The above is a sequence of Puerto Rico governor Alejandro García Padilla answering questions during last week’s hearing at the Senate Committee of Energy and Natural Resources dedicated to resolving the territorial status of Puerto Rico. (Why that committee? Well Puerto Rico is not a state, nor a sovereign nation. It’s a “natural resource” of our freedom-loving country.) The hearing is symbolic of the three-ring circus that has characterized debate on the status question since the inception of the island’s “Commonwealth” status in 1952. Despite the Obama administration’s recent request to allocate $2.5 million for another status plebiscite for Puerto Rico, only three members of the committee showed up: Committee chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico).
During the sequence above, Senator Heinrich repeats a question posed earlier by Senator Murkowski, asking Governor García Padilla to define what is meant by “enhanced Commonwealth,” which is a status variation García Padilla’s pro-Commonwealth party has suggested is a viable status option that should be considered in the new plebiscite. In both cases, García Padilla was incapable of answering the question.
(You can watch the entire hearing here. The first 20 or so minutes of this video is just a static placeholder announcing the upcoming hearing. This obviously is either incompetence or designed to prevent you from having the patience to scrub through and watch it.)
The governor’s lack of facility with English makes his appearance here rank among the most clownish imaginable in the history of US-Puerto Rico discussions of territorial status. To say he speaks haltingly is a compliment–he makes two horrendous mistakes in communication skills. First, instead of directly answering the question he refers ineptly to some notes contained in a written statement he submitted to the committee about a 1991 Supreme Court ruling that said that “modify[ing] the degree of autonomy enjoyed by a dependent sovereign that is not a State– is not an unusual legislative objective.” Secondly, he comes off like a pompous undergrad doing a class presentation that he’s sure is brilliant but is actually a poorly argued improvisation of ideas he barely grasps.
In answers he gave to both Murkowski and Heinrich, he gave barely intelligible answers attempting to illustrate that the idea of enhanced commonwealth was neither outlandish nor unconstitutional. Incredibly, the governor was either not prepared to at least answer generally what an enhanced commonwealth would entail (while it’s never been made entirely clear, enhanced commonwealth would allow increased autonomy in self-government, or even some kind work-around of trade issues with other countries), or he forgot how to answer the question in English and felt his strongest answer would result from referring to vaguely supportive passages underlined in his notes.
As you can see in the video, after an extended round of stammering, García Padilla says that “the Federal Court in Puerto Rico is struggling with the language in Puerto Rico because most Puerto Ricans speak Spanish…” which does not address the question “what does enhanced commonwealth mean,” and only illustrates that it is the governor himself who is struggling with the language.
Who knows, maybe this was a political ploy by García Padilla. Perhaps he was hoping that his constituents at home would identify with his confusion and feel, ay bendito, if we become a state we would have to learn English! What a total drag! I’m still impressed that many Puerto Rican nationalists will refuse to utter a single word in English to a stateside Boricua like me as a political statement. It’s actually a beautiful thing. But that doesn’t mean they think you should be completely incompetent when speaking at a committee hearing in Congress! Listen to Independence Party leader Rubén Berríos–yes I know he’s problematic–as he adds to his 30-year legacy of telling Americans to kiss his ass in perfect English.
As far as Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi goes, he’s a much better front person for the statehood party’s flag-waving Abramoff-school lobby than the ousted ex-governor Luis Fortuño. He’s a seemingly benign Democrat, but the statehooders still take their cues from Nixonian plutocrat Carlos Romero Barceló, seen sitting smugly behind the squirming García Padilla. Pierluisi is not a bad English speaker, albeit without much range, sticking closely to his talking points. He delivers some crafty, if disingenuous bullet-point slogans based around the “reality” of the Commonwealth status’s defeat in last November’s non-binding plebiscite.
But the most disturbing thing about this hearing is how all three committee members seem to give credence to the idea that the voters rejected the Commonwealth status when the plebiscite was clearly manipulated by the statehood party to manufacture that result. There was no questioning of Pierluisi around the issue of how it was the statehood party was completely swept of out power after four years of controlling the executive and legislative branches. It wasn’t just a personality preference between Fortuño and García Padilla–wasn’t it at least partially about rejecting statehood in favor of commonwealth?
This cruel irony could be explained as an indication that Puerto Ricans are a) disenchanted with commonwealth because the islands’ economy is in shambles and b) might be in favor of statehood if it were administrated by anyone who was not a member of the statehood party. While the former is painfully clear, the latter idea has been hinted at before, yet it was strongly rejected because it’s hard to reconcile the island’s fierce nationalism with any kind of statehood. It also coincided with a neo-nationalist movement around the issue of Vieques, which blew up a couple of years later.
Of course, if it’s safe to assume that Republican congress members would never support a vote for the budget expansion that would accompany Puerto Rican statehood, you know they would stand their ground fiercely against an explicitly pro-Democrat, pro-labor, and otherwise radical or progressive statehood party. They might even draw their guns right there in the committee room to show they mean business.
I guess my argument is, even if García Padilla comes off quite badly in Congress and pretty much everywhere else, and the commonwealth party looks, again, like they have no idea what they’re doing, is it really a constructive thing to join the growing mob chorus to force, as Pierluisi put it, an “up or down vote” on this issue? (Check the tape, he has a kind of Tea Party flourish in his voice when he insists on it.)
Don’t the statehooders know that by pushing this to the brink in the face of an almost assured “no” vote from congress on statehood, Puerto Rico could be forced into a sudden independence with them in charge, since the Independence Party won’t be seen as legitimate leaders? After all, if they have it their way, commonwealth won’t even be on the ballot. Come to think of it, the statehooders already had a lot of practice running a repressive, totalitarian state that insists on massive privatization and fiscal austerity as its top priorities. That’s the kind of Latin American government Washington always finds a way to nuzzle up to. Hmmm. Maybe they do know.
In the end, a colony is a colony is a colony. Puerto Rico needs an end to second-class citizenship. Independence is the most desirable option, but it would be best carried out with full reparations for all the profit that was sucked out, as well as all the labor capital Puerto Ricans contributed to the US economy when they were displaced under the guise of modernizing the economy. To right itself after years of economic free-fall, the island needs a massive infusion of capital, and not from billionaires trying to avoid tax breaks. Developing economic alliances with similarly situated Caribbean and Latin American nations would also be necessary.
Meanwhile, globalization is intent on destroying any sense of national sovereignty and making it more difficult for any of this to happen. A change in Puerto Rico’s status isn’t going to mean much in the larger fallout from the Great Recession. If there’s going to be a change, here in New York we must know, there in San Juan they must know, hey in East LA they must know, it’s not going to come from Washington.