Every year for decades, the United States ambassador to the United Nations has to defend its policy regarding the United States territory of Puerto Rico before the so-called decolonization committee of the United Nations.
Since its creation in San Francisco, during the waning months of the Second World War, the United Nations has supported self-government and decolonization at a time that imperialism and colonialism enveloped large swaths of our planet from the British-held subcontinent of India to mostly British, French and Portuguese colonies comprising most of the African continent to small island-colonies held by those empires, as well as Holland and the United States.
Although the United States enjoyed a “working majority” at the UN’s General Assembly, it was feeling the anti-colonial heat in the late 1940’s, as well as the Cold War pressure from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) wherever it was trying to spread communism. As a result, President Truman appointed the first native-born Puerto Rican as Governor of Puerto Rico and, in rapid succession, enacted a statute providing for the popular (pun intended) election of subsequent governors, authorized the drafting of a local constitution, and approved the ensuing constitutional document with amendments. With those important four steps, the Truman and Eisenhower administration hoped to be able to mount a credible defense at the UN that it had “decolonized” Puerto Rico while retaining full control of its most populous possession after granting independence to the territory of the Philippines.
For a time, it appeared that the “Commonwealth” of Puerto Rico enjoyed “self-government” and “fiscal autonomy”. When President Reagan in 1982 started chipping away at Internal Revenue Code Section 936, that gave Puerto Rico special tax treatment, people started wondering if there truly was fiscal autonomy. When Section 936 was completely stricken from the Code by a bipartisan group of Senators a decade and a half later, it was obvious that the “Commonwealth” didn’t enjoy, and never did, fiscal autonomy.
In 2016, after decades of apparent self-government, Congress enacted PROMESA, a statute that pulls back most of the self-government powers that Puerto Rico thought it had. For example, no longer will a bill enacted by majorities in the House and Senate and signed by the Governor become law automatically. If a board composed of seven unelected citizens objects, the signed law is annulled. In the Judiciary, no longer will the Puerto Rico Supreme Court enjoy total discretion to determine what cases it can choose to see. No longer will an existing budget remain in force if the government fails to enact a new one. While still a possession of the United States, Puerto Rico no longer is a self-governing jurisdiction and the United States is back to being an openly imperialistic world power.
The United States ambassador to the United Nations (oops! There’s no one there since Nikki Haley resigned!) is now defenseless before a United Nations that exercises, with varying degrees of effectiveness, depending on how democratic interested members may be, the moral authority to promote self-government and decolonization. As long as it remains under the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution, Puerto Rico will remain a non-self-governing territory.