January 28, 2005


Iraqi Elections: Lessons from Puerto Rico

By Donna R. Hernández

In his inaugural address, President Bush promised that “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.” His words and actions, however, indicate otherwise. According to media reports, large sectors of the Iraqi population will be excluded from the Jan. 30 elections. Iraq’s introduction to “democracy” will occur under U.S. military occupation and in a time of extreme danger and war. Democracy imposed with the threat of force is not democracy at all. It didn’t work in Puerto Rico a century ago, and it’s not going to work in Iraq this week.

What’s the connection between Puerto Rico and Iraq? Puerto Rico is one of the world’s last colonies. Sure, its four million inhabitants elect their own governor, receive public benefits and can live in the U. S. as citizens. However, Puerto Rico cannot engage in international diplomacy and has no control over her land, natural resources, air or sea. Puerto Rico has little authority to conduct trade or commerce with the U.S. states or other countries. Furthermore, the U.S. controls the legal jurisdictions and procedures of the island, determines the constitutionality of her local laws and can draft the island’s residents into military service.

Yet, Puerto Rico is not quite a state. Islanders cannot vote for President, a person who wields much more power over their fate than the locally elected governor. Puerto Rico is represented in Congress by a “Resident Commissioner” who has only observer status. His job is to watch the island’s future be determined by people who have only been to Puerto Rico on vacation, if at all.

In short, Puerto Rico is not a democracy but a protectorate of the U.S., a “commonwealth.” Oh, there is voting, but voting alone does not make a democracy.

The largest underlying problem with the imposed “democracy” in Puerto Rico continues to be the issue of political status-whether or not Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth, become a U.S. state or revert back to its status of 1897 and become a politically autonomous and independent nation. As a result, the political dialogue often turns on what amount of U.S. control over Puerto Rico’s affairs is acceptable, as opposed to the complex issues affecting the daily lives of most Puerto Ricans, such as rising health care costs, education crisis and crime rates. In 2004 Puerto Rico’s murder rate was three times that of the U.S. The unemployment rate in Puerto Rico was 11.2% compared to 5.4% for the U.S., leading to a dependence on welfare and unemployment benefits.

In the most recent Puerto Rican Status Referenda in 1998, 50% voted for “none of the above,” which amounted to keeping the island in its current political predicament. Of course, any real change to Puerto Rico’s political status has to be approved by the U.S. Congress since the Puerto Rican people have no direct say over their island’s future.

When the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico it took over the island with little compromise and excluded the ideas of many of the island’s political leaders. The U.S. changed the name of the island from Borinquen to “Porto Rico.” The Foraker law established commerce between the island and the mainland and the U.S. devalued the island’s currency. Eventually these actions led to Puerto Rico’s dependence on the U.S. monetary, military and political system. A similar development is underway in Iraq, and it’s hard to see how they can fare much better.

The Monroe Doctrine, which justified the domination of the Caribbean in the early Twentieth Century, is eerily similar to the Bush Doctrine, which justifies intervention wherever the administration sees fit. Condoleezza Rice stated that, “the strategic decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the right one,” and that success in Iraq would spread freedom and stability elsewhere. But freedom and stability cannot be spread without the support and will of the people. In the end, the Iraqi’s will have to decide between accepting imposed democratic structures or scrapping them and starting anew. That is, if the U.S. allows them to.

The Iraqi election may plunge the country into civil war and is certain to exclude the votes of many Iraqis boycotting the elections or too afraid to vote. The elections will undoubtedly symbolize change to millions of Iraqis. But, if the Iraqi people are to have a chance at achieving true independence beyond symbolism, they must have elections on their terms, monitored by international organizations, without the threat of force that exists under military occupation. That’s an opportunity Puerto Rico never had.

Donna R. Hernández is a Program Associate at the Applied Research Center in New York City. She lived in Puerto Rico in the 1980s and was raised in Philadelphia, PA.

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