Seventy-five years ago on March 21, a forgotten American tragedy happened, which reverberates today.
It took place in Ponce, the second-largest city of what is still an unincorporated territory of the United States — Puerto Rico. On that day, which was Palm Sunday, the island territory’s police gunned down 19 unarmed civilians who were marching to commemorate the abolition of slavery.
But it wasn’t just a Puerto Rican matter.
In 1937, Puerto Rico’s police were under the direct control of Gov. Blanton Winship, who, like all previous governors, was an American appointed by the sitting U.S. president. The police were targeting an emerging Nationalist Party movement, whose leader, Harvard-educated Pedro Albizu Campos, was a strident advocate of independence for the island. Albizu Campos, along with five other Nationalist Party members, would spend the next six years in prison, and subsequent movements for independence have been continuously repressed.
The United States granted Puerto Rico a limited capacity for autonomous self-government in 1948 when Luis Munoz Marin became the first Puerto Rican to be elected governor. A new constitution was adopted in 1952, but Puerto Rico has remained, in the eyes of much of the world, a colony. As recently as last summer, the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization called on the United States to speed up the process to allow Puerto Rico to exercise self-determination.
None of this is to say that the U.S. effect on Puerto Rico has been entirely negative. The American labor and women’s suffrage movements influenced many of the island’s early progressive leaders. The economic overhaul of the island after the new constitution created a modern infrastructure. But the price paid was steep: Puerto Rico’s economy is entirely an appendage of the U.S. economy.
This November, on Election Day, the current government, which favors statehood, will hold a plebiscite. Puerto Rico residents will choose whether the island should continue as a “Commonwealth,” petition for statehood, or become independent.
The independence option is not likely to win, because of the repression of the nationalist movement and the bleak prospects of a newly independent island whose economy would be utterly dependent on the United States.
Despite the pro-statehood government’s connections with the U.S. Republican Party, a statehood victory is unlikely to be approved because current economic policies are obsessed with slashing government spending. Puerto Rico’s high unemployment and weak tax base will not cut it with fiscal conservatives.
Most importantly, the plebiscite, like its predecessors, is nonbinding. The U.S. Congress has the final say, no matter which option wins. There is still no self-determination, and the people who died in Ponce on Palm Sunday 75 years ago remain a sad afterthought of history.