The political fortunes of the Western Hemisphere during the 20th century remind me-obvious differences aside-of the fortunes of the protagonist in the harrowing film, "The Days of Wine and Roses." A young Jack Lemon played the role of a successful advertising executive who became an alcoholic and gradually dragged his wife down with him into a sorrowful life of booze.
In our Hemisphere, the first struggle against colonialism resulted in the birth of a young nation-the United States. Over the course of the 19th century, the U.S. turned into the Hemisphere's bully and imperial power. Like the inebriated character played by Lemon, it craved success and misused power-as African, Native, and Latin Americans quickly learned. After the war with Spain in 1898 and through most of the 20th century, the U.S. imposed or propped up weak rulers that pummeled the young nations of this Hemisphere into sorrowful and dependent shadows of what might have been.
But times change. The bully, drunk with power, is waking up to the morning after the night before. Also the parasitic rulers that relied on the bully's strength are facing hangovers. And the realization that "one nation, under God" should not count as the majority of one in the international arena has slowly begun to strengthen Latin America. Recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the treaty system of the Western Hemisphere, issued an historic Report (Nº 98/03 of December 29, 2003) to the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). It concludes that, under the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the human rights of citizens residing in the District of Columbia are being violated by the denial of the right to vote in the federal structure of their country.
This prestigious Commission has become the oversight and enforcement mechanism for the American Convention on Human Rights, which created the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The U.S. has not ratified this convention and therefore a judgment of the Inter-American Court based on the Report would not be legally binding. Still, the Report's moral and political repercussions are enormous. Based on the 1948 Declaration, the Report is also of legal significance because the U.S. is a Charter member of the OAS, and the Declaration is an authoritative interpretation of the Charter's provisions on human rights and customary international law.
The Commissioners, in a 3-1 vote, dismissed the notion of a federal district as a justification for curtailing residents' right to vote. The Report pointed out that in the several nations of the Hemisphere, the citizens of the capital cities of Ottawa, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Caracas, and Brasilia, "all of which constitute federal enclaves or districts, have voting representation in their national legislatures." The analysis concluded that D.C. residents' rights to participate in their federal legislature have been curtailed so as to deprive them of the essence and effectiveness of their right to vote in their own land. This means that, in the 21st century, the "weaklings" of the Hemisphere have gathered sufficient strength to slap the bully in the face with an international indictment of human rights violations in his own living room.
Located in the heart of the District of Columbia, the Commission is "sensitive" to the social and political factors that have historically denied D.C. statehood-including race-and is careful to avoid promoting statehood. Instead it notes other options available, such as making most of the District part of the neighboring state of Maryland; or retaining the District, but distributing voters to neighboring states. The Commission knew that, even for English-speaking Americans who live there, statehood would not be an available option. (Puerto Rican statehood leaders should take note!)
The biggest political setback for the U.S. comes, by implication, in contemplation of Puerto Rico's colonial status since 1898. At the United Nations, the U.S. traditionally contested the legitimacy of the Decolonization Committee's jurisdiction using Cuba's presence as an excuse because it never expected to win. But with the absence of Cuba at the OAS, the U.S. recognized the legitimacy of the Commission and actively participated in the proceedings as an opposing party for more than a decade because it never expected to lose. A sobering experience, indeed!
What would a similar Commission report on Puerto Rico's status look like? A distinct, Spanish-speaking Latin American people from an island in the Caribbean, whose rights to travel, negotiate, trade, invest and communicate internationally, and to live, develop their culture, govern, and legislate for themselves have always been infringed by the plenary powers of the U.S. Congress does not leave much room for speculation. If there ever was a violation of basic human rights of self-determination, this is it!
The Commission's Report should send the colonial frame of mind and its rotating weaklings in Puerto Rico's administrations into a state of delirium tremens. The closing of installations after civil disobedience in Vieques ushered the military out should clear the air so that the end of the military colony's days of wine and roses will inevitably become "Just a passing breeze/ Filled with memories."