea is described as being “in” or “part” of Ukraine, the same can’t be said for Puerto Rico.) Both have their own constitutions but have no say in foreign affairs. In both cases the president of the larger republic (the United States or Ukraine) is also head of state for the smaller entity (Puerto Rico or Crimea), though residents of the region can’t vote in presidential elections.
There are two important differences between Puerto Rico and Crimea. First, while Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory (owned but not part) of the United States, Crimea is an autonomous republic — an ambiguous title, but one which in Crimea’s case seems to mean something like a more autonomous version of American statehood.
That said, the second difference is that, for all its autonomy, the Crimean parliament is not endowed with the right of legislative initiative, meaning it cannot introduce laws governing itself, only suggest them to the Ukrainian parliament. Puerto Rico generally legislates itself, though its laws are subject to review by the U.S. government.
Sorry for the brief lesson in history and politics, but I want to make sure the parallels between Puerto Rico and Crimea are clear. Because now that the Crimean parliament has voted to break away from Ukraine and join up with Russia, the people of Puerto Rico should really be paying attention.
Pres. Barack Obama — the imposed head of state in Puerto Rico — said the March 16 referendum in Crimea to see whether or not the people of Crimea agree with their parliament “would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law.”
“In 2014 we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” the president stated.
I doubt he was referring to what the United States did in 1898, when it reached an agreement with the Spanish crown to take control of Puerto Rico without consulting the newly autonomous Puerto Rican government. I mean, why would he want to remind us all of that? It’s just inconvenient, if not embarrassing.
Anyway, since the U.S. government opposes Crimea’s right to break away from Ukraine, it’s a safe bet that Washington also doesn’t recognize Puerto Rico’s right to independence, should a majority of the Puerto Rican people vote for it in another one of their fabulous plebiscites.
Puerto Rico’s stuck between a rock and an empire.
If the U.S. government isn’t going to grant Puerto Rico statehood, and if the results of the latest plebiscite and Washington’s stance toward Crimean sovereignty suggest Puerto Ricans can’t vote their way out of their current status, then what other choice do they have?
[Photo: futureatlas.com via Flickr]