‘More a colony today than we were 30 years ago’: former senator of Puerto Rico
Published: Sep 28, 2022 09:30 PM
A utility pole lies in the middle of a street following Hurricane Fiona in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on September 27, 2022. Photo: VCG

A utility pole lies in the middle of a street following Hurricane Fiona in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on September 27, 2022. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:  

The US seized Puerto Rico from Spain after the Spanish-American War in 1898, since then Puerto Rico has been stuck in a colonial relationship controlled by the US. It is now the poorest region in the US. How do people in Puerto Rico feel about US' jurisdiction? How do Puerto Ricans see their future political status? In her I-Talk show, Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen talked to Fernando Martín García (García), former senator of Puerto Rico, on the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US.

GT: "Puerto Rico was handed over to the US at the end of the Spanish -American war in 1898 "as a form of war booty." Since then, it has labored under what is a colonial relationship." Is the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US today similar that of a colony and suzerain?

García: It is a classical colonial relationship. For example, the most important laws that are applied to Puerto Rico are made in the Congress of the United States with no participation, because Puerto Ricans do not vote for congressmen. Puerto Ricans do not vote for the president of the United States, so they lose out on a say regarding the most important, fundamental laws that apply to Puerto Rico from the United States, and Puerto Rico does not have to approve them. At the same time, in the past few years, although we have enjoyed a certain level of local self-government, particularly since the 1940s, that self-government now has been eroded and minimized, because the Puerto Rican government went bankrupt in 2016. 

As part of the process of bankruptcy, the Congress created a financial supervisory board that, in effect, has become the ultimate government in Puerto Rico. So, we are not only a classical colony, we are more a colony today than we were 30 years ago. The United Nations Decolonization Committee has been voting unanimously for the past 20 years, urging the United States to put an end to colonial status in Puerto Rico.

GT: You advocate for the independence of Puerto Rico. How much influence can people like you wield? What are the biggest obstacles for you now?

García: To give you an example, support for independence in Puerto Rico since it became a US colony 1898, has in fact fluctuated over time. For example, in the last election in 2020, the candidate for governor of my party - the Puerto Rican Independence Party, obtained 14 percent of the votes. There is another political party which is sympathetic to independence that also obtained 14 percent of the votes. So, this support for independence in Puerto Rico is not marginal. It is, in fact, growing. But the important thing to remember about the vote for the expression in favor of independence is that the foundation for the independent sentiment lies in the fact that all Puerto Ricans, even if they say they favor statehood, have a very strong sense of national identity. Puerto Ricans do not consider themselves, culturally, the Americans. We consider ourselves to be Latin Americans. Although legally being a possession of the United States means that we are US citizens, culturally in Puerto Rico, even those who say they favor statehood are Latin Americans and speak Spanish and Spanish is the language of Puerto Rico. And our identification is as a separate nation, whether that becomes politically viable, that the national culture also aspires to national independence, will depend on circumstances. 

Up to now, the political will of the United States has been to maintain colonialism. Therefore, the people of Puerto Rico have absolute uncertainty as to what the consequences of independence would be. Whenever the United States realizes that it must take a decision to promote self-determination, when that moment comes, I have absolutely convinced that the offer of independence will be one that the people of Puerto Rico will embrace. 


Fernando Martín García
Photo: Screenshot

Fernando Martín García Photo: Screenshot

GT: Puerto Rico has held six referendums on becoming a US state, with the most recent one being in November 2020. Residents narrowly favored statehood having gained 52 percent of the vote, whilst about 47 percent of voters were against it. What did the statistics indicate? How would the figure change if a referendum is held now?

García: The first thing that one has to keep in mind is that all of these referendums that have taken placed in Puerto Rico have been called by the local government. That is to say they have not been held in collaboration with the United States government. Therefore, the alternatives, the status alternatives, and the consequences of those alternatives have never been fully explained to the people who vote. So, you may vote for statehood for example, whether that would mean that English would have to become the official language of Puerto Rico. Or you could vote for independence, but you would not know whether independence means that Puerto Rico would continue to have a common market with the United States. 

All of the alternatives and their consequences are so uncertain that people express an inclination. And that inclination is mostly based on fear, apprehension, dependence, fear of the unknown. So, the results of those referendums are not very reliable. What would be reliable would be a referendum that is designed jointly after a process of negotiation between the Puerto Rican political parties and the United States government in which the alternatives are clearly defined with their consequences. 

So, people would know what the consequences of their vote would be. For that to happen, the United States has to assume the responsibility to promote self-determination, which it has not done until now.

GT: Despite demands that Puerto Rico become a US state, Washington did not act. Hawaii became a US state in 1959. What is the fundamental reason that the US does not accept Puerto Rico into the union?

García: The United States has never been historically, and has never had the objective of becoming a multinational country. There may be cultural variations inside, but the United States is a unitary country. And it aspires to everyone being part of the American nation as Americans. They know that Puerto Ricans do not want to be Americans. So, Puerto Rico is not a candidate to be a state. For the same reason, let's say, Guatemala or Jamaica is not a candidate. They are different countries. For historical reasons and historical accidents, Puerto Rico became a colony more than 100 years ago, and I cannot understand why the United States is not designed to include other nations. And Puerto Rico's cultural identity is incompatible with a unitary national project, and that is recognized by the United States.  The problem is that if they had said, "we do not want Puerto Rico to be a state," I could understand that perfectly. But what they are not saying is that if it's not going to be a state, then this is the option of independence. But they have not offered that because they also wanted for strategic and political reasons to keep control over Puerto Rico. So, we are caught like an elevator between two floors, and statehood is not an alternative for reasons that I can understand and sympathize with. 

But then again, independence has not been presented as an option. And in the meantime, Puerto Rico continues to be the poorest region in the United States. Our income per capita is 1/3 of the average income per capita in the United States, which I should say, is the same relationship of 50 years ago. In the process, Puerto Rico is shackled in its capacity to develop its own economy, and becomes an ever more dependent appendix of the United States.

GT: How do people in Puerto Rico feel about the US' jurisdiction and its responsibilities? 

García: There are mixed feelings, because on the one hand, people's perception and self-esteem have been eroded by so many years of colonialism.

And at the same time, they can see with their own eyes signs of modernity. Because after all, we are a poor part, but still a part of a very large economy, such as the United States. And people tend to feel uncertain and fear that if there were not that political nexus, that would mean that Puerto Rico would be even worse off. So people, on the one hand, have fear and uncertainty. But on the other hand, there is also resentment and disappointment that after 100 years, Puerto Rico continues to be, politically speaking, a subordinated, colonial country, and economically an impoverished one from the point of view of its own national development.

GT: After the recent Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Ricans are frustrated with the electric grid and infrastructure problems. President Biden vowed that the US won't walk away from Puerto Rico. How do you view the comments of Biden?

García: It's what American presidents have always said for the past 100 years. Everybody is politically correct. There are midterm elections in the United States in November. Republicans and Democrats are fighting it up over there for the vote of the Latinos and for the Hispanic votes.  This is a moment in which all the politicians in the States want to be on record as being supportive. And that is not to say being sincere in his desire for Puerto Rico to be able to overcome its difficulties, but that kind of an expression is not a guarantee that the appropriate kind of assistance will be delivered in a timely fashion. 

GT: You were once arrested for civil disobedience due to your protests against the US military presence on the island. Can you tell me a bit of the situation at that time?

García: This happened in the year 2000. At that time, the United States had a very important military presence in Puerto Rico, particularly the United States navy, which had a very large base where the 5th fleets of the US navy had its headquarters in eastern Puerto Rico. In a small offshore island called Vieques, they had their most important training range.

There was an accident in which a local citizen was killed in a bomb blast, in one of the military exercises. And that detonated a way of protests that included the whole population. All of the political parties and everybody in Puerto Rico agreed that the moment had come for the Navy to cease using the island of Vieques as a place for military exercise. It turns out that after a very substantial confrontation, thousands of us were arrested, but that forced the United States to reexamine the importance of its military position in Puerto Rico. And it turns out, as happened so many times in history, that the result of that evaluation was that the United States realized that its military presence in Puerto Rico was no longer vital for them.

The strategic and technological landscape in military terms had changed so dramatically. Since the end of the second World War, Puerto Rico, although perhaps of some use, was of very little importance to the United States strategic deployment in the world. So, they decided not only to close the firing range, they decided to close the navy base. And as they did in the Philippines some years ago, they decided that they no longer needed them. So, the important thing about our political conducting in terms of civil disobedience was that it served as an incentive for the United States to re-examine the importance of Puerto Rico. Needless to say, had the result of that evaluation been that the island of Vieques and the navy base were indispensable to US national security interests, I would probably still be in jail. 

It was fundamentally military consideration that made the United States keep Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American war and requested from Spain as part of the treaty, Spain had to hand over Puerto Rico to the United States, because it was part of the military structure that the United States was developing in the Caribbean at that time, which included the Panama Canal. And those strategic military considerations were very important during the world wars and during the Cold War. But once the Cold War was done, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the international panorama changed, it suddenly turns out that Puerto Rico was not necessary militarily to the United States in the same way that they don't use the Guantanamo Bay in Cuba anymore for military reasons.

And it worked for the fact that the Cuban government is not a friend of the United States, the United States would have left Guantanamo years ago. In the case of Puerto Rico, that's the same thing. All of that is good news, because it means that strategic considerations are objectively no longer determinant of the United States insistence on staying in Puerto Rico.

Now, as time passes, it becomes ever more clear, not only that statehood is not a real possibility, but that independence may be the only way out, not only for us, but also for the United States. So we are waiting for the planets to align. And the way to get there is to create political pressure on the Congress to have to face the question of Puerto Rico, which they would prefer to postpone. But we must force them. Once they enter a decision-making process, the alternatives will begin to flush out.

GT: Recently, left-wing forces are gaining political momentum in Latin America and voices that oppose the US are becoming louder. What impact will these have on Puerto Rico?

García: As much as Latin America becomes more independent and is willing to design a continental policy that is not subordinate to the United States, that is the trend. There have been ups and there have been downs, but the trend is distorting a unitary project for Latin America and the Caribbean, that is not dependent upon the United States. As things move in that direction, that is excellent news for Puerto Rico. Although I should say that in the past, there has always been ample support for Puerto Rican independence in Latin America beyond ideological lines. Support for independence has been forthcoming from left-wing regimes of course, if nothing else, because of their conflicts with the United States, but on its own merits.  And in other cases, political regimes that were even sympathetic to the United States have always had a favorable opposition, because the perception in Latin America, be it on the right or on the left, is that Puerto Rico is really part of Latin America which by accidents ended up being a colonial possession of the United States in the middle of the Caribbean.

GT: Do you think there is still hope that Puerto Rico becomes independent? To achieve this, what geopolitical conditions are needed, such as a declining US strength?

García: Not only hope, it is the only possible alternative in the future. Because statehood is impossible. One can continue to be a colony indefinitely, especially when the country is bankrupt, if colonialism had been an enormous success, economically. One could say maybe it can go on for 20 more years. But the country is bankrupt and US policy in Puerto Rico will no longer be guided in the future strictly by military considerations because of Puerto Rico having lost its strategic importance in purely military terms.

In the long run, so long as Puerto Rico continues to be a homogeneous population in its own island and with its sense of identity, as part of Latin America and a nation of itself, independence is only a question of time and circumstance. Time and circumstance have become our allies.

If, for some reason, the United States came to believe that Puerto Rico or the Caribbean could become a beachhead for international adversaries of the United States, that would mean that the United States would be more worried about keeping the Caribbean close and keeping a greater control. As for the idea that we are going to go back to the days of the Cold War, or to the days of the second World War, which Puerto Rico was strategically vital, I don't think that's going to happen in the foreseeable future. 

GT: You have advocated for Puerto Rican independence in international forums like the UN. How much help did it have on the independence cause?

García:: It has been important. Every year, an important resolution is approved. As I mentioned before, for the past 20 years, it has been approved by consensus, which means that we have had the supports, at least theoretical. But again, having a UN resolution in your favor doesn't mean that the world will change. It is simply a manifestation that there is some level of support. But for example, we in Puerto Rico would like the case of Puerto Rico to be discussed, not only at the level of the UN Committee on Decolonization, but in the General Assembly.  And in fact, the Committee on Decolonization recommendation is that the General Assembly examine the case of Puerto Rico. At that level, the United States has always opposed it. So we haven't had movement there, but we have established opposition. It has international recognition. I think it cannot be minimized, although it is not a super bullet.  At the same time, we are acting in other forums. The Puerto Rico Independence Party, for example, has been members of Socialist International since 1983. And we have been quite active. And I've participated in its congresses and its meetings.