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A 21st Century Colony in America

I am often asked about Puerto Rico. Explaining our status has never been easy, but recent events have suddenly made everything crystal clear. Today’s blog is not about interpreting or translating per se, but it is about events taking place in Puerto Rico that could have a life-changing impact on interpreters and translators here on the Island.

Back in 1952 the powers that be in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. created a constitution for the Island that everyone thought had put an end to the colonial status derived from the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Estado Libre Asociado [Free Associated State], translated back then as Commonwealth for reasons yet to be explained, was defined by the first article of that constitution:

Section 1. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is hereby constituted. Its political power emanates from the people and shall be exercised in accordance with their will, within the terms of the compact agreed upon between the people of Puerto Rico and the United States of America.

Section 2. The government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico shall be republican in form and its legislative, judicial and executive branches as established by this Constitution shall be equally subordinate to the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico.

Notwithstanding, a Supreme Court decision from June 9 of this year tells a very different story. In the case of Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle et al, (No. 15-108), in which the Court had to consider “whether two prosecuting authorities are different sovereigns for double jeopardy purposes,” Justice Kagan delivered the majority opinion, whereby the Court ruled that “Puerto Rico cannot benefit from the dual-sovereignty doctrine” because “Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico Constitution, which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges. That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico’s prosecutors— as it is for the Federal Government’s.” (Slip Opinion in 579 U.S. ____ (2016).)

That very same day, June 9, the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. voted to approve a bill known as PROMESA (H.R. 5278.) The acronym stands for Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. PROMESA intends to establish a Financial Oversight and Management Board under Congress’s “power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations for territories,” and

Neither the Governor nor the Legislature may—
(1) exercise any control, supervision, oversight, or review over the Oversight Board or its activities; or
(2) enact, implement, or enforce any statute, resolution, policy, or rule that would impair or defeat the purposes of this Act, as determined by the Oversight Board. (Sec. 108)

Just the day before, on June 8, President Obama had told Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner—a representative of the People of Puerto Rico in Congress with no voting powers—, “there is no Plan B” for H.R. 5278. So, all three branches of government seem to have come to a unified understanding: the Commonwealth is a work of fiction. Whatever happened in 1952 under the name of Estado Libre Asociado is a big mystery today. We, the people of Puerto Rico, are left to wonder what will happen now that we can no longer live in suspended disbelief.

Here are some other ugly truths. Over the course of these 64 years as a commonwealth, Puerto Rico—or rather, the citizens elected to govern the Island—somehow managed to amass a $70-billion debt that the Island’s government cannot pay. At this point, the current administration has already defaulted on its debt and is having to choose which public services to provide and which ones to cut back or cancel altogether. In desperate moves to raise funds by imposing more taxes, the government has managed to make the cost of living untenable, forcing 84,000 Puerto Ricans to leave for the mainland in 2014 alone. On May 2 of this year CNN reported that 230 people on the average leave the island every day. Those of us who cannot leave are being dragged into a downward spiraling economy where the cost of living is 11.6% higher than any other city in the U.S., the unemployment rate is 11.7%, and the murder rate is upwards of 24.4 murders for every 100,000 people.

It is not a pretty picture. I look around and I see a breathtaking tropical paradise and think to myself, “I am so privileged to live here. I should be truly happy.” At the same time I realize that I am living a crucial moment in history that will forever change the social, economic, and political fabric of this island.

The truth is there are only two choices left: statehood or independence. If Puerto Rico becomes an independent nation, there will be no more federal court and no more jobs for interpreters and translators in federal government agencies here on the Island. Conversely, if it becomes a state, work for us will grow exponentially, as the local courts—which conduct their official business in Spanish—will surely have to adopt the English language for everything they do, as will all state government agencies.

I hope with all my heart the future brings something better than what we have right now.

6 Comments
  • Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner
    Posted at 12:20h, 24 June Reply

    Thank you for this, Janis. Very informative! I also hope for better days for Puerto Rico.

  • Miriam Villegas-Negron
    Posted at 12:35h, 24 June Reply

    Perfect explanation of the sad state of our island.

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 13:29h, 24 June Reply

    I had never realized how the situation actually was. My hopes match yours.

  • Heidi
    Posted at 15:37h, 24 June Reply

    This is an excellent and succint explanation of the whole situation.
    It is difficult to understand…

  • sandy canlas
    Posted at 16:39h, 24 June Reply

    what the u.s. has never learned is that you can’t impose / export a form of government on another country, without the cultural foundations that the u.s. has had. look at the quaqmire that we’re in, in iraq!

    we should know that, given our developing our form of government in rebellion from the british empire. we’re so proud of what we did, yet not able to understand that we’ve been acting like the british empire: the u.s. destroyed the truly democratic culture of the native americans; it tried to replicate itself in cuba, and produced corrupt leaders that led to a repressive, voracious dictator; it tried the same thing in the philippines (where i’m from), and also produced corrupt leaders that led to a repressive, voracious dictator; corrupt leaders also in puerto rico and in iraq.

    the u.s. is so afraid that if it let those places to themselves, that they’ll become hotbeds of culture that’s counter to u.s. interests and bring harm to the u.s. well, over 50years of marxism in cuba hasn’t really harmed the u.s. look at the domestic problems our involvement in iraq has produced: we’ve help create the environment for breeding radical terrorists, who have turned the name of their religion to be associated with fanatical anger and hate.

    i think that puerto rico will be better off loosing it’s close association with the u.s. and developing their own version of society. it won’t be easy nor painless: look at what the philippines has gone through since it’s political “independence” (but shackled with economic impediments) in 1946, phl may be still not free of it’s own brand of socio-political “hell”, but they have no one else to blame for it!

  • Terri Shaw
    Posted at 17:55h, 28 June Reply

    The city I live in Washington DC is also a colony. We pay a lot of federal tax, our kids serve in the military but we have no vote in the Congress that decides how our taxes are spent. We would also like to be a state since our population is greater than that of two states.

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