Thursday, March 12, 2015

Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the WorldPuerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World by José Trias Monge
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

José Trías Monge was Puerto Rico's Attorney General in the 1950s and the Chief Justice from mid-1970s to mid-1980s. His book "Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World" is a serious, eye-opening work on how the colonial powers (first Spain, then the United States) have been preventing this Caribbean nation from achieving true freedom and self-determination. Officially, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is a United States territory. However, the author's main thesis is that Puerto Rico is still a colony of the United States, and he supports that thesis by stating as many as 12 reasons, of which the first two are: "United States laws apply to the Puerto Rican people without their consent," and "United States laws can override provisions of the Commonwealth Constitution."

The book presents the history of Puerto Rico, the nation and country at the mercy of foreign powers for 500 years. The Spanish colonization began in 1508 and continued until 1898. The entire 19th century was a political rollercoaster: political freedoms were repeatedly given to and then taken away from the Puerto Rican people. The Autonomic Charter of 1897 was quite progressive, yet the freedoms did not last for very long. In 1898 the United States declared war on Spain, which ended in annexation of Puerto Rico by the U.S. in 1898.

The Foraker Act of 1900 caused Puerto Ricans to lose many of the limited freedoms they had under Spanish Rule. The 1917 Jones Act was "a modest step forward on the long road to self-government." For instance, it granted U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. Yet the economic imperialism continued and Puerto Rico "had been turned into a little more than a plantation." The author focuses on the 1930s, which were "of seminal importance" for the country. Luis Muñoz Marin, who played a central role in Puerto Rican affairs until the end of 1970s, emerged during these years.

The 1950s were relatively good times; the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico came into being in 1952. However, not much progress happened in the 1960s - 1990s; the U.S. Congress did not pass any far-reaching bills regarding the future of Puerto Rico. The plebiscites in 1967 and 1993 showed the majority of Puerto Ricans opting for Commonwealth status rather than statehood. In the penultimate chapter the author discusses numerous hurdles to decolonization, for example, fragmentation of society caused by colonial policies, and deterioration of political discourse. The book ends with a chapter on possible paths to decolonization.

José Trías' book was published in 1997. I checked several sources on the Internet, and according to what I could find not much has changed, politically, since then. However, in the most recent plebiscite held in 2012 the statehood option obtained the majority of votes, for the first time. To me, the economic situation is crucial. Although Puerto Rico has the most competitive economy in Latin America, it lags far behind in comparison with even the poorest states in the U.S. 41% of population live below the poverty line (data based on Wikipedia article).

This is a very interesting book, if a little heavy because of the density of facts. Yet I have learned a lot and I am now perhaps a little less ignorant about what the author claims is "the oldest colony in the world."

Four stars.

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