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La Liga de Las Americas

Dr. Rivera Ramos addresses U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico


By Arooj Ashraf, on Special Assignment for La Prensa


Nov. 17, 2006: The City Club of Cleveland’s Friday forum presented Dr. Efrén Rivera Ramos, dean and law professor of the University of Puerto Rico Law School, who discussed the political relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.


According to Dr. Rivera Ramos, Puerto Rico is in the midst of intense debate over its political status. He summarized the legal and political aspects of the debate and said his main objective was to shine a light on the topic and urged everyone to inquire about it.   


“This is an important topic for people of the United States to understand and the government to acknowledge.” Rivera Ramos said the limited time would only allow him to scratch the surface of the basic principle at the heart of the conundrum.


“For the past 500 years, Puerto Rico has been governed by two successive colonial powers,” Rivera Ramos said of Spain and the United States. Acquisition of Puerto Rico and other islands from Spain sparked an intense debate in the U.S. Congress, which Rivera Ramos compares in intensity to the current Iraq war and immigration reform debates.


The result was a constitutional provision known as the “Territorial Clause,” wherein Puerto Rico became an unincorporated territory belonging to the United States, “governed by plenary powers.”


Rivera Ramos emphasized that this law is still intact. “The United States may cede Puerto Rico to any other country without consulting its people,” said Rivera Ramos.


Rivera Ramos stressed that although Puerto Ricans were collectively granted United States citizenship, they are not eligible to vote, nor receive the same benefits as other U.S. citizens. “We can not vote for the people who make fundamental decisions for our lives,” lamented Rivera Ramos.

The crowd erupted into applause

Instead, a representative is chosen to sit with Congress. “And he just sits there,” mocked Rivera Ramos. And the crowd erupted into applause.



He called the situation “political subordination” and attributed it to the notion of Puerto Ricans as “second class citizens.” Rivera Ramos said whatever happens in Puerto Rico, directly or indirectly, impacts the 4 million Puerto Ricans, or Boricuas, living in the United States today.


In the 1998 status referendum, a majority of the votes were giving to “none of the above” option over the options of Statehood, Commonwealth, or Independence. Rivera Ramos said most voters did not agree with the definition of Commonwealth and status quo; the interpertation of the vote varies.


He said all proposed solutions should be viable. The solution should begin with the principle of sovereignty and would require three elements: 1) political dignity; 2) economic viability; and 3) preservation of Puerto Rican culture.


“This is a colonial problem, and must be addressed as such!” He said it has been a challenge to solve the issue of Puerto Rico because Washington, D.C. has repeatedly turned a blind eye. Rivera Ramos said the United States’ practices of political subordination contradict the U.S.-American values of democracy—a people’s rights to self govern!


To avoid this blemish on U.S.-America’s self identity, Puerto Rico is swept under the rug and has become an unspoken challenge. “Make sure your senator or congressman gives it [Puerto Rico] attention, regardless of your vision of the solution to the problem,” he said.


City Year Corp member Sylvia Roland said she came to learn more about the issue. She feels there needs to be more discussion. “I think there is a lack of awareness about the issue and that is why ‘none of the above’ option was so popular.” Roland said Puerto Ricans are very versatile in their rich and colorful identity.


Afterward his presentation at the City Club, Rivera Ramos spoke with local students from Life Skills and Lincoln West.


The event—“Puerto Rico: The Unspoken Challenge to the United States”—was presented in partnership with Cuyahoga Community College and the United Church of Christ.

Editor’s Note: The Territorial Clause refers to Article IV, Section 3, paragraph 2 of the United States Constitution: “The Congress shall have Powers to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States….” The interpretation of this clause gives the U.S. Congress the final power over every territory of the United States. However, the interpretation of the word territory is controversial. Puerto Rico, an island-country, was ceded by Spain to the United States in 1898, becoming a territory of the United States. Congress had the ultimate power over the island and effectively organized its governments in the first half of the twentieth-century. However, the question was whether the whole Constitution applied to the territories called Insular areas by Congress. In a series of opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court [the Insular Cases], the court ruled that territories belonged to, but were not part of, the United States. Under the Territorial Clause, Congress had the power to determine which parts of the Constitution applied to the territories. The meaning of this clause continues to be a major dividing point for Puerto Ricans in the debate over their unique political status.
For more on this topic, see Dr. Rivera Ramos’ The Judicial and Social Legacy of American Colonialism in Puerto Rico at: http://www.biblioservices.com/ficha.asp?ISBN=1557986703





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