This post is really a stub end to my series on Greece and Europe. It’s purpose is to suggest that, much as we might snicker – okay, guffaw – over the preposterous shenanigans across the Atlantic, we actually have our own mini-Greek problem right here in the USA. Puerto Rico is becoming our own version of Greece, though perhaps with the example of Europe before us we can avoid slipping from calamity to debacle to fiasco.

But, first, a note about Puerto Rico, as it seems to exist well below the level of consciousness for most Americans.

Technically, Puerto Rico is a “territory” of the US, a largely meaningless term that means we own it. America has, surely, the most pathetic empire of any global superpower in the history of the human species. We own 16 territories, for example, but only 5 of them are even inhabited. Puerto Rico, with a measly 3.5 million people, is by far the largest. (The second largest is Guam, pop. 150,000.) Pathetic, really, whatever your view of empires.

Puerto Rico was discovered by Columbus on his second trip and it spent 400 restive years as a Spanish colony. In 1868 the uprising known as El Grito de Lares was quickly put down, but some of the leaders, including Ramón Emeterio Betances, considered the “father” of the Puerto Rican independence movement, fled to New York. The Puerto Rican Revolutionary Committee was founded in New York and continued to agitate for independence, with consequences that would prove to be unfortunate.

Following the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico then spent 127 restive years as a US territory, with deadly protests and uprisings occurring every few decades. The most dramatic of these occurred in 1950. Known as the Jayuya and Utuado Uprisings, they were harshly put down by Puerto Rican security forces.

Furious at the failure of these revolts, and at their heavy-handed suppression, two Puerto Rican nationalists living in New York decided to assassinate President Harry Truman. You might wonder why Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo would single out Truman, who favored self-determination for the island and who had recently appointed the first native Puerto Rican as governor, but never mind. In any event, the attempt failed. Torresola was killed and Collazo was sentenced to death, since a security guard had been killed during the assassination attempt. But the designated victim of the attack, Harry Truman, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment and, decades later, in 1979, President Carter further commuted the sentence to time served.

You rarely see would-be President-killers being lionized, but following his release from prison in 1979, Collazo was decorated as a hero by Fidel Castro. Worse, in the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, a mural honoring Puerto Rico’s independence leaders features Collazo and his dead pal, Torresola.

In 1917 the Jones Act granted US citizenship to residents of the island, but the law was opposed unanimously by the Puerto Rican House of Delegates. This ingratitude notwithstanding,(1) a bill was introduced in Congress in the 1930s to allow Puerto Rico to become an independent country. The bill was supported by every Puerto Rican party, but was opposed by the leading political figure on the island, Luis Muñoz Marín, and never became law.

Later, following the Cuban Revolution, there was no chance that Puerto Rico would be granted independence, as America didn’t wish to have two Communist islands off its eastern seaboard. And armed revolt was impossible, given the island’s proximity to the US (or, more precisely, to the US Army). Eventually, following the collapse of the USSR and Cuba’s international isolation, agitation for independence withered. In the most recent plebiscite, for example (2012), about 60% of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood, while independence got about 5%.(2)

We are always hearing how small Greece is relative to the EU, but Greece is a giant compared to Puerto Rico. Physically, for example, Puerto Rico is a tiny place, being about 100 miles long and 40 miles wide (compare Greece, which is almost as big as Alabama at 50,942 square miles). Greece’s 11 million people represent 3% of Europe’s population, while Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million people represent about 1% of the US population. Greece’s GDP is 1.5% of Europe’s GDP, while Puerto Rico’s GDP is a mere 6/10 of 1% of America’s GDP.

Economically, though, Puerto Rico is a mixed bag. If it were an American state it would be by far our poorest, roughly twice as poor as Mississippi, the current titleholder. But note that if Puerto Rico were a sovereign country it would be the third richest in the Western Hemisphere, way behind America and Canada, of course, but well ahead of Chile, Argentina and Brazil, and nearly twice as rich as Mexico.(3)

Now that we’re all experts on Puerto Rico, we’ll turn in my next post to its Greek-like circumstances.

(1) The Delegates reportedly opposed the Jones Act because it would allow Puerto Ricans to be drafted into the US Army (this was 1917, remember). Americans were not amused, however, as this perfidy contrasted sharply with the loyalty of earlier generations of Puerto Ricans. In the American Revolutionary War, for example, Puerto Rican volunteers under the command of General Bernardo de Gálvez defeated the British at the Siege of Pensacola and then recaptured Florida. (Well, technically, Gálvez recaptured Florida for Spain, Florida not then being part of the US.) Galveston, Texas is named for the general.

(2) Amusingly, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization is always passing resolutions (in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011 so far) demanding that the United States “allow Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.” In addition, the US is to release all Puerto Rican “political prisoners” (i.e., convicted criminals), clean up and return a couple of minor islands to the sovereign state of Puerto Rico, and investigate the killing by FBI agents of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, a notorious terrorist. No one has paid any attention to this because the Special Committee is a joke.

(3) The per capita Gross National Income (GNI) of Puerto Rico is @ $19,300. This compares to Chile ($14,900), Argentina, ($14,600), Brazil ($11,800), and Mexico ($10,000). The US per capita GNI is around $55,000.

Next up: Puerto Rico and the End of Political Innocence (Part 5)

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