The Legacy of Colonialism Today
Pedro Albizu Campos
Puerto Rico has the right to independence because when the Treaty of Paris was signed, by which the United States took possess of the island, Puerto Rico already had its sovereignty and, besides, Spain did not have the right to cede it to the United States.
Pedro Albizu Campos, Claridad, San Juan, Puerto Rica, September 12, 1991
The memory of the colonized is dangerous because it is an account of theft and bravery that would make the colonizer look, at least ignoble. None of us wants to look bad in front of our children, or before the eyes of history. So the colonizer repeats his version of the “facts” about the superiority of Western medical, scientific, military technology, or art and literature—in a word—culture.
The first task of the colonizer, or generations of colonizers after the conquest, is to erase the very notion of colonization. This can be done by possessing control of the culture’s institutions and communication systems. At its simplest, this process begins with the story itself—who tells it, who sings it, who writes it, and whose language is used.
But, it can be argued, haven’t things changed in five hundred years? The quincentennial celebration—in which President Bush honored the brilliant discoverer Christopher Columbus, while at the same time American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Russell Means poured blood on the statue of Columbus in a public protest—makes clear that just as dangerous memory continues amongst the colonized, so too the European worldview has carried its own memory into the future.
The relationship of the United to Puerto Rico is a case study which reveals the continuation of colonialism from Columbus’s encounter with the Taino Indians to relations with their descendants today. Following Columbus’s journey to the “new world,” Spain soon colonized Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola. The people of Puerto Rica (then called Borinquen) were Taino Indians. Those Taino who were not killed off by the diseases or slavery brought by the Europeans fled to the mountains. The Tainos intermarried with African slaves imported by the Spanish. Five centuries later, currents of Indian, African, and European blood run in the veins of Puerto Ricans.
In 1868, Puerto Rican nationalist Ramon Emeterio Betances led an uprising in the town of Lares (Grito de Lares) against the Spanish colonizers, declaring Puerto Rico an independent republic. That insurrection, along with the rebellion of Yanco in 1897, failed. But Spain was losing its grip. In an effort to hold down rebellion, the Spanish conceded some freedoms. They awarded Puerto Rico the power to ratify treaties and set tariffs and to grant citizenship to the Puerto Rican population.
In 1898, the United States usurped Spain’s control of Puerto Rico, landing Marines on the island and signing the Treaty of Paris with Spain which gave the United States control of Puerto Rico. The rights Spain had granted were then revoked; the Puerto Rican provisional assembly and cabinet were abolished; Puerto Ricans were denied a vote in the U.S. Congress; English was made the official language of the island. Between 1900 and 1947 the dollar became the national currency, U.S. laws replaced Puerto Rican law, the House of Delegates’ decisions were subject to U.S. veto, and U.S. citizenship was imposed by an act of Congress, in spite of protest by the House of Delegates. In 1952, Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth of the United States, adopting its “own” constitution which has an amendment that states: “Any revision of this constitution shall be consistent with the resolution enacted by the Congress of the United States approving this constitution….”
In addition to virtual political control of the island, the United States also possesses economic control.
Puerto Rico is the largest per capita purchases of U.S. goods in the world…Eighty-five percent of industries in Puerto Rico are owned by U.S. interests. They do not knot have to pay island taxes for ten to twenty-five years. This, along with the lower wages than those they pay in the United States has allowed U.S. industries to average twenty percent profit per year, far higher than comparative profits in the United States….The ultimate effect of Operation Bootstrap (which opened two thousand factories in the 1940s, converting the economy from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy) has been to assure complete U.S. control of Puerto Rican economy, as well as to increase a social dislocation and economic inequality….It is the distortion of the economy of Puerto Rico for the profit of U.S. capital which has forced one-third of the Puerto Rican nation to move to the United States and accept low-paid menial and service occupations….The incidence of both poverty and unemployment among Puerto Ricans is more severe than that of virtually any other ethnic group in the United States, and the incidence of poverty has been rising since 1970.
The Council of Interracial Books for Children, Stereotypes, Distortions and Omissions in U.S. History Textbooks, 96, 98-99
Currently Puerto Rican independistas (Puerto Ricans seeking independence from U.S. colonial control) sit in U.S. prisons with twenty-five and thirty year sentences for seditious conspiracy against the United States. The activists refused to recognize the U.S. court’s right to jurisdiction over Puerto Rican patriots, claiming the rights of the colonized under international law to defend themselves against their colonizers. Such arguments were, of course, useless when argued before a U.S. judiciary which denies Puerto Rico’s status as a colony of the United States.
Few North Americans know this history; rather, they assume, as they do about African Americans, that Puerto Ricans’ poverty and unemployment are due to some lack of ambition, not the result of centuries of colonization. Memories of independence, of Puerto Ricans not having to depend on the United States, are a danger to the powerful.
Not all white Americans fear the memories of the subjugated. There are many white people who, although they are the cultural beneficiaries of colonialism, want to know the truth about history, even the painful truth. To the powerful, however, the memory and voice of the colonized are always a threat because such memory challenges the myth of European white supremacy. People’s history reveals that the “new world” empires were built by the killing labor of Indian and African slaves. That theft of human life and labor becomes almost unrecognizable as the economic process becomes systematized. Year and years of an economy which rewards accumulation of wealth and punishes poverty has made the system appear natural. Yet systems based on human sharing rather than accumulation, and politics based on true democracy, may not be so threatening to most Americans. In fact, those systems are what they’ve been led to believe the American Revolution achieved. The economically and politically powerful, work hard at fooling most of the people, most of the time. Their best tactic is instilling fear of those who pose a threat—people of color, women, gay people, the “undeserving poor.” What is lost in this suppression is, of course, the truth—not just about the cultures of the colonized, but also the “new world” culture.