The Corner

Puerto Rico Is a Latin American Country

I agree with Ramesh that the contemplated referendum stacks the deck in favor of the statehood option. That’s the problem with all the schemes to determine Puerto Rico’s status — how you lay out the options determines the outcome, because the numbers are so close. I also agree with Ramesh that so fateful an act of “self-determination” should not be based on a close and dubious vote. But — speaking now both as an American and as a Puerto Rican — there’s a larger point that Americans should consider: This is not just a question of democracy (as Alex Castellanos would have it) but of nationhood.

English rapidly became the dominant language of Hawaii, but that will never happen in Puerto Rico, because it has not been colonized by a significant population of English-speakers. The penetration of English has been confined to tourism and to the same sort of ex-pat communities one finds in foreign countries. It is easier to imagine that the U.S. will switch to Spanish as its main language than that Puerto Rico will ever switch to English. Members of Congress contemplating this issue should understand that, in every cultural sense of the word, Puerto Rico is a Latin American country.

It was one thing to grant citizenship to Puerto Ricans and guarantee Puerto Rico a democratic form of government as an unincorporated territory. In that sense, Puerto Rico won the lottery – just look at Cuba and the Dominican Republic to see what a disaster Puerto Rico would be if it had gained independence too soon. (By the way, Alex, democracy is alive and well in Puerto Rico, unlike some other places that have had plenty of self-determination.) Puerto Ricans are proud to fight in the U.S. military, proud of the democracy we’ve developed under the U.S. Constitution, and proud of our U.S. citizenship. True, red lights and emergency lanes don’t command quite the respect they do in the United States, but Puerto Rico has a stable rule of law, with an economy and a legal system that have been successfully Americanized. All of that is great. It has contributed to making Puerto Rico a very happy place indeed — but it has no bearing whatsoever on the question of national identity.

National identity is a matter of culture. Puerto Rico sees itself as a Latin American country — yes, even the pro-statehood folks, though they may not realize it — and that is how it is generally seen by the rest of Latin America. Do you think the pro-statehood voters in Puerto Rico have the slightest intention of making English the official language?

The truth is that the culture of Puerto Rico has little in common with that of the United States. It has everything in common with its fellow Spanish-speaking, African-influenced Caribbean countries. Cuba, Santo Domingo, Panamá, Colombia, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico are what I call the “salsa jurisdiction”: the countries where Afro-Cuban music is dominant, and which share much the same food, idioms, and customs. And I should add that Puerto Rico does not have minor status in this group: Puerto Rico has been a dominant powerhouse on the Latin American music scene for decades.

Admitting Puerto Rico as a state would be contrary to basic American notions of nationhood. Most Americans believe in diversity, but most still think of America as an English-speaking nation with an Anglo-American culture. American democracy is defined not just by a common Constitution but also by a common set of cultural and social institutions that define the United States as a territorial nation-state, regardless its form of government. This would end with the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. Immigration is challenging the dominance of Anglo-American culture in many parts of the U.S., but granting statehood to an entire Latin American country with a large population would be even more of a challenge to the U.S.’s national identity.

Puerto Rico has been enormously fortunate in its association with the U.S. It navigated the last third of the 20th century without any of the financial crises that plagued the rest of Latin America; quite the contrary, it emerged from that period with a sophisticated domestic capital market and a service economy that is much richer than any other in Latin America. Puerto Rico is the only Latin American country that has successfully made the transition to a modern, affluent, first-world economy and society, and American taxpayer subsidies had much less to do with it than people think. The Puerto Rican labor now force shows sustained productivity growth that mirrors the U.S.’s and far exceeds the rest of Latin America’s.

Puerto Rico’s experience should be a model for international development — not a stepping stone for turning the United States into a multi-national hybrid-state. 

Mario Loyola grew up in Puerto Rico and Miami; his parents are Cuban and Puerto Rican.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University School of Law and a former defense-policy adviser at the Pentagon and in the U.S. Senate.


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