Thomas Paine published these words in February 1776, urging the Americans to throw off their colonial costumes and don the robes of self-government. Already the cry had been risen two decades prior: “No taxation without representation,” in which the colonists claimed their rights to representative government as British subjects.
The Thirteen Colonies would declare their independence on July 2nd, causing future-President John Adams to write to his wife that the 2nd of July should “be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Well, time would prove Adams wrong, but it hasn’t negated the singular idea found in Paine’s words and embodied by the Declaration of the Independence: the idea of a people’s right to self-government. More than 200 years later, America has become a symbol of that sacred right.
Still, there are American citizens today who have long been denied the right of self-government, the same right reasserted by the now-famous words and deeds by eighteenth-century American patriots. I’m talking, of course, about the remaining U.S. colonies, the oldest being Puerto Rico.
Anyone who talks of the island as though it weren’t colony – you might hear names like “Commonwealth” or “Estado Libre Asociado” – doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
First, as an unincorporated territory, U.S. law defines the island of Puerto Rico as separate from the United States, while still belonging to the United States (like your shirt belongs to you but is not a part of you.)
Even though the people of Puerto Rico are denied the right to elect federal officials, Congress retains the right to govern the island through its plenary powers. As such, U.S. laws are imposed on the people of Puerto Rico without their consent.
Pres. Obama is the chief executive in Puerto Rico, though no Puerto Rican (or mainland citizen residing on the island for more than a year) is allowed to cast a vote in presidential elections.
The current political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States has regularly failed to meet the United Nations’ decolonization standards since 1973 – the periodic resolutions always push the United States to recognize “the inalienable right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination and independence.”
Finally, and perhaps most damning of all, since 1978, the current status of the island has been denounced by Puerto Rico’s three main political parties as being colonial in everything but name alone.
So, as the late José Trías Monge wrote in 1997, “Those in the United States and Puerto Rico who still cling to the strange notion that Puerto Rico is nevertheless self-governing are simply out of step with the rest of the informed world.”
As a mainlander, I’m often accused of sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong. I’m told that only Puerto Ricans living on the island should have the right to choose what’s best for them. I wholeheartedly agree.
And that’s the point.
Every American should push their government to decolonize the island of Puerto Rico and restore its people’s right to self-government – if not for Puerto Rico’s sake, then for America’s. Because if Americans would not be governed without representation from afar, then they should not impose the same conditions on anyone else.