Last vestige of American Imperialism, 12/05/14, The Hill, Congressional blog

Last vestige of American Imperialism

Hernán Padilla, MD *

In 1898 Spain ceded Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and portions of the West Indies to the United States. Additionally, Spain surrendered the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million as part of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War. Cuba and the Philippines became independent nations and only Puerto Rico has been treated as a Territory on the path to statehood.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the Foraker Act of 1900 was signed into law by President McKinley, ending the military occupation and initiating a civilian form of government. Puerto Rico became the first overseas organized possession under the American flag.

At the time, defining the island as an “unincorporated territory status” had the purpose of making Puerto Rico a possession, but not a fully integral part of the United States, such that the U.S. Constitution applied only selectively to its residents. In the words of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge José Cabranes, by so doing the United States acquired not “territories, but possessions or ‘dependencies’ and became in this sense an ‘imperial power’.”

In 1901.the US Supreme Court was left to define the relationship that the new possessions would have with the USA. The governing doctrine regarding the administration of the possessions is known as the “Insular Cases”. The above doctrine, according to First Circuit Judge Juan R. Torruella, evolved into a “doctrine of separate and unequal” for the US Citizens of Puerto Rico.

The Jones Organic Act of 1917 granted the US Citizenship to all persons residing in the island and bestowed upon Puerto Rico a greater degree of self-government over local matters, moving Puerto Rico closer to becoming an incorporated territory destined for statehood.

In 1945, after WWII, the United Nations emerged as a powerful new institution to advance the cause of world peace and human rights. Central to the UN’s initial agenda was the eradication of colonialism, under which 750 million people around the world were then living.

In the international context, Puerto Rico’s “unincorporated territory” status became an embarrassment to the United States, because it is a status analogous to the possession of a colony.

Acting to address the problem, President Truman helped lead Puerto Rico even closer to statehood. In 1947, Truman signed into law the Elective Governor Act, which establishes that the “constitutional rights, privileges and immunities of American citizens in Puerto Rico will be respected as if Puerto Rico were a State of the Union”.

Soon thereafter, through the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950, Congress authorized the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico to draft a local, state-like Constitution that would provide Puerto Rico with the maximum degree of local governing autonomy as if it were a state and compatible with the United States Constitution.

The evolution of the Puerto Rico’s relationship with the rest of the Union, within our nation’s constitutional framework, was eloquently memorialized in more recent years by Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she stated that “although Puerto Rico is not a state in the federal Union, ‘it …seem[s] to have become a state within a common and accepted meaning of the word”. Notwithstanding the well intended opinion–that Puerto Rico and US Citizens who reside in Puerto Rico are still, to this day, subject to what amounts to geographic discrimination in the American body politic.

The United States’ Supreme Court’s justification of the “constitutional segregation” of Puerto Rico yet stands as an intolerable anomaly, and one that is clearly in conflict with the Founding Fathers’ original intent that no American territory be held as a colony indefinitely.

In 1952, a majority of the Puerto Rican people voted to approve the current Constitution. Though that Constitution was a positive step in terms of local self government, in terms of domestic civil rights, said development has not altered the treatment of Puerto Rico as an “unincorporated territory”, thus leaving the island as a colonial status.

Evidently frustrated with the discriminatory treatment of Puerto Rico, in 1979 Associate Court Justice William Brennan expressed in his “concurrent opinion Torres vs. Puerto Rico” that the Insular Cases were anachronism and that the entire Bill of Rights of the US should be applicable to PR.
In the historic 2012 political status plebiscite held in Puerto Rico with 81% voter turnout, the people of the island voted by a clear majority of 54% to reject the current territorial status. Thus solid majority of island voters rejected the notion of government without consent of the governed.

For its part, Congress needs to act to conclude the process that was initiated by the Jones Act of 1917, the Elective Governor Act and the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, among others, which are entirely conducive to the historical trajectory that substantially populated organized territories, like Puerto Rico, are on the path to becoming states of the Union.

It is incumbent upon Congress to act to correct this festering blemish from our nation’s imperial past, by treating Puerto Rico as a fully incorporated territory of the United States, and approving the necessary legislation to admit Puerto Rico as full member of the Union in equal footing.

*The author is former President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He served two terms as Mayor of San Juan and currently serves as President of the Founder’s Council of Igualdad, a non-partisan statehood advocacy organization.

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