For the first time in half a century, since J.F. Kennedy made a visit to the island in the middle of the Cold War, President Barack Obama arrived in Puerto Rico on a short trip that seemed more like an airport stopover.
The leader displayed his renowned charisma (something that distinguishes him from his tongue-tied predecessor) as he made promises — undoubtedly positive — to respect the sovereign decision of the Puerto Rican people concerning their relations with the United States in the face of an eventual referendum in the upcoming years. Obama once again showed his penchant for high doses of personal charm, making a few vague promises and almost no concrete proposals.
I don’t wait to be accused of Obamaphobia, because I’ve always recognized the personal qualities of the leader, the symbolic value of his victory as an African-American and even the good intentions that he seems to bear. To the point of fatigue Obama has insisted on the need for immigration reform (demanded by Latin American immigrants and their countries of origin), universal health care and improved social protection and the reduction of poverty.
What’s happening — despite the enthusiastic Obamaphiles (including some friends of the island) — is that the protective padlocks of the system and its elite who are bound to the worst of the “American Way of Life” (covetous individualism, the absence of mass socialist organizations and thought, the cultural hegemony of the “self-made man” paradigm, etc.) are blocking any substantial reform that allows the US to structure a government in an even halfway decent welfare state.
Similar resistance I attribute to Obama’s visible and premature graying and his tired or afflicted looks that the media offer us with increasing frequency.
And if this stagnation is indeed occurring on the mainland, consider a Puerto Rican society and economy suffering from high levels of insecurity, unemployment (double the rate of the US) and harmed by the neoliberal polices of the current administration in San Juan.
Over the last several months there have been increased violations of the right to peaceful protest in Puerto Rico and the use of police to violate the autonomy of university students and impede their demonstrations – something unthinkable in a consolidated liberal democracy.
It has been said that up to now the complexity of the problem of the status of Puerto Rico had impeded trips by US presidents, little motivated by the potential for islander votes.
Certainly the Puerto Rican population is not entitled to participate in elections for the US president or have representatives to Congress, but the Puerto Ricans who reside within the US proper can and do vote. In fact they make up important constituencies in areas like New York, New Jersey and Florida. In that latter state (decisive in some recent elections) there live more than 700,000 Puerto Ricans. For those reasons, I sense that Obama went to Puerto Rico to look for money and support from the relatives of islanders who reside on the mainland.
We should remember that the status of Puerto Rican is peculiar. It is allowed to have its own constitution but not a government in the full sense of the word; its sovereignty is in hands of the United States (which controls the island’s defense and foreign relations) though it is not a part of that country. Its citizens are only Puerto Rican when they live on the island but American citizens with full rights when they live in the US.
The White House has created a working group on Puerto Rico and foresees carrying out a new referendum. Puerto Ricans will be asked if they prefer independence (with full sovereignty or in association with the US), if they want to be a state of the union or maintain their current status. Although this last option has triumphed in the four previous referendums (as people fear losing federal transfer payments and their connection with the US market) there seems to be greater discontent among the population.
Whatever the outcome of the plebiscite, what’s certain is that the anachronistic policies of the USA regarding the island must finally come to an end, since Puerto Ricans (in a rainbow that ranges from democratic reformists to radical independence fighters) are demanding an end to the colonial treatment and status of the island and its residents.
The current American administration should do what’s possible to deny an old maxim, one embodied in reality, which is a faithful reflection of the politics of the colossus of the north. This is that one can be a republic on the inside but an empire on the outside… and that similar Roman gaze affects those “barbarian” populations which the “civilized conqueror” is not convinced to extend all their rights.