In a critically acclaimed book published in 1997, former Chief Justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, José Trías Monge candidly described the commonwealth as colonial and explained how the political, economic, and social hardships of the island were a result of the shortcomings of our colonial reality. Many considered Trías’ book a recovering act from his historical role as one who intellectually adorned U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.
However, in his latest statements about Puerto Rico’s status, Trías has suffered a “regression”. In recently published articles he has gone back to praise commonwealth as an instrument of political stability between what he imagines as two political “extremes,” coming to the conclusion he had previously discredited, that the current status is the bulwark of Puerto Rico’s permanent union with the United States.
Trías latest “change of heart” is worth noting because it reflects a recurring syndrome of commonwealth advocates: the contrast between rhetoric and reality. This ambivalence is a result of a rhetorical fabrication developed half a century ago to hide Puerto Rico’s colonial status.
In the late 1940s, Luis Muñoz Marín and other PDP leaders spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to convince the US government that Puerto Ricans were somehow “worthy” of at least some self-government. The political context of the time offered a very favorable opportunity to advance Puerto Rico’s self-determination and independence. The ideological struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States ruled international politics and each of the superpowers used their respective colonial policies as a weapon against the other’s credibility. Support for independence struggles was a litmus test for anticolonial sincerity of each superpower in the post-World War II international arena.
Puerto Rico loomed as an issue for the international legitimacy of U.S. self-determination policies before a growing number of colonial peoples struggling for national liberation. The independence sentiment in Puerto Rico was in the majority and the dissatisfaction with the Jones Act, even after the Elective Governor Act of 1947, was almost unanimous. Therefore, US colonial policy towards the island tainted the democratic ideals it purported to vigorously defend against the Soviet regime.
However, the United States was adamant against modifying Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Muñoz had two choices before him: to denounce and confront the U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico, or to cave in. He did the latter and, in so doing, lost a unique opportunity to advance Puerto Rico’s decolonization and self-determination.
Puerto Ricans were only allowed to draft a Constitution for a local government, but no significant change occurred in the colonial nature of the political relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. In fact, congressmen and policymakers made clear that the creation of commonwealth was in no way to be interpreted as a change or modification of U.S. sovereignty and authority over the island.
In the light of Muñoz’s failure, Trías helped develop a triumphant rhetoric that would disguise their political defeat. The idea of commonwealth as an imaginary “center” in the political spectrum to avoid “futile and damaging polarization” created by anyone who disagreed was a starting point. Throughout the years other concepts such as “permanent union”, “bilateral compact”, and “common defense” were incorporated as fundamental elements of the rhetorical fabrication to hide Puerto Rico’s colonial reality.
Today, the true meaning of such rhetoric has been exposed. “Permanent union” is an obsolete concept adopted in the Cold War context of polarized ideologies in which countries were expected to “unite” with one of the poles. The idea that such “union” is “permanent” was incorporated in the repertoire to avoid criticism from statehooders. The “bilateral compact” is a non-existent concept designed to hide the plenary powers of Congress over Puerto Rico under the “territorial clause” of the U.S. Constitution. The concept of “common defense” merely conceals U.S. strategic interests in Puerto Rico as a military outpost in the Caribbean region. The U.S. Navy’s disregard of the well being of the viequenses has revealed the real meaning of “common defense” in all its crudeness.
In his 1997 book, Trías relinquished this rhetoric and candidly wrote about the reality of our colonial dilemma. “A firm decision to decolonize Puerto Rico” ―he wrote in an urgent tone― “at the earliest possible moment, under whatever formula is acceptable to both sides, is what justice requires and best serves the interests of all.”
However, in his recent statements, Trías resorted once again to the old deceitful rhetoric and embraced the same obsolete concepts in a new attempt to sweep the complexity and reality of Puerto Rico’s colonial status under history’s rug.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Puerto Ricans encounter very favorable conditions to overcome our political subordination. Internationally, Vieques has turned Puerto Rico’s political subordination into a credibility issue for the United States. In Puerto Rico, people from all ideologies and political parties have expressed dissatisfaction with the current inferior political subordination.
In today’s defining moment there is no place for Trías’ equivocation. Either he remains true to the course of self-determination and decolonization he espoused in his book – if for no other reason than intellectual honesty – or he caves in once again to political expediency and harks back to the rhetoric he himself discredited.
Will the real Trías Monge please stand up?