by George Szamuely
[As appearing in the New York Press, Sept. 14, 1999]
President Clinton was right to offer the 16 imprisoned members of the FALN
clemency. In fact, he should have gone further. He should have announced his
intention of granting independence to Puerto Rico as soon as possible. The
continued possession of Puerto Rico is a throwback to a colonial era that
should have been abandoned long ago. Puerto Rico's bizarre "commonwealth"
status is one that robs Puerto Ricans of their dignity and Americans of
Moreover, the acquisition of Puerto Rico followed one of the
most shameful acts of American history-one that has particular significance
today. In 1898 the United States picked a fight with Spain for no reason
whatsoever. As a result of that war Spain lost its few remaining imperial
possessions and with it its sense of national honor. And America abandoned
its proud anti-colonial tradition and became a colonial power.
In 1895 Cuba mounted one of its periodic rebellions against Spanish rule. As
the Spanish sought to restore order Americans got caught up in
self-righteous frenzy. President William McKinley understandably had little
enthusiasm for going to war with Spain. Spain posed no threat to the United
States. It ran its empire pretty well. And if it were to be dispossessed of
its colonies what was to be done with them? No American seriously believed
that Cubans could govern themselves.
But the shrieking Bill Kristols and
David Rieffs of that time did not trouble themselves with such details. Day
after day they would proclaim that American intervention was essential to
prevent a great humanitarian calamity. Newspapers were filled with lurid
tales of unimaginable horrors that the Spanish were perpetrating.
"Massacre", "Slaughter of Innocent Noncombatants Continues in Cuba", "Bodies
Thrown into Trenches and Left Unburied" were a few of the contemporary
headlines. William Randolph Hearst's gutter journalism was almost as bad as
To intervene was a "humanitarian" imperative. One Senator declared: "We
intervene not for conquest, not for aggrandizement.we intervene for humanity
's sake.to aid a people who have suffered every form of tyranny and who have
made desperate struggle to be free". Sounds familiar? Here is what Henry
Cabot Lodge had to say about Spain: it was "three hundred years behind all
the rest of the world. What seems to us brutal treachery seems to them all
right". "I would like to see Spain swept from the face of the earth", said
suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton-the Stacy Sullivan of her day.
Hating the Spanish was even more fun than hating the Serbs. Catholic and
obviously in decline, they were ideal material on which Americans could etch
their lurid fantasies.
Though Americans fought poorly, they were fortunate that the Spanish
performed even worse. The war was to have devastating consequences. Spain
went from revolution to dictatorship to civil war. The Franco era brought a
measure of stability but it also cut Spain off from the rest of Europe.
Today the Spanish are once more in a downward spiral . For its part, America
acquired colonies that it had no idea what to do with. Neither statehood nor
independence was thinkable to the U.S. So it came up with a compromise
solution. So it came up with a compromise solution. These territories would
be reduced to dependencies of one sort or another of the United States.
Such a solution was to have wretched consequences for everyone else. Cuba,
for instance, never really recovered from being cut off from Spain. Ask any
Cuban today and he will tell you that the Spanish era was Cuba's most
glorious time. Cut off from Spain and Spanish culture, Cuba never managed to
develop any stable self-government. The United States arrogated to itself
the right to intervene in Cuba any time it felt that American interests were
endangered. It was a right that the United States was to exercise with some
frequency in coming years.
The story of the Philippines is just as dismal.
Fighting broke out immediately between US forces on the island and Filipino
rebels. Soon Americans were committing the very atrocities for which they
had so self-righteously denounced the Spanish. By 1901 200,000 Filipino
civilians had been killed in the fighting. Having won this war, the United
States proceeded relentlessly with the Americanization of the Filipinos. The
result was a disaster. Unlike other places in Asia, no sense of nationhood
ever developed in the Philippines.
The United States acquired Puerto Rico without ever really intending to.
Puerto Rico, impoverished and wretched, became an American possession as
compensation for expenses that the United States incurred fighting its war
with Spain. A ferocious campaign of Americanization pretty much destroyed a
400-year-old Spanish culture, but did not succeed in turning Puerto Ricans
into English speakers. The United States then decided that Puerto Rico would
be denied statehood, independence or even any representation in the federal
government. As part of an oppressive Spanish Empire, Puerto Rico had voting
representation in both chambers of parliament in Madrid, whereas it was
never to have any representation under U.S. democracy.
US federal laws apply
to Puerto Rico and they are enforced by federal agencies. Yet Puerto Ricans
have no say in the making of these laws.
Not surprisingly, Puerto Rico has become a parasite. Exempt from federal
taxes, it lives off federal handouts. It survives by being able to export
its population to the mainland. Puerto Rico has an unemployment rate of 13
percent (three times the size of that on the mainland); 20 percent of its
workforce is employed by the government; 30 percent of its economy derives
from federal transfers. When the food stamp program was introduced in the
1960s, something like 75 percent of the island's population was eligible for
food stamps. Puerto Rico received no less than 10 percent of all federal
food stamp payments. The program brought billions to Puerto Rico. It fueled
corruption, crime, drugs, gang warfare as well as a culture of dependency.
Puerto Ricans found that living on welfare was quite lucrative. No one felt
much like working after that. Boasting poverty and hardship became a means
of squeezing more money out of the US Treasury.
Sadly, Puerto Ricans have become quite satisfied with their current absurd
"commonwealth" status. As a U.S. state, they would no longer be exempt from
federal taxes. As an independent country, they would no longer be eligible
for federal handouts. This is why the time has come to do to the Puerto
Ricans what grown-ups are eventually forced to do to their idle offspring:
Kick them out of the house. If it makes him feel any better, let Clinton
apologize for a hundred years of colonialism while he is doing it.
* * * * *
George Szamuely is a columnist for the New York Press.