On June 23, 2014 The U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization heard from more than 30 petitioners, that after 100 years of U.S. ‘imperialist’ policies the island of Puerto Rico has found itself with crippling government debt, a stunted economy dependent on the U.S., a contaminated environment, and still finds itself without the right to self-determination. At the end the committee swiftly approved a new draft resolution calling for Puerto Rico to be given the right to determine its political status.
Throughout the proceedings the U.S. was repeatedly referred to as the ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial power,’ as was explained that the commonwealth status that Puerto Rico was given in 1953 simply served to obscure the real situation of Puerto Ricans and allow the U.S. government’s imperial trade restrictions and policies to continue. A representative from Puertorriqueños Unidos en Accíon, argued that from the very beginning U.S. policy in Puerto Rico was designed to enhance its own interests at the expense of Puerto Rican citizens, citing policies that have allowed multinational corporations to dominate local business and transport profits out of the community. According to a speaker from the MPA these legal and trade restrictions, which were designed originally to stimulate American investment and industry on the island, have served to create a “wall” that has blocked economic development on the island and prevented Puerto Rico from accessing non-US markets. Rosana Lopez Leon, of the Movimiento Puertorriqueño Anticabotaje, passionately called on the international community “to free my island” from the colonialism imposed on it by the U.S. and to give Puerto Ricans control over their economy. Over the last decade Puerto Rico’s economy has deteriorated with 50% of Puerto Ricans living on the poverty line, schools have been closed, and the island has needed to import most of its own food, according to a representative from the Frente Socialista de Puerto Rico.
Interestingly, a number of petitioners argued that Puerto Rico should be regarded as a sovereign nation and that Puerto Ricans should be given the opportunity to become an independent nation if it so desired. Ramon Nenadich of the Estado Nacional Soberano de Borinken, memorably demanded that U.N. member states recognize the sovereign state of “Borinken” as the sole legitimate government of the people, and also asked for support for its struggle to become a U.N. member state. Geraldo Ludo Segarra of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico asserted that there could never be an equal relationship, “between the slave and the lord” and demanded that the U.S. end its occupation. Including Segarra, the language of several speakers at the hearing often seemed to regard Puerto Rico as an occupied nation that was still fighting for its independence from a colonial power. Along with them, many speakers demanded that the U.S. remove its military forces from the island and return the land it has ‘occupied’ on Vieques to the people. The call for the U.S. to return this land is certainly justified; however, given that only 5.5% of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of independence during the 2012 status referendum, the call for Puerto Rican independence from the U.S seems to be a bit out of touch with the actual needs and desires of most Puerto Ricans. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi and a few other petitioners pointed out that the Special Committee had drafted a resolution that affirmed that Puerto Rico as a former colony had an inalienable right to self-determination, especially independence. While they were pleased that the Committee and U.N. Member States support Puerto Rico’s sovereignty, they added that its people had already decided in 2012 to support statehood and reiterated that the committee should respect this choice instead of pursuing other options. Regardless of their differing opinions on what Puerto Rico’s political situation should ideally be, everyone at the hearing agreed that American citizens in Puerto Rico are being denied the fundamental right to participate in their democracy. As one speaker aptly stated, “this harsh reality contradicts the United States’ public international discourse when it self-proclaims itself as the beacon of freedom and democracy worldwide.”
The Committee also heard statements from national representatives of Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other CELAC countries who called for the U.S. to end its imperialism towards Puerto Rico, recognize the Puerto Rican right to self-determination, and what they regarded as the illegal imprisonment of Oscar Lopez Rivera.
At the end of the hearing, the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization approved a draft resolution via consensus that demands that the U.S. respect the fundamental human rights of Puerto Ricans and to ‘shoulder its responsibility’ to give Puerto Rico the right to self-determination and political representation. The draft also echoed the calls of other petitioners to hold the U.S. government responsible for the cost of cleaning up and decontaminating areas of the island previously used for military exercises.
It should also be noted that this document is actually the 34th U.N. resolution on Puerto Rico’s political status from the Committee in the last three decades. This hearing certainly brings attention to the status of Puerto Rico to the international stage but in terms of influencing the U.S. government to address the situation it will probably fare no better than the past 33 resolutions. With this in mind, the people of Puerto Rico can look at this as another legitimation of the struggle for representation, self-determination, and respect from a U.S. government that while priding itself on the principles of democracy and freedom has failed to extend these same ideals to their own citizens in Puerto Rico.