Several weeks ago, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill added Puerto Rico to the university’s “Level 2/Yellow” list of countries for which “students must sign a travel risk waiver,” presumably because of Hurricane Maria. The list of 75 countries includes Algeria, Turkey, Iran and the Philippines. The problem with the list, of course, is that Puerto Rico is not an independent country. How extraordinary indeed: UNC students are required to obtain a “travel risk waiver” to travel to an American territory, populated by American citizens, and a dependency of the U.S. government.
The logic of hurricane-related student travel restrictions should also have extended to Houston and Florida, of course. But lurking beneath these judgments is the reality that most Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Nor do most Americans understand that Puerto Rico is a colony.
Hurricane Maria exposed the character of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship. Colonialism is laid bare, stripped of euphemisms. The ambiguity of such designations as “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,” “Free Associated State of Puerto Rico” and “an unincorporated territory” conceal the fundamental colonial status of Puerto Rico. In 1898, one rising New World colonial power seized the territories of a declining New World colonial power.
The status of the newly-acquired colony of Puerto Rico was subsequently litigated and legislated, it was prosecuted and contested, suits were filed and legal proceedings instituted: what to do about a people who, the Supreme Court determined in 1922, formed “distant ocean communities of a different origin and languages from those of our continental people.” Through the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court deferred the status of Puerto Rico to Congress, whereupon the enactment of the Jones Act (1917) conferred upon the residents of the territory of Puerto Rico U.S. citizenship.
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One of the recurring themes of post-Maria news coverage was that Puerto Ricans were Americans citizens and that the inadequacy of the federal response to the humanitarian calamity implied a shameful breach of the national social contract.
Puerto Ricans may indeed be American citizens, but it is a status akin to second-class citizenship. It is a citizenship conferred by statute, not by constitution, and thus fails to confer all the rights and benefits of constitutional citizenship. Even the freedom of speech is not without anomalies. The exercise of free speech within a colonial paradigm is precarious right and precludes the right to voice righteous indignation with distant colonial benefactors.
Historically, Puerto Rico was viewed as an island of “different origin and languages” upon whom the United States has conferred the fruits of civilization, which implies the need for proper gratitude. When a Puerto Rican legislative assembly criticized U.S. regulations, President William Howard Taft denounced the ingratitude of the uplifted people. The Puerto Ricans “have forgotten the generosity of the United States in its dealings with them,” Taft complained. Puerto Rican condemnation of the federal government’s failure to discharge its obligations to American citizens aroused the wrath of President Trump. Puerto Ricans are expected to display patience, to suffer in silence, for citizenship notwithstanding, they are in the end supplicants, a colonial people with limited claims on the government to which they are subject. To demand anything more implies ingratitude and risks forfeiture of goodwill and charity.
President Trump played the role of the colonial overlord with aplomb, worthy of the admiration the British raj in India. Puerto Ricans were put in their place. The president demanded that Puerto Ricans had “to give us more help.” Criticism of government was the doing of “politically motivated ingrates,” who were shamed for failing to recognize the “fantastic job” of the federal government. “My people are not getting the credit they deserve for doing a great job,” the president complained in a tweet. The outspoken mayor of San Juan and “others” were denounced for displaying such “poor leadership ability” and for not being “able to get their workers to help ... they want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
The colony was held responsible for the hurricane. “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico,” pronounced the President during his visit to the island, “but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.” Ingratitude writ large. Such a comment would be incomprehensible in Houston and Florida, that is, places where citizens enjoy the full measure of citizenship.
Louis A. Pérez Jr. is J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Deborah M. Weissman is Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill.