Status non quo

Puerto Rico’s pursuit of a viable, realistic future can teach us much about what nationalism should be for


Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898
César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabe
2007, University of North Carolina Press
428 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

TO GAIN A fuller understanding of the complex questions that harry the unresolved debate over status in Puerto Rico, one would need to begin by looking beyond its three islands to the Greater Antilles and even to Latin America itself.

For the issues of sovereignty, democracy and statehood – understood not as it is today as the inevitable consequence of an unresisted annexation by the US, but as the achievement and development of an autonomous state structure and how these emerged out of, or in opposition to, colonial structures, can only be contemplated within the much broader parameters of 19th-century history.

When Benedict Anderson inaugurated a debate about the true nature of the nation in Latin America as an “imagined political community” that culminated in the birth of independence movements in this period, he did so by pointing to the nation’s genesis as a colonial invention that was subsequently exported back to a largely unsuspecting, and very imperial, Europe.

Anderson’s most significant contribution to then debates was the idea that, while only certain countries were “plausible” and as a result politically viable as nations by virtue of their cultural heritage and imposed, Spanish social divisions, it was the dramatic coincidence with a third factor (the rise of print capitalism) that explained the subsequent birth of nationalist consciousness.

A visionary whom it took Latin American scholars many years to acknowledge – let alone criticise – Anderson combined a sensitivity to the very modern discursive, inventive process of “imagining” the nation, with a critical message from the time in which he was writing (the early 1980s) about the self-sacrificing form of solidarity that characterised the nationalist struggles being fought by socialist countries.

For nationalist demands played a key role in the social upheavals that shook the capitalist system between 1968 and 1976, and inspired important studies of nationalism from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Among these was the work of the Scottish thinker Tom Nairn, who was exercised by the inadequacy of the Marxist tradition for understanding nationalism and argued that, in the culturally fragmented colonial periphery, nationalism was of particular value to aspirant elites seeking to build bourgeois economies. It provided them with a potent means of uniting diverse populations behind the same banner, but one that they would retain firmly in their grip.

Challenging text

It is this relationship between nationalism, capitalism and the struggle between different classes – and, in particular, the struggle of the popular sectors for a truly social form of democracy that delivers concrete benefits for ordinary people – that is at the heart of Puerto Rico in the American Century and makes it such a challenging text both for US readers but also for Puerto Rican neo-nationalists. For the subtle, underlying question it poses is: what is the point of achieving national sovereignty unless it is for the purpose of social change that overturns the consequence of long-term dependency?

Cuba and Jamaica have both nurtured movements shaped in response to this question, with different survival rates, and most university lecturers will tell you that one of the first assignments they set students of modern Cuban history is to assess to what extent Fidel Castro was a nationalist before he was a Marxist. It should come as no surprise, then, that the procession of notable figures – from Mario Benedetti to Carlos Monsiváis to Gabriel García Márquez – behind the call in January 2006 for the independence of Puerto Rico were on the political left.

The value of Ayala and Bernabe’s history is that it addresses the ways in which Puerto Rico in the 20th century has juggled with the various responses to this question that have been offered. They build a comprehensive historical picture of political developments in the island that takes in both economic and discursive developments, the latter showing a healthy and promising deference to newspapers as sources. In so doing, they fashion a compelling and realistic argument for a socially progressive independence achieved in conjunction with domestic change within the US itself – something made all the more promising by the recent election victory of Barack Obama. They write:

“Nationalists are wrong in thinking that the evolution of social struggles in the United States is a matter of indifference for a future Puerto Rican republic. The options open to such a republic would largely depend on the policies irradiating from Washington. But it is also a mistake to conclude that the relevance of US struggles for Puerto Rico’s future precludes the transformation of future working and poor peoples’ mobilisations and self-organisation on the island into a movement for political sovereignty in close association with progressive forces in the United States.” [p. 341]

Challenging text

The small country of 4 million people remains, in so many ways, both an anomaly and a significant challenge to US claims about its role within the Americas as well as to US visions of itself as a single nation. Puerto Rico is, the authors skilful exploration of its exceptionalism points out, a colony of fundamentally non-colonial imperialism – a large proportion of whose population live elsewhere – that persists as such long after most colonies have moved on to either political independence or formal political integration with the metropolis.

But it is Puerto Rico’s economic dependence on foreign direct investment and its status as a relatively impoverished region under US rule that lie at the heart of this radical democratic manifesto – a development that has much in common with the way in which democratic movements emerged in mainland Latin American countries under authoritarian governments such as Mexico out of a yearning to escape the social consequences of what economic nationalists portrayed as the imperial yoke. The authors write:

“… Puerto Rico’s continued precarious economic and worsening social and ecological situation, secularly high unemployment rates, and lack of organic linkage between industry and agriculture are the result of this long colonial experiment in ‘free trade’ as a recipe for development. The inability of its economy to generate anything resembling a self-sustaining dynamic or to free itself of the need for US federal funds to sustain a minimum purchasing power for most of its people testify to the limitations of the free market approach to development. What Puerto Rico needs – as the New Dealers of the 1930s, to their credit, understood – is a programme of planned economic and social reconstruction.” [p. 337]

By taking the courageous step of restoring economic dependency and its social consequences to the heart of the argument for autonomy – and, in effect, pitting it against more inventive, and often elitist, cultural perspectives that range from the neo-nationalist to the post-modern – Puerto Rico in the American Century offers a far more plausible context for understanding the status issue, while offering a far more tolerable, democratic direction for the independence movement in a globalised world.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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