Although we must have crossed paths many times while we both attended Boston College Law School in the mid 1970s, we never talked. The thought of Puerto Rico probably never even crossed your mind, and with good reason.
Puerto Rico was not a “hot” topic. Viet Nam was. You had participated in that war. I had not and would not. Upon your return, you, an American, were against the war. I, a Puerto Rican, thought of your stance as courageous. Viet Nam was often discussed in law school. Puerto Rico never was. After all, there were around 485 American students, and only one Puerto Rican.
In the faculty, very few knew (or cared) about Puerto Rico, and then usually because I raised the topic informally on Friday afternoon social gatherings you may remember as “bar reviews.” But the subject of Puerto Rico’s constitutional relationship with the US remained, for the most part, “exotic.”
The Constitutional Law course you and I took did not spend any time on Article IV, Section 3—the Territory Clause—of the US constitution. Perhaps passing reference was made to new contiguous territories incorporated as states after, in the language of the US Supreme Court back in those days, “scattered bodies of native Indians” had been disposed of during the 19th century. This was, for law school purposes, of scant interest since little or no case law was generated. When Manifest Destiny expanded in 1898 to retain Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico after the Spanish American War, a fair amount of case law accumulated. In the political debate reflected in the US Supreme Court, one of the strongest dissents regarding the expansionist use of the Territory Clause denounced the idea that the US “may acquire territories anywhere upon the earth, by conquest or treaty, and hold them as mere colonies or provinces” as “wholly inconsistent with the spirit and genius, as well as with the words, of the Constitution.” But these “Insular Cases” (1901-1922) were never even mentioned.
When I returned to Puerto Rico, I had to learn what we were not taught in the US. Granted, some important and extremely informative books on the subject (in English) were written much later: “The Legal Construction of Identity,” by Efrén Rivera Ramos, the current UPR law school dean; “The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal,” by Judge Juan R. Torruellas of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals; and “Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World,” by José Trías Monge, the late Chief Justice of our Supreme Court. But your research staff can be of great assistance in filling the gaps we inherited from our shared legal education.
Now, as the virtual nominee of your party for president of the US, you have a great responsibility. If you should get elected, you can follow the precedent you set in the 1970s as leader of Viet Nam veterans against the war: to rectify for past historical errors. This would we noble and right; and it is time to do so regarding Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner (who is running for governor) recently received a letter from you, dated February 20. (STAR, Apr. 5.) In it you reportedly respond favorably to his request to retain the current commonwealth arrangement as an option for the US in resolving Puerto Rico’s status. Your reasoning appears to rest on the argument that people in Puerto Rico “have voted in favor of commonwealth since 1952.” More precisely, as you may know, recent votes evidence a dissatisfied majority unevenly split between annexation and independence, not counting those who voted for commonwealth, innocently believing its backers would claim sovereignty through free association.
But let’s not quibble. Back when you led the veterans against the war, the US Congress had overwhelmingly approved the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing military action in Viet Nam, and the people of the United States had elected Lyndon Johnson by a landslide to escalate the war. Your people had elected Richard Nixon to pursue it in 1968, and resoundingly defeated George McGovern, the peace candidate, in 1972. As you evidently understood, some things are wrong, even with majority support.
Like the war in Viet Nam, colonialism is wrong. The US invaded our nation because of strategic military reasons, like Iraq. (In the case of Iraq, you have demonstrated your capacity to rectify even when you were part of a mistaken majority.) Puerto Rico has been held as a military colony until we peacefully forced the US Navy out of the island municipality of Vieques. The recent the dismantling of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base appears to signal the end of the colony’s military nature, and now only the colony is left. This is commonwealth.
What Puerto Rico needs is a change in status that will render it beyond the reach of the Territory Clause. What the US needs is to exercise the responsibility that stems from power and implement Puerto Rico’s decolonization in accordance with international law, which is also US law. Your role in this campaign can lead and set the agenda for rectification, even if you do not get elected.