When we talk about empires, we may hearken back to our days in history class, when we studied powerful monarchical rulers of expansive landmasses, whose only ambition was to control the world they knew and govern over their subjects with an iron fist, led by their all-mighty armies. While this vision of imperial rule may appropriately be relegated to ancient times, the contemporary reality is that well into the 21st century, imperialism is still alive and well in our world.
To wit, there is one modern imperial power that controls the largest land mass on the planet. Just a few years ago this empire invaded a neighboring state, rolling in their tanks and setting up a military presence to “defend their interests in the region.”
Another modern-day imperial power that controls the 4th largest landmass on earth, invaded, at the dawn of a new century, several overseas territories belonging to another empire. After an all-out war to gain control of those territories, it planted its flag and its military hardware on their land, and has kept these territories as overseas possessions for over a century.
Even though the entire modern world community has formally rejected imperialism and colonialism decades ago — declaring them unacceptable forms of governing — both these empires continue to defiantly hold on to their territories abroad, ignoring the basic tenets of democracy.
The reader would be correct to infer that the first empire described above is Russia, whose invasion of Crimea was decried internationally. Russia, however, continues to justify this intrusion on a sovereign state declaring that the people of Crimea held a referendum, thus accepting the annexation and admitting the Russian government as their own. That assertion is still up to continuous and contentious debate in the international community.
The second empire described above, perhaps to the surprise of many, is our very own United States of America. Yes, the “beacon of democracy” of the world remains a modern-day imperial power, holding on to possessions they gained from Spain during the Spanish-American War. And it is still lording over them in an asymmetric power relationship as so-called “unincorporated territories”, which is just a pretty euphemism for “colonies”.
Puerto Rico, the largest and most populated of the U.S. possessions still being ruled as colonies, can best illustrate how the American citizens of our modern-day American colonies are being governed by the U.S. Congress in the utmost undemocratic and imperial manner.
Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in 1898, and American citizenship was granted to its people in 1917. Ever since, Congress has held plenary powers over the island, with the local limited self-government and laws completely subservient to the will of Capitol Hill. This imperial subordination prevents the American citizens of this American territory from voting in national elections, thus depriving them of their voice in selecting the president, the vice-president, and even the members of Congress, all of whom enact and enforce the laws that rule over them daily. This utterly undemocratic rule even extends over the American soldiers from Puerto Rico, who have served in every U.S. bellicose conflict since WWI, and are still being denied their right to vote for their Commander in Chief. This disenfranchisement of American citizens on a territory that flies the American flag has created a de facto civil rights ghetto, where even American citizens from the mainland that move to the island lose their basic democratic right to vote in national elections.
To their credit, the people of Puerto Rico have tried put an end to this disenfranchisement, holding two referenda in the past five years, wherein an overwhelming majority of its citizens voted in favor of ending the current colonial status, and making PuertoRico the 51st state of the Union. In 2012, 54 percent of the electorate voted against the current colonial status, and 61 percent favored statehood as the best self-government option moving forward. These results were ignored by the Obama administration. Adding insult to injury, last year Congress imposed on Puerto Rico a Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, locally known as a Junta, with the power to overrule the island’s democratically-elected government and its Legislature, with the intention to control from Washington the finances and fiscal management of Puerto Rico.
Yet, relentless in their pursuit of a full American democracy, the people of Puerto Rico voted in another status referendum on June 11, 2017. This time, 97 percent of the votes cast favored statehood for the island. And now the territorial government has moved further forward in this direction, designating a Shadow Congressional Delegation of seven representatives to claim seats in Congress to fight for the democratic rights of its American citizens.
American democracy is floundering in its territories under the very shade of the American flag, and Puerto Rico is a prime example of it. It is time for the U.S. to stop acting like a modern-day imperial Russia, and take an inward gaze at its own democracy. America cannot continue to proclaim itself as the standard bearer of democracy and liberty around the world, pressuring other countries to respect human and civil rights of their citizens, while it continually violates the liberty and basic civil rights of their very own American citizens in their territories. This is not what America stands for.
If we truly want to make America great again, it is time to relinquish our current imperial framework and return to our fundamental nature as a republic, with equal rights for ALL our citizens. Only then can we reclaim our title as the world’s bastion of human rights and true democratic rule.
It is now up to the U.S. Congress to accept this challenge and stand on the right side of history.
Dr. Pedro Rosselló is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1993-2001). He serves as Chairman of the Puerto Rico Shadow Congressional Delegation. He holds a Masters in Public Health, a Doctorate in Medicine, plus a Doctorate in Education.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.