The Meaning of the Puerto Rican Plebiscite

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

The Taller de Formación Política (TFP)

ON NOVEMBER 8, 1989, during his victory celebration, Rafael Hernandez Colon, Puerto Rico’s re-elected governor, announced that his new administration would concentrate on Puerto Rico’s social problems and would not seek any immediate changes in the island’s political relation with the United States. A few weeks later, in his inaugural address, Hernandez Colon reversed himself and announced that his party would promote the celebration of a plebiscite to define Puerto Rico’s political status. In Puerto Rico no one doubts that the initiative for this change of attitude came from Washington, D.C.

Shortly after; in his address to Congress, President George Bush himself proposed a plebiscite while personally endorsing statehood for Puerto Rica Since then events have advanced at a rapid pace. Under the auspices of Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-LA), the leaders of the three Puerto Rican electoral parties have met and agreed to collaborate in the drafting of legislation for a plebiscite. The controversies provoked through 1989 by the projected plebiscite have once again brought to public debate many unsolved problems of Puerto Rican society and of its relation to the United States.

The relations between Puerto Rico and the United States have been shaped by the evolution of U.S. capitalism in its monopoly and imperialist stage. By the late 19th century, U.S. corporations had acquired a significant presence within Spain’s colonial possessions in the Caribbean. Before 1898, the United States was already the largest buyer of Puerto Rico’s sugar and molasses and was rapidly becoming its leading trade partner.

As a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico became a direct colony of the United States. The main branches of the island’s economy soon fell under the control of large corporations from the United States. The stranglehold of the sugar companies in particular was to last for almost forty years and was only broken by the crisis of the sugar industry in the 1930s.

The first colonial government, organized through the Foraker Act of 1900, reserved all decisive posts for officials directly appointed by the president of the United States. In 1917, through the Jones Act, the regime was “liberalized” to create a fully elected colonial legislature, which was nevertheless subject to the governor’s veto. The latter, like the justices of the Supreme Court, the attorney general and the secretary of education, was still appointed by the president of the United States. In 1917, Puerto Ricans also became United States citizens.

The 1930s was a decade marked by the worldwide crisis of capitalism and of the sugar industry in particular. This crisis shook the economies of all sugar-cane growing areas that served the U.S. market Along with Machado’s increasingly despotic regime, it helped to fuel the Cuban Revolution of 1933. The crisis also sharpened the struggle for positions within a shrinking or stagnant market between different sectors of the sugar industry (beet growers, sugar refiners, Cuban, Philippine, Hawaiian and Puerto Rican cane growers and processors). These conflicts led the federal government to institute a new quota system, which was originally embodied in the Costigan-Jones Act of 1934. The objective was to stabilize U.S. semi-colonial domination of Cuba while reorganizing the sugar industry on a continental scale. It was in that context that new programs began to emerge within the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture to reorganize the Puerto Rican economy within the limits of the colonial relationship.

The birth of the Partido Popular Democratico (Popular Democratic Party-PPD), led by Luis Munoz
Mann, which sought to transform the island’s sugar economy with the collaboration of the U.S. government, was the political expression of these changes. But the reasons for these reform initiatives were not only economic the thirties were also years of militant, if often disorganized, mobilizations of different social sectors (needlework, dock and sugar cane workers, among others) and of violent clashes between the nationalist movement, led by Pedro Albizu Campos, and the colonial authorities (the Rio Piedras Massacre, the Ponce Massacre, the arrest and incarceration of the nationalist leadership, etc).

After the 1940s, the PPD promoted and benefitted from a set of political reforms within the limits of the colonial regime; After 1948, islanders were able to elect the colonial governor Nevertheless, the newly created United Nations still considered Puerto Rico a colony, a fact which did not look well on the resume of the self-proclaimed champion of the free world in the Cold War. Thus, in 1952, Puerto Ricans were permitted to write a constitution and the island became a commonwealth, or “Estado Libre Asociado” (Free Associated State). At no time during this process were Puerto Ricans allowed to vote or opt for any other status than commonwealth or the colonial regime as it existed. The colonial relation remained unchanged, but the United States was able to convince an accommodating United Nations that Puerto Rico had obtained “self-governing status.”

In the late 1940s, the PPD launched “Operation Bootstrap.” Through a series of financial and economic incentives, the program sought to make Puerto Rico an attractive area for the investment of U.S. industrial capital. Incentives to capital included tax exemptions, low wages and docile labor unions. (Ever since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was amended to that effect, federal minimum wage laws do not apply automatically to Puerto Rico. The island has its own minimum wage laws.) This “industrialization by invitation” scheme, as local bureaucrats liked to call it, both provoked and benefitted from the collapse of the agricultural sector. Agricultural workers moved into industrial jobs, became unemployed or were forced to migrate to the U.S. mainland. If before the 1950s Puerto Rico had been a colonial-agricultural economy deprived of any significant industrial development, it soon became a dependent, industrial economy burdened with an agricultural sector in permanent crisis.

The “miracle” of rapid industrialization, officially attributed to “Operation Bootstrap,” was made possible by the long wave of capitalist expansion that began after World War II. One of the characteristics of this expansionary period was the semi-industrialization of certain colonial and semi-colonial regions. Puerto Rico is a classic example.

Initially, the core of the industrialization process was composed of industries with a low organic composition of capital (clothing, shoes and small electronic appliances). By the early 1960s this strategy began to falter as many of these industries discovered other Third World countries that offered even more profitable opportunities. New projects were then formulated around the planned construction of a vast oil-refining and processing complex. The oil crisis of the 1970s severely shook the petrochemical heart of this plan. By that time, it had also generated protests among many who clearly understood the environmental implications of the whole scheme.

Furthermore, by the early 1970s the world economic climate had changed radically capitalism had entered a new epoch of deaccelerated growth. In this unfavorable context the colonial government sought faster industrial expansion by promoting the establishment of industries characterized by a high organic composition, such as pharmaceutical plants.

Colonial development has meant and still means a colossal waste of Puerto Rico’s human and material resources. Officially, unemployment runs as high as seventeen percent, with partial and seasonal unemployment making the figure much higher. Even during the economic “boom” of the 1950s, the unemployment rate never fell below twelve percent This “success” in reducing unemployment was due to the massive migration of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to the United States and not to the growth of industrial employment, which was never able to compensate for the loss of employment in the agricultural sector.

The crisis facing the international capitalist economy since the 1970s has devastated Puerto Rican society, which is, to an ever growing degree, characterized by massive unemployment, underemployment (with the highest rates among young people), increasingly violent criminal activity, domestic violence against women and children, alcoholism, government and corporate corruption, deteriorating water, health, educational and other services, massive migration of professionals and skilled workers to the United States and the growing importance of speculative economic activities.

These problems have created widespread dissatisfaction with the existing political situation. Washington itself is seeking new alternatives to restructure its control over the island.

From the military and economic point of view, Puerto Rico continues to be of paramount importance to United States imperialism. Militarily, Puerto Rico is the most important U.S. enclave in the Caribbean. The Roosevelt Roads and Vieques Island naval bases are of decisive strategic importance to the U.S. Navy. They play key roles in the plans to defeat present and future revolutions and popular struggles in the Caribbean and Central America. Bases located in Puerto Rico have been used in the operations directed against the Cuban, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Grenadian and Salvadoran revolutions. This fact alone explains the insistent demand of U.S. armed forces representatives that these bases remain in Puerto Rico even if the island becomes independent.

Every year, Puerto Rico is the source of more than $8 billion in profits for North American corporations. The 1979 Economic Study of Puerto Rico, prepared by the Department of Commerce at the request of President Carter, stated that:

“Exemption from the partial corporate income tax in combination with a plentiful supply of relatively low wage rate labor has been the major force in bringing about the very large volume of external investment in manufacturing industries in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican incentives program, especially exemption from Commonwealth taxes, has also been a significant factor.”

Puerto Rico is particularly important for a group of large corporations known locally as “936 corporations.” The term refers to section 936 (formerly section 931) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code that exempts corporations located in U.S. possessions from federal taxes. (Constitutionally, Puerto Rico is not part nor a territory of the United States but a possession or an unincorporated territory.) Since, in its aim to promote foreign investment, the insular government does not collect taxes either, these corporations are close to not paying taxes at all. They only have to pay a “toll gate” tax when they transfer their profits to the U.S. mainland. To avoid this tax, they may deposit those funds in the island. This, accord-mg to government strategists, will constitute a source of capital to fuel the island’s economy.

These “936 corporation” are the axis of the island’s economic structure: it is a higher rate of profit that attracts U.S. capital to Puerto Rico. As long as the island’s economic dynamic is subordinated to the needs of U.S. capital, as it has been since 1898, it has to maintain those exceptionally profitable opportunities by whatever means and at whatever cost for its people. Section 936 is at present a key mechanism in the maintenance of that exceptional profitability.

Nevertheless, section 936 may come into contradiction with other needs of U.S. imperialism: a Congress seeking to solve a deep federal deficit may very well zero in on corporations that obtain billions in profits and pay almost no taxes. This problem is directly related to the plebiscite question since section 936 would cease to apply to the island if it became a state or an independent republic, unless special arrangements are made. Whether such arrangements should be made and what they should be has been a moot point of contention in the whole plebiscite negotiation process. One thing is certain: “936 corporations” will be staunch defenders of the Commonwealth status.

Reactions of the major bourgeois parties to the plebiscite have diverged sharply. The ruling Partido Popular Democratico, which favors the existing commonwealth status, has little to win and much to lose in a plebiscite. For this party, the defense of section 936 is of strategic importance since its economic program is based on the attraction of capital from the United States.

That is what “autonomy” means to the “populares”—being able to retain the differences, such as low wages, the absence of federal taxes, less strict environmental regulations—which make Puerto Rico attractive to profit-hungry corporations. Needless to say, the PPD does not publicly define autonomy or Commonwealth in that fashion. Rather, it presents autonomy as a status which, like statehood, allows dose economic and political links to the United States but which, unlike statehood, allegedly guarantees the preservation of Puerto Rican culture and “identity” In other words, it seeks to mobilize Puerto Rican national sentiment to help preserve the existing colonial regime.

This argument also has the merit of weakening the independence movement by attracting many independentistas to the PPD. In this the PPD has been relatively successful: a not insignificant number of independentistas have repeatedly voted for the PPD with the objective of blocking statehood.

On the other hand, the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party-PNP), which promotes statehood for the island, received the plebiscite initiative enthusiastically. It was a godsent opportunity to attack the commonwealth status and weaken the PPD. Nevertheless, the initial euphoria prompted by President Bush’s pro-statehood statements, have been replaced by more sober assessments.

The leaders of the PNP have realized that they must still negotiate a transition to statehood that makes that status attractive to a majority of Puerto Ricans. They have also discovered that Congress can be as harsh with them as with the populares, who oppose statehood. The PNP has demanded that Spanish be Puerto Rico’s official language after statehood. Congressmen, pointing out that this can be decided by a future Puerto Rican state (since the United States, formally speaking, has no official language as such) have so far refused this demand. Although formally correct, this position will not allay the justified fears of many Puerto Ricans.

It has, furthermore, become evident that some congressmen are wary about granting statehood to Puerto Rico. Some have demanded a “super majority” (sixty-five or seventy-five percent of the vote) in favor of statehood if Congress is to consider it.

Others have argued that the plebiscite should not be binding- if statehood wins, Congress should have the chance to take a “second look” at the problem. From the point of view of those that seek to steer the plebiscite bill through Congress this would have certain advantages since it would make the measure more palatable to congressional representatives who oppose or are undecided about statehood. But in Puerto Rico this could generate great controversy. By not making the result of the plebiscite binding on itse1f. Congress would turn it into a repetition of the 1967 plebiscite. That plebiscite, which was not binding on Congress, turned into a futile exercise that today hardly anybody recognizes as having expressed the will of the Puerto Rican electorate.

The fact that today the same problems are being debated shows that the 1967 plebiscite solved nothing. If the new plebiscite resembles its predecessor in the vagueness of its offerings or in its non-binding nature, it will not generate great enthusiasm in Puerto Rico. A firm commitment by Congress to respect the results seems to be indispensable if the plebiscite is to obtain any credibility.

The Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno (Puerto Rican Independence Party-PIP) is the largest political organization promoting independence for Puerto Rico. Organized in 1946, mainly by the independentista wing of the PPD, it has gone through several ideological shifts. Aligned with the “Socialist International,” it has become an internally undemocratic, liberal reformist party with a heterogeneous and disorganized membership. This party hopes to attain independence through an exclusively electoral struggle. In the 1988 gubernatorial elections it received around 100,000 votes, or five percent of the vote.

The attitude of the leadership of the PIP toward the plebiscite has been outright opportunism. It has openly proclaimed that Congress is trying to fairly and democratically organize an end to the colonial situation of Puerto Rico. The leadership of the party has sought to demonstrate that independence is the most convenient status for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. government, which are implicitly and sometimes explicitly, seen as sharing the same interests.

The leadership of the PIP has furthermore advanced the theory that Puerto Rico has in fact become too “expensive” for the United States. Indeed, the United States government spends billions of dollars each year to alleviate the living conditions of the victims of the capitalist underdevelopment it has imposed on Puerto Rico and from which U.S. corporations have profited, and still profit, abundantly. The leadership of the PIP, however, forgets to point out that most of these dollars flow right out of the island as its unemployed and welfare recipients buy US.-made goods. With its constant references to independence as the cheapest status for the U.S. government, the PIP at times seems to be offering itself, in advance, as the best and cheapest executor of a harsh austerity plan in an independent Puerto Rico.

The PIP leadership acts under the illusion that it somehow holds the key to the balance of power in Puerto Rico. It argues that only a significant minority has to vote for independence to make statehood unattractive or unacceptable to Congress. Since the independence movement can block statehood, which also has quite a few opponents in the United States, and since the U.S. Congress is seeking alternatives to the present status, according to the leadership of the PIP, independence will be the only road left open. The task of the independence movement, according to this logic is to formulate a plan for independence that is attractive enough to Congress.

Nevertheless, we must differentiate between the leadership, and the militants and sympathizers of the party. There are thousands of the latter who are unhappy with the party’s stand and are willing to undertake more militant actions in favor of independence.

The Partido Socialista Puertorriqueno (Puerto Rican Socialist Party-PSP) has fluctuated ambiguously between an outright condemnation of the plebiscite and a somewhat critical support of the PIP’s position. The PSP has not yet made a final decision on whether to boycott or participate in the plebiscite. It would appear that it hopes to influence the PIP against participating. However, if the PIP decides to participate, the PSP could very well follow it.

The PSP’s perspective is also clouded by the fact that it tends to ignore social and class conflicts in favor of an abstract posing of the national question. This perspective seeks to eliminate whatever differences there might be between independentistas, and independentistas who are also socialists. This one-sided emphasis on the defense of Puerto Rican culture and identity as an attempt to unify Puerto Ricans of all classes into a national movement also fosters the fear of statehood as the possible annihilation of Puerto Rico’s national culture. This perspective has in the past led the PSP not to ally itself with the PIP, but to support the PPD and the commonwealth status as a “lesser evil.” In sum, many PSP sympathizers and members support boycotting the plebiscite, while others would prefer to follow the PIP. The leadership has not yet made up its mind.

The more militant organizations of the nationalist left have taken a clear position against participation in the plebiscite. Their central argument is that the plebiscite has been imposed and is controlled by the U.S. government and that it, therefore, does not comply with international law or U.N. regulations. These organizations demand that before any plebiscite is conducted, the colonial power relinquish and transfer all power to the colonial people, who could then freely choose its future political status.

Therefore the United States should withdraw all of its armed forces, judicial structures and law enforcement personnel from the island. It should free all Puerto Rican political prisoners, stop the persecution of Puerto Rican independence supporters and discontinue all covert activities that seek to influence Puerto Rican public opinion. U.N. officials should also be invited to oversee the plebiscite. None of the plebiscite projects presented so far seek to satisfy any of these requirements.

For the socialist left, including our organization, the Taller de Formacion Politica (Workshop for Political Formation-TFP), the positions and arguments of the nationalist left are valid, but insufficient. We support their demands but point to the absence of a class analysis in their perspective. Some of the organizations within the socialist left, mainly the Frente Anti-Electoral (Anti Electoral Front-FAE), the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (Socialist Workers Movement-MST) and the TFP, have already called for a boycott.

These and other organizations have begun to meet to coordinate a socialist campaign against the plebiscite. This effort has led to the creation of a Steering Committee for a Socialist Front Against the Plebiscite. In the following section, we present some of the ideas with which our group has sought to contribute to that effort.

The projected plebiscite comes at a time of deep crisis for capitalism in the United States, for imperialism in Central America and for colonialism in Puerto Rico. Whatever “solution” or change is imposed through a plebiscite, it must be subordinated to the wider objective of the U.S. government, which may be summarized thus working people will pay for the crisis of capitalism, Third World countries will pay for the crisis of imperialism, and colonial peoples will pay for the crisis of colonialism. This is the meaning of the statement with which Sen. Bennett Johnston opened the first congressional hearing on the proposed plebiscite: all the alternatives, he argued, must be “budget neutral” for the U.S. government.

We believe that socialist organizations, even with their limited resources, must launch a boycott campaign that promotes popular mobilization and self-organization of the working class. We want to place the boycott campaign in the wider context of a campaign to resist the capitalist offensive against working people. In that sense, we consider it of utmost importance to raise issues that are essential for workers, women, students, communities, environmental activists, pacifists and anti-militarist organizations.

In recent months in Puerto Rico, the capitalist offensive has taken the form of an attempt to privatize a whole set of government-owned industries and utilities. Since these industries also constitute the most solid stronghold of the Puerto Rican labor movement, this move has been widely and correctly interpreted as an attempt to break the back of any working-class resistance in Puerto Rico. The boycott campaign must link itself to the struggle against such measures.

It is due to this perspective, which we consider essential, that sharp differences may emerge between socialists and those who oppose the plebiscite from an anti-imperialist but nationalist point of view. The latter, for example, tend to argue that in any valid plebiscite special electoral laws would have to apply, laws that would exclude resident non-Puerto Ricans from voting. At first sight, this could seem quite logical: Only Puerto Ricans should vote to decide Puerto Rico’s destiny. Its proponents also argue that this measure will exclude the large and rabidly reactionary sector of Cuban exiles from affecting the results. Nevertheless, this demand and the use of its argument to denounce the proposed plebiscite entail dangers that, from our point of view, outweigh any benefits.

First of all, it poses a problematic issue: Who is to be defined as Puerto Rican? Those born in the island? Those born and residing in the island? Those born to Puerto Rican parents? Furthermore, socialists must denounce the plebiscite from the left, that is, from a more consistently democratic perspective. To exclude persons who reside permanently in Puerto Rico from voting because they are not Puerto Rican is hardly democratic.

Perhaps the main reason why this demand is counterproductive is the fact that there is a large and growing community of immigrants from the Dominican Republic in Puerto Rico. Many of them live and work illegally in the island. The bourgeois press not surprisingly blames them for many of our social problems, such as unemployment. Unfortunately, a not insignificant number of Puerto Rican workers adopt racist attitudes against Dominicans. Socialists must obviously combat these trends within Puerto Rican society. They must become the staunchest defenders of working-class solidarity between Puerto Rican, Dominican, Haitian and workers of other nationalities living in Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican left and labor movement must therefore become a defender of the political and human rights of these workers. To carry out a campaign that seeks to exclude them from a plebiscite is certainly not a step in that direction. To oppose the colonial plebiscite while maintaining or furthering the divisions of the working class would be to sabotage one’s own effort.

The eventual self-determination of Puerto Rico depends on the progressive self-organization of the Puerto Rican working class. Whichever organization relinquishes this objective must eventually adapt itself to the limits imposed by U.S. imperialism.

The government offensive has recently entered a new stage with Governor Hernandez Colon’s decision to privatize the state-owned telephone company. This has provoked an immediate and very healthy reaction from the organized labor movement in Puerto Rico. The two unions that group the workers in this industry (Union Independiente de Empleados de la Autoridad de Comunicaciones and the Union Independiente de Empleados Telefonicos) have rejected the scheme. Militant protests and pickets have already been organized at work centers around the island.

Other unions have come out in support of the telephone workers. The Central Puertorriquena de Trabajadores and the Concilio General de Trabajadores, which combined include around 60,000 workers, agreed to carry out a one-day general strike on March 28 to protest this measure. In the first week of March, the Comite de Organizaciones Sindicales also agreed to participate. The three organizations comprise about sixty unions, with membership of around 100,000 workers. These include the strategically important utility workers (electrical, water, public transportation, telephone, airport), the teachers’ federation and the union that represents the workers at the University of Puerto Rico. If the pronouncements of the labor leadership translate into militant and massive actions a new beginning may be in store for Puerto Rican labor movement.

Most consumers also seem to reject the government’s privatization project. Until the early 1970s the telephone service was in the hands of the notorious ITT, a corporation that in fact was born in the island in the early 1900s, under the leadership of the Behn brothers. In Puerto Rico, this concern provided a notoriously expensive and unreliable service that eventually provoked the government’s takeover In the case of the telephone company most consumers agree that nationalization has implied an improvement over private operation. Thus, there seems to be widespread support for the workers’ opposition to privatization.

In fact, one of the main obstacles to Puerto Rico’s self-determination is the structure of the island’s economy. Its economy grew within the limits of the colonial relationship. The colonialist argument that Puerto Rico could not survive without U.S. capital contains an element of truth: the Puerto Rican economy, as a product of the needs of U.S. capital, could not survive without U.S. capital.

In other words, to survive without U.S. capital Puerto Rico would have to radically transform its economic structure. This obvious fact implies that to the extent that one cannot envisage a viable non-capitalist economy and society—and most Puerto Ricans do not do so at this time—U.S. capital, and the colonial conditions which attract it, do seem to be indispensable for the island’s economic survival.

Another material obstacle confronted by anti-imperialists in Puerto Rico is the fact that the colonial regime has generated a living standard that is much lower than the poorest of the states of the United States, but is nevertheless higher than that of our Caribbean and Central American neighbors. Opponents of independence point to those countries as examples of what would happen in Puerto Rico if it became independent These examples of semi-colonial, capitalist independence are mobilized to justify the existing colonial regime or statehood.

The fact is that Puerto Rican workers will not be attracted and will rightfully reject any “independence” that resembles that of, for example, the Dominican Republic. To the extent that they cannot conceive of any other form of independence, they will end up rejecting independence as such. Within this framework, then, they will see commonwealth or statehood as more viable options.

Ideas and projects, Marx said somewhere, must become a material force. Independence will only become a material force in Puerto Rico to the extent that the Puerto Ricans, and Puerto Rican workers in particular, come to see it not as an end but as a means for a radical restructuring of Puerto Rican society. The struggle for independence and the building of a socialist movement are thus inseparably linked in Puerto Rico. Needless to say the ability of Puerto Rican socialists to present socialism as a viable and attractive alternative is conditioned by the evolution of the socialist movement all over the world.


The concept of uneven and combined development as advanced by Trotsky and other revolutionary Marxists finds, in the case of Puerto Rico, one of its most striking validations. After ninety-two years of direct domination by the most advanced imperialist nation in the world, after an unending series of programs that sought to stabilize and develop the colonial economy, after turning Puerto Ricans into U.S. citizens and after spending billions of dollars in so-called aid, Puerto Rico is still a precariously semi-industrialized, dependent and deformed capitalist society.

In this context, the struggle for democratic rights—including the solution of the national question—is inseparable from the struggle for socialism. In the case of Puerto Rico, this struggle has a clearly international nature. The struggle to free Puerto Rico from imperialist subjection is linked to the struggles in the Caribbean and Central America. For the latter, the decolonization of Puerto Rico is a question of immediate self-defense. We must, therefore, reject any options that grant to the U.S. military the right to occupy or use Puerto Rican territory. The possibility of working-class and, thus, also of national, emancipation in Puerto Rico is furthermore linked to the struggles of the working class in the United States, which at least in certain regions has an important Puerto Rican component In the case of Puerto Rico, therefore, international solidarity is of utmost importance.

July-August 1990, ATC 27

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