Since Fidel Castro’s death the chant of “Cuba Libre” has resonated all over Miami. Pictures of the Cuban flag, pictures of the Coke and rum drink, pictures and videos of Cubans rejoicing over the possibility of their country becoming free from a communist dictatorship – has me thinking about my beloved Puerto Rico.
What happened with the independence movement in Puerto Rico? Why is it that while the Cubans pray for the day their country is LIBRE again – Puerto Ricans aim to be part of the US as a state or as a “commonwealth”? History tells us and every Puerto Rican and Cuban knows the saying that the islands are of the same bird two wings – “de un ave las dos alas”. History also teaches us that the closest Puerto Rico ever came to being an independent nation was just before the Spanish American War when our “proceres” and those in Cuba worked together for both islands to receive their liberty from Spain.
This dream was never to be and while Cuba was given its independence in 1902 by the United States, Puerto Rico became an experiment of colonialism. An experiment that became so much more important when it was transformed to THE example of democracy while Cuba became the first Marxist and Communist country in the Western Hemisphere and an example of the USSR Cold War doctrine.
Just before the Cuban Revolution, Puerto Rico tried to be free – the independent movement much stronger than what it is nowadays. We could see next door to the other “ala” of the bird and watch how the Cuban economy grew pushed by the sugarcane economy, casinos, and yes, other kind of dictators, while Puerto Rico between 1898 and 1942 was left lingering economically. It was not until Operation Bootstrap in 1942 and after WWII that Puerto Rico started to finally be a viable colonial enterprise. During the 1930’s and 1940’s Puerto Rico experienced the highest fervor of independence movement that was quickly and swiftly squashed by the US.
Jump to a decade later and the son of Luis Munoz Rivera – one of the biggest leaders of the autonomy movement for Puerto Rico – pushed a new form of government for the island – the Commonwealth or Estado Libre Asociado – which shouldn’t be confused with other global commonwealths as it was only for Puerto Rico. Although the U.S. went to the U.N. in 1953 and ratified in front of the diplomatic world that Puerto Rico could be taken out of the list of non-self-governing territories – via Resolution 748-, more recently the Supreme Court resolved via their 6-2 decision in Commonwealth of Puerto v Sanchez Valle that Puerto Rico has been and still is exactly that -a colony of the United States.
Next door in the other “ala”, Fidel Castro had overtaken – thanks to the “working class” – the government. Thought of as a savior of the lower classes, it fast became obvious that oppression of any dissidents to his views would follow. For the next sixty years Castro would be the mighty dictator of Cuba, bettering some things while destroying most of the economic advances Cuba had made in its 50+ years of independence before his regime started. More than a million - or 10% of the population left the island – with the 1960’s and the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 being the two largest exoduses.
While Cuba suffered, Puerto Rico was injected with US federal money. Through the next five decades Puerto Rico saw its economy grow and prosper – and the chants of Puerto Rico Libre became less and less heard, while a two-party system grew – one that wanted statehood, the other keeping the commonwealth status. Yes, there were Independentistas in the island and outside too – the most famous now being Oscar Lopez Rivera who has been in jail for 35 years (and counting), considered a “terrorist” by the US government because he fought for Puerto Rico’s independence. If this was a Cuban-American fighting for the independence of Cuba would he be considered a terrorist or a hero? Or if Lopez Rivera was in the position of Patty Hearst, rich heiress turned Symbionist fighter turned heiress once again (and pardoned for her crimes against the US) would he still be in jail?
The truth is that now Cuba could be in the threshold of becoming a new economic power in the Caribbean with 11+ million inhabitants and 42,000 sq. miles of virgin soil while 3.4 million Puerto Ricans have been reminded of its colonial status by the imposition of an Oversight Fiscal Board which rules over its “commonwealth” government so it can pay an outrageous 72 billion in dues. While Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can easily migrate to the US, they are leaving behind an impoverished island that has been on a recession for the last decade.
So, while Cubans celebrate the possibility of a renewed Cuba Libre – Puerto Rico’s lack of “self-determination” lingers between the archaic words of the Insular Cases and the way Congress and the Supreme Court want to understand it. There is no Puerto Rico Libre to be considered – at least not for now.