By Dave Lindorff
You can read the entire article in the New York Times Tuesday business section reporting on Puerto Rico's default on a payment on its staggering $72 billion debt without once learning that the little Caribbean island, home to 3.5 million US citizens, is a territory of the United States, or more properly, a colony, insofar as its residents have no representation in Washington, cannot vote for national candidates for office, and furthermore, are subject to US federal courts, whose judges are all appointed by the federal government.
At least USA Today made the story its page one lead, instead of just a business story, but it too just notes that the island is a "commonwealth" and that as such it cannot be bailed out as Greece hopes to be, by such international bodies as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the European Union. The meaning of the term "commonwealth" is not defined.
The Wall Street Journal ran its report on the bankruptcy on the front of its Money & Investing section, making it clear that the only significance of this story was to the many institutional and individual investors who hold Puerto Rican tax-free bonds in the municipal bond allocation of their investment portfolios. It too failed to explain what it meant to call Puerto Rico a "commonwealth."
US citizens outside of Puerto Rico, most of whom don't even know Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens, and not potential "illegal immigrants" to their shores like the Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans and other residents of neighboring islands, are no doubt understandably confused about Puerto Rico's status, given that Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania all refer to themselves as "commonwealths" and not as states.
But Puerto Rico is no "commonwealth," a term which the Oxford dictionary defines as "an independent state or community, especially a democratic republic," and which Websters dictionary defines as a nation or state, or alternatively -- in a special category for Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands, presented without any sense of irony -- as "a political unit having local autonomy but voluntarily united with the United States."
That last bit is actually a bad joke. Puerto Rico is can never be said to have been "voluntarily united" with the United States. It was a spoil of war when the US defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and became a colony under brutal military rule, its indigenous independence movement crushed, and even its native Spanish language barred from public education from 1898 until 1948.
When the island's purely symbolic but powerless elected delegates assembly voted in 1914 to call unanimously for the island's independence, the US Congress responded in 1917 with the Jones Act, which declared all residents of Puerto Rico to be US citizens, whether they liked it or not (people were given a one-time chance within the next 30 days to renounce that citizenship forever, but nobody since then has had that right). The Jones Act allowed islanders some local autonomy but it also imposed crippling colonial policies, many of which continue to this day, and have contributed mightily to the island's current debt crisis. Puerto Rico's local farming was destroyed in favor of a deliberate US policy of monoculture. It's women were involuntarily sterilized. And while Puerto Ricans had no vote, its young men were ordered to serve in America's wars, beginning with WWI. (Actually, at the time of Puerto Rico's "liberation" from Spain by US forces in the 1898, islanders had more political power and autonomy than they ever have gotten under US domination. Under pressure from a powerful and growing independista movement, Spain had already granted Puerto Rico 18 voting delegates in the Spanish parliament. Even today, as a US colony, Puerto Rico only has one non-voting "observer" in the US House of Representatives.)