Conferees debate Puerto Rico’s status

A license plate in Coffman Union’s parking garage summed up the message of La Raza Student Cultural Center’s Puerto Rico week celebration: “PRLIBRE” — Liberty for Puerto Rico.
But how much and what kind of liberty should be extended to the commonwealth has eluded federal lawmakers and divided island dwellers over the years. In a weekend conference at Coffman, Puerto Rico’s most recent bid for independence from the United States took center stage.
Conferees, who came from all over the Midwest, discussed a bill passed March 4 by Congress that could determine the island’s constitutional status. The bill requires that a referendum be held in Puerto Rico by the end of the year to determine whether it will retain its commonwealth status, become the 51st state or become an independent nation.
“The notion of independence that we will hear today is a major significant historical moment for the Latino students at the University of Minnesota,” Guillermo Rojas, chairman of the Chicano Studies department, told more than 50 pro-independence conferees on Friday.
“We are talking about that one scream, shrill voice that seeks independence from that historical morass that we call American equality,” he said.
Since 1901, Congress has governed all key aspects of Puerto Rican society such as education, health care, banking, immigration and naturalization. Although Puerto Rico’s inhabitants are considered U.S. citizens, they cannot vote in presidential elections and they have no voting representation in Congress.
Most speakers at the conference — as well as most people in attendance, who nodded in agreement with pro-independence speakers — were passionately against what they consider to be the U.S. colonization of the 3.8 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico.
“Shame on those who accept that the Congress of the United States pretends to treat us Puerto Ricans as mere objects or possessions,” said Juan Mari Bras, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. “Such legislation one century after the invasion of Puerto Rico by the United States invokes power as if we were a farm and its slaves in a time of slavery.
“Either we are Yankees or Puerto Rican; the hour of definition will come soon,” Mari Bras said.
However, most Puerto Ricans don’t agree with the speakers. In 1993, a non-binding vote taken in Puerto Rico showed most citizens still wanted to maintain their commonwealth status with the United States, while the possibility of statehood came in second. Independence for the island came in a distant third.
Rafael Ortiz, coordinator of the Puerto Rican Coalition in Minnesota, blames the lack of popular support for independence on what he considers to be disillusionment about the benefits of American intervention in the poverty-stricken commonwealth. He said many Puerto Ricans see statehood as a chance to improve their economic plight. In reality, he said, increased U.S. capital will mainly benefit the local business elites.
Most audience members agreed with Ortiz that statehood could be detrimental to the island’s economic state. Immigration paralegal Rebecca Finch said statehood would allow the United States to continue to exploit Puerto Rico’s land, resources and people.
“I am in more support of Puerto Rico being independent from the U.S. because right now it has a second class status to the U.S.,” said Minneapolis resident Amy Roberts, who attended the conference because of an interest in U.S. foreign policy.
However, not all conferees were there to advocate Puerto Rican independence.
“I thought Puerto Rico wanted statehood; this surprises me,” said Canadian Brian Bomediano, who attends York University in Toronto and traveled to Minneapolis specifically to attend the conference.
However, Mari Bras said he believes there is no possibility that Congress will approve a bill that admits Puerto Rico as a state. This, he said, is because the aristocracy that dominates the United States would not welcome Caribbean, Spanish-speaking people.
“I hope I will live to see the success of independent forces of our country, and I am sure that all of you will struggle for it and see the victory of our nation,” Mari Bras said.