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Puerto Ricans Suffer, Minus Political Power

January 11, 1987|Victor M. Rodriguez | Victor M. Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico, is a doctoral candidate in comparative culture at the University of California at Irvine.

IRVINE — Recent bombings of U.S. military installations in Puerto Rico by the macheteros --machete wielders--were followed by the tragic New Year's Eve fire at San Juan's Dupont Plaza Hotel during a labor dispute. Both are violent symptoms of a deepening political and economic crisis for this "possession"--and for important sectors of the Puerto Rican community in the United States. One root of the trouble is the ambiguous political relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico since the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Puerto Rico is, juridically, "an unincorporated territory of the United States." Its inhabitants have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Thousands of Puerto Ricans serve in the armed forces and hundreds have died in service of America since the beginning of the century. Yet they cannot vote for President and must travel to the U.S. mainland in order to exercise their franchise in national elections.

The 3.3 million Puerto Ricans who reside on the island do not have the necessary political powers to effect changes necessary to develop their economy. Federal agencies control immigration and they regulate island activity, from the kind of meat that can be eaten to the licensing of a broadcasting station. Many regulations do not consider the specific needs of the population. But worst of all, island residents or their representatives have no say in the formulation of guidelines that govern their daily lives.

The 2.5 million Puerto Ricans who reside in the United States have not been able to develop effective, national political institutions. Lack of political clout has a deleterious impact on the socioeconomic conditions of islanders in America and also on promoting new national policies that could lead to a process of self-determination for Puerto Rico.

Recent studies place Puerto Ricans on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder as compared with other national minorities in the continental United States. Even in California, where Puerto Ricans have fared better than in the Northeast, and where estimates of the Puerto Rican population go from 150,000 to 300,000, there is no statewide organization similar to Mexican, black or Asian political groups. Members of the California Puerto Rican community often consider themselves an invisible minority.

In the majority of California higher education institutions, Puerto Ricans are indeed invisible. No surveys or statistics are kept for them. Islanders are labeled Hispanics, Latinos or Mexicans--or otherwise fall through the nets that institutions have created to measure affirmative action programs.

The situation--recognizing Puerto Ricans, realizing their problems--is no better in their homeland.

Meanwhile problems multiply: more crime, high levels of unemployment, growing labor strife, widespread drug use, high levels of mental illness, increasing illiteracy. All problems indicate a society in need of a major overhaul, to restore or repair the fabric of Puerto Rican society.

Recent history offers some perspective on the present situation. Puerto Rican society was similar, back in the 1940s, to most emerging nations; its class structure was characterized by a very small middle class, an even smaller rich elite and an extremely large group of peasants and poor working people.

A combination of factors radically changed the island's economic structure. One was "Operation Bootstrap," the developmental policies of Luis Munoz Marin's Popular Democratic Party (a party that favored increased self-rule). Another was surplus investment funds from the United States after World War II. In a relatively short time, Puerto Rico was transformed from an agriculture-based society to an industry-focused economy.

For years, the model worked, thanks in part to the large migration of islanders to the continental United States. At first, the emphasis on industry provided greater social mobility and higher incomes, creating an extremely large middle class, keeping the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) in power for more than two decades. In 1972, the New Progressive Party, an organization favoring statehood for Puerto Rico, wrested local power from the PDP. Then, during the late 1970s, with the whole world beginning to realize economic trade turmoil, the model started to falter. Today, the PDP is back in power, led by Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, a man with the task--reconstructing the island's economy--but without the power.

Many Puerto Rican and continental scholars are coming to a consensus: Puerto Rico's existence requires an alternative road toward a more balanced social and economic development.

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