This year marks the 125th anniversary of the US invasion of Puerto Rico. Since 1898, the island has existed in a political limbo: neither a state of the union nor a sovereign nation. To this day, Puerto Ricans remain, essentially, colonial subjects: living under US rule without meaningful rights or representation in the US government.
This unjust, undemocratic colonial status has endured, in part, because most Americans remain silent on it. Worse yet, many believe that silence is appropriate and that it’s not up to Americans to take a position on Puerto Rico’s status.
That is wrong. Americans’ views on this issue should be informed by those of Puerto Ricans, but they need not be wholly dependent on them. Americans should not speak for Puerto Ricans, but they must speak with us on an issue that involves our two nations, both as a matter of moral responsibility and as a prerequisite for effective political action.
The idea that it’s up to Puerto Ricans to resolve this issue makes for a nice talking point, but it’s unmoored from reality. Congress has plenary power over Puerto Rico, including the power to ignore this issue altogether, which it has exercised for decades and continues to do today.
Puerto Ricans have held six plebiscites on our political status; the US government has refused to make any of those votes binding or to act on their results. Dozens of bills have been introduced in Congress to resolve the issue. None have passed; most don’t even make it out of committee.
And why should they? Without the ability to vote for president and no voting representatives in Congress, Puerto Ricans are wholly disenfranchised from US politics. It’s Americans, not Puerto Ricans, who can pull on the levers of power and compel action from their elected leaders. Until they do, lawmakers’ inaction on Puerto Rico’s status merely reflects that of their constituents.
That inaction has also denied Puerto Ricans the benefit of critical perspectives. The prospect of statehood, especially, turns on questions that Americans are best suited to answer about their own country. Their refusal, so far, to provide those answers has debased a debate that badly needs them.
Some of those questions are about political feasibility. Is a rancorously partisan Congress likely to admit a state that may result in one party gaining two US senators and a handful of US representatives? Would politicians in swing states, where immigration is already a hot-button issue, sign off on adding 3 million new Latino voters to the United States?
Puerto Ricans deserve to know if statehood could be just around the corner or if it’s the political equivalent of waiting for Godot.
Other questions, which speak to what full annexation might mean for Puerto Ricans, are even more consequential. Could a Spanish-speaking state thrive as part of the United States, or would acceptance and opportunity require linguistic and cultural assimilation? Could Puerto Ricans expect equality, justice, and dignity in a nation still struggling to overcome systemic racism and to beat back the growing threat of white supremacy?
Puerto Ricans can and do make educated guesses at the answers to these questions. But we deserve open and honest debate about them in which Americans share their insights on US society so that Puerto Ricans can make an informed decision about whether to join it.
Finally, Americans have a moral responsibility to take a position — and action — on this issue. The United States took Puerto Rico as a war prize and has kept it as a colony for more than a century. The onus to rectify that profound injustice is not on the colonized but on the colonizer. Many Americans feel rightfully compelled to take a stand on other issues of racial and social justice stemming from some of the darkest chapters in US history. Puerto Rico’s status should be no exception.
Crucially, Americans’ stance must go beyond merely calling for “decolonization” but remaining agnostic about how to achieve it. Statehood or independence for Puerto Rico represent a stark decision: either the United States permanently keeps a nation it invaded 125 years ago or frees it. Those are diametrically opposed outcomes that demand something more than neutrality and call for making a choice based on our convictions.
The old high school civics debate poses the question: is the United States a democracy or a republic? But as long as it keeps Puerto Rico and other territories as colonial possessions under political subordination, the United States is something else entirely: an empire. If that’s to change anytime soon, Americans will have to take up a political and moral responsibility they have long neglected.
Alberto C. Medina is a Puerto Rico-born, US-based writer, editor, and advocate for Puerto Rican sovereignty. He is the president of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, a network of Puerto Ricans in the US who organize for decolonization and on other issues that affect the Puerto Rican people.