By Rev. Dr. Samuel Cruz
After 119 years so much has changed, yet so much remains the same. Were it not so painful, it would be fascinating to observe the underlying rationalization/legitimation of the oppressive, brutal and racist treatment of colonial subjects by empires—and how little that process has evolved.
During the 16th century, Juan Gines Sepulveda, the apologist for the Spanish Crown, argued for the continued colonization and brutalization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas on the basis that they needed protection from themselves. In the eyes of the Spanish, the colonized were childlike and incapable of taking care of themselves. This bigoted and dehumanizing justification of colonial oppression manifested recently in President Trump’s statements and behaviors toward Puerto Rico. He said: “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. Ten thousand Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.” Of course, he conveniently neglected to mention that Florida and Texas received over 40,000 federal workers to provide relief after Hurricane Irma. This rhetoric is commonly used to blame the victims of immoral deeds, instead of blaming the malevolent colonial aggressors. Mr. Trump’s racist and demoralizing worldview was laid bare when he threw paper towels to hurting human beings as if he was throwing fish to walruses.
The Puerto Rican nation has had to endure this type of brutal behavior from the U.S. for 119 years. Most U. S. presidents have expressed their racist views with subtlety, although with the same adverse effects. In addition, the Puerto Rican people have had to endure the hypocrisy of the U. S. government calling for freedom of people around the world while oppressing millions of Puerto Ricans under colonialism’s boot. The U.S. calls upon Russia to leave Crimea, while we occupy Puerto Rico. We went to war with Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait while we maintain several colonies. In fact, the media chooses to describe Puerto Rico as a “territory” despite it’s obvious colonial status—as attested by the United Nations.
Until Hurricane Maria, most Americans did not know much about Puerto Rico. To address that ignorance, let me offer several facts regarding the legacy of brutal colonial policies toward Puerto Rico: Between the 1930s and the 1970s approximately one-third of Puerto Rico’s female population of childbearing years were sterilized—the highest rate of forced sterilization in the world. During the 1950’s Puerto Rican women were also deceived and used as guinea pigs to test birth control pills. These women were only told that they were taking a drug to prevent pregnancy, they were never informed it was experimental nor that it could cause dangerous side effects. Puerto Rico was also a site of experimentation of agent orange in the 60’s and, more recently, Monsanto tested genetically-engineered food crops in Puerto Rico ten years before use in the United States.
U.S. colonialism has also entrenched poverty on the island. The median income of Puerto Ricans is $15,000 per year, which is half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union. However, as a result of the Jones Act of 1917 and ensuing maritime law, Puerto Ricans have to pay twice the amount that Floridians pay for their food, despite having the lowest per capita income in the U.S. And the Puerto Rican people have limited means to protest their oppression, politically: despite their citizenship, they cannot vote for President.
The injustices extend beyond politics. Puerto Rican freedom fighters have been wrongly accused and incarcerated, as in the recent case of Oscar Lopez Rivera who was incarcerated for 34 years—and even tortured—until his sentenced was commuted by Barack Obama. Now Puerto Rico finds itself in a humanitarian crisis as a result of Hurricane Maria and the response from the U.S. has been criminal neglect. Unfortunately, it appears that thousands will die because of this policy of disregard, despite the reality that Puerto Rico has lost many of its sons and daughters fighting bravely and with distinction in U.S. wars since World War I.
In spite of the horrors perpetuated against the Puerto Rican people, many suggest that Puerto Rico is a colony because that is what the people want. This is highly questionable if you take into account the billions spent in propaganda from the U.S. government to promote and maintain Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Sadly, even liberals/progressives in the U. S. have made this case, perhaps because it is easier than engaging this immoral political reality. I would propose that first and foremost, a simple moral imperative should guide the decisions we make concerning the enslavement or liberation of a people.
Can we really ask people to vote on continued enslavement or freedom? Besides its patent immorality, the fact is that any vote would be a non-binding, undemocratic process whereby congress makes the final decision. Our moral conscious should make it clear to us that we cannot accept enslavement as a choice to put to a vote. Secondly, most if not all independence movements have been supported by only a minority of citizens. This includes the United States of America where, at most, 40% of the colonists supported independence from Britain. People who have been abused often feel trapped in that very oppressive system promulgating their inhumane conditions. The U.S. Government and its citizens have a moral imperative to seek a policy that would lead us to create a gradual and responsible process to independence for the Puerto Rican nation.