Paradise Lost: A Debate on Puerto Rico

By José I. Ortiz

With the government shutdown and the looming debt-ceiling debacle threatening to disrupt the global economy, it’s pretty safe to say that the average American is probably not thinking about Puerto Rico. Why would he?

But I’m not the average American. I am from Puerto Rico and much of my family still lives there. And one day I hope to go back and somehow help make a difference. So I looked forward to attending the Puerto Rico Status Forum, held at New York Law School as part of the Puerto Rican Bar Association’s series on Civil and Human Rights in Puerto Rico. As a student member of the PRBA, I’m on the bar association’s email list but I’m not sure how else someone interested in the topic would have known about it. Judging by the empty seats in a room that probably fits about 100 people, I would say that a few more of the 4.7 million Puerto Ricans in the U.S. (of which 52% live in the Northeast) would have been interested in an event like this. Or, maybe because it was an unseasonably warm October evening, most of my compatriots decided it would be better to daydream about our Caribbean homeland while taking in the outdoors.

As a poor law student, I thought I’d save my appetite for the cornucopia of free food that I was sure to find at this event. Puerto Ricans love to eat. What I found, however, were a few sweets and a whole lot of wine. Well, wine’s good, too.

After welcoming remarks from the PRBA’s president, Elba Galvan, in which she thanked all the pertinent participants and duly highlighted her bar association’s standing as the oldest ethnic bar association in New York City, the floor was given to New York City Council member Rosie Mendez. Apologizing in advance for possibly having to run out during the forum to participate in negotiations with the Bloomberg administration regarding her district, Councilwoman Mendez opened by discussing developments such as the National Lawyers Guild’s involvement in human rights issues including Puerto Rican political prisoners and the U.S. Navy bombings of the island of Vieques which, despite the mostly jacket-and-tie clad audience members in the room, made me feel like this would turn out to be a real conversation and not just a lot of fluff.

As more people trickled in the room, Councilwoman Mendez continued to speak softly yet urgently about President Obama’s recent budget proposal in which he included $2.5 million to fund another referendum on the island’s political status along with an unbiased and apolitical educational program to inform Puerto Ricans of their future political status options. Judging by the surplus of blank stares and Councilwoman Mendez’s snicker at her own words, no one in the room (including me) thought this proposal would make any difference – politically, Puerto Rico just isn’t anyone’s priority.

Councilwoman Mendez then handed the floor  to the moderator for the evening, Juan Cartagena – president and general counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, who presented the members of the evening’s panel. To the audience’s far right of the table sat Xavier Romeu, an ivy-league educated attorney, former bureaucrat for the Puerto Rican government in the 90’s and a seasoned litigator who once clerked for then-Southern District of New York Judge Sonia Sotomayor. To his right sat José Luis Morín, a writer, professor and administrator at a CUNY school as well as former litigator with LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Center for Constitutional Rights. His works cover subjects like the plight of indigenous Hawaiians and Latinos in the United States. Next to him sat Olga Sanabria, another CUNY professor and the Executive Secretary for the Committee for Puerto Rico at the United Nations. Finally, at the far end of the table sat Dr. Julio E. Fontanet Maldonado – a dean at the Universidad Interamericana’s Faculty of Law in Puerto Rico, former civil rights defender and former president of the Puerto Rico Bar.

As the panelists were introduced, I perked up. As a University of Puerto Rico Political Science graduate, I’ve heard the spiel about Puerto Rico’s colonial situation many times before, but this was different. Maybe it was different because having bright Puerto Rican legal minds at one table at my law school in New York made it seem as though someone cared about Puerto Rico beyond the same old emotion-led patriotic rhetoric.

As the speakers took their turns at the very same podium my Torts professor used my 1L year they each discussed Puerto Rico’s political status. All were in agreement that despite the establishment of a “democratically elected” government in 1952, Puerto Rico had never ceased being a colony. From 1493 to the present day and from Spanish to American hands in 1898, Puerto Rico is the oldest colony anywhere in existence today. And all the panelists agreed that the current Commonwealth government of Puerto Rico is a mere farce of democracy, used to convince the United Nations in 1960 that the U.S. did not possess any colonies.

Though a number of plebiscites have been celebrated on the island for the people to decide their political future, these have, in fact, only served to show just how divided Puerto Ricans are on whether they want to remain a commonwealth, become the 51st state of the Union or become fully independent.

Mr. Romeu, who stated that he prefers the statehood option, (not a popular opinion in the room), focused on the case law within American jurisprudence that has brought Puerto Rico to the political situation it is in today. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but do not participate in any mainland elections: Puerto Ricans on the island do not have voting representatives in Congress or a vote for President. Mr. Romeu believes that the solution to Puerto Rico’s status lies in overturning Downes v. Bidwell, a 1901 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court decided that Puerto Ricans are a possession of the United States and are subject to the will of the Congress.

The other three members of the panel (and from what I could gather, most of the audience) were firmly against Mr. Romeu’s proposal. After discussing the imperialist philosophies of US politicians in the late 19th Century, Mr. Morín, Ms. Sanabria and Dr. Fontanet Maldonado each came to the conclusion that going to the United Nations Decolonization Committee was Puerto Rico’s only hope. No intra-national litigation would suffice – this had to be brought to the world stage. Ms. Sanabria – who began her talk by declaring that no matter what the current political situation is, “Puerto Rico is a nation” – has helped do just that by trying to get the U.N.’s attention.

The evening ended with, perhaps, an awkward Q & A session for Mr. Romeu as most questions or comments from those present were cross-haired on him.

One attendee ended the evening with a question posed by many Puerto Ricans: “Why would any people want to become an appendage of a country that bombed them for over 70 years?”

Is it that simple? Legal analysis aside, for many of us, it is.


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