By Carlos Alberto Montaner
It was an unusual show: Popular demonstrations forced the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, governor of Puerto Rico.
It was the first time that something like this had happened since 1898, when the United States seized from Spain the Island’s sovereignty in what would be known as the Spanish-American War or the Spanish-Cuban-American War.
However, the central core of the conflict remains intact. Apparently, the reasons for this episode have to do with government corruption and the disclosure of a vulgar chat in which Rosselló and some twenty friends and officials make offensive comments about political adversaries, or top-notch artists, such as Ricky Martin, but that is not the whole truth.
That is the surface. Below, like a ghost of the 19th century, lies the problem of status: independence, autonomy or full statehood. Faced with the manifest insensitivity and stupidity of Rosselló and his buddies, the independentists and the autonomists or “populares” took to the streets. They were right to be outraged, but the almost 900 pages of the chat were anecdotical. They were an excellent alibi. The hidden key to the protest was the status.
I know the Island very well. I lived there from 1966 to 1970. I taught in a private university and my son was born there. It is a beautiful and beloved place. It is true that more than half a century has passed, but nothing has changed in the political order since 1898, except for the proportions of the three tendencies.
Half a century ago, independentists occupied 5% of the electoral roll. The autonomists (or “estadolibristas”) were, more or less, 60%, and the estadistas, who wanted the Island to become the 51st state of the American Union were about 35%.
Today it seems that independentism continues to be supported by 5% of the voters, while the rest of the population is divided into similar parts between autonomists and estadistas. Sometimes the elections are won by the “populares” and sometimes by the “estadistas.” Fifty years ago, only the autonomists won.
The magnificent and very intelligent writer Wilfredo Braschi, a friend of autonomism leader Luis Muñoz Marín, warned me about this with some melancholy: “The trend is unstoppable. The number of supporters of statehood will be each time larger.”
The definitive blow against the Puerto Rican independentists was dealt by the United States Congress. In 1917, it granted the American citizenship to all Puerto Ricans born or that would be born on the Island. That allowed them to settle in “the US continental territory” without limitations. Today there are more than 5 million in the United States and barely 3,300,000 in Puerto Rico. (Florida is the state that with the largest number of Puerto Ricans, more than one million).
The Island’s stability, the rule of law, the republican institutions, the American citizenship, which very few Puerto Ricans are willing to give up, individual freedoms, and, ultimately, the ties with the United States, allow Puerto Ricans to have a per capita income of forty thousand dollars a year, which puts them at the forefront of Latin America, although they are behind the United States.
At the same time, there is no extreme poverty, nor children who go hungry, lack school or healthcare. There is even the paradox that life expectancy in Puerto Rico (about 81 years) is somewhat higher than that of the United States. The same goes for postsecondary education: 47.1% of Puerto Ricans go to college. While it is true that the United States average is 47.6%, Puerto Ricans exceed 20 of the 50 states of the Union.
None of these objective facts denies the immense problems of Puerto Rican society, such as drug use and its related violence, the huge external debt or the proportionally gigantic size of its public sector, but, as they usually say on the Island, nothing that does not allow them to “bregar” (deal) adequately with these conflicts.
What will happen, in short, after Rosselló’s resignation? Well, nothing. Everything will remain the same until, within many years, the number of estadistas far exceeds the autonomists and strongly asks for the incorporation into the United States. That is the visible trend. I was warned about it, with melancholy, by Wilfredo Braschi. Carlos Alberto Montaner is a journalist and writer. Born in 1943 in Cuba and exiled, Montaner is known for his more than 25 books and thousands of articles. PODER magazine estimates that more than six million readers have access to his weekly columns throughout Latin America. He is also a political analyst for CNN en Espanol. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named Montaner as one of the fifty most influential intellectuals in the Ibero-American world. His latest novel is A Time for Scoundrels. His latest essay is "The President: A Handbook for Voters and the Elected." His latest book is a review of Las raíces torcidas de América Latina (The Twisted Roots of Latin America), published by Planeta and available in Amazon, in printed or digital version.