January 2020

The Colonization of Puerto Rico and the Limits of Impeachment

It is misleading to call impeachment "justice" when it reflects the priorities of empire.

by DJ Polite

The U.S. House of Representatives in December of 2019 passed two articles of impeachment for President Donald J. Trump. The heart of their charges is that Trump abused the power of his office by withholding aid from Ukraine for personal and political benefits. During the build-up to the vote, many members of the U.S. House of Representatives delivered impassioned speeches on democratic rule, corruption, and dedication to the U.S. Constitution. These politicians, and the media, championed impeachment as a tool of democratic accountability.

The political spectacle must seem disorientating for the people of Puerto Rico as they still, two years after Hurricane Maria hit, await the release of Congressionally approved aid by the U.S. Executive Branch. It is unclear whether the island’s aid was withheld through malicious intent, political selfishness, or bureaucratic incompetence. Whether it was through extortion or inept governance, the aid has been withheld. Yet for most of the country’s leaders, this fell far short of an impeachable offense. If impeachment is a tool of democratic accountability, then the question is, for whom? It seems to only work in select circumstances, when the narrative is compelling enough to the right people. Aid for Puerto Ricans apparently fails meet those criteria. As they continue to languish without recovery, Puerto Rico’s colonial citizens they must need to learn to be better storytellers of their own place in the nation, and in their own claims to the U.S. Constitution.

President Trump distributes “aid” to Puerto Rico during a photo op on October 3, 2017. Despite the images, the administration withheld meaningful recovery aid. Photo by Evan Vucci via NPR.

Although impeachment was written into the U.S. Constitution as a tool of democratic accountability, it was not built for colonial policy. Past impeachments, or threats of impeachment, as occurred when Nixon covered up the Watergate break-ins, were due to abuses of power domestically.  For Trump, it was in dealing corruptly with a sovereign foreign nation. Puerto Rico is neither. As Justice Henry Billings Brown reasoned in Downes v. Bidwell (1901), Puerto Rico is “foreign… in a domestic sense.[1] In less legal terms, Justice Brown meant the island was “just something else.” That “something else” is called a colony. The island has no voting representative in the U.S. Congress. Neither are they a sovereign nation who can lean on allies. Puerto Rico still functions as a colony where the people must await the decisions of various and disconnected Washington, D.C. based agencies. Most of the economic decisions on the island remain in the hands of an oversight board that is not elected or appointed by anyone in Puerto Rico. Instead, its members are installed by Washington. It is difficult to demand democratic accountability when decision-making and power is dispersed undemocratically.

The evidence of wrongdoing presented against Donald Trump for abuse of office is damning. He does indeed deserve a full impeachment investigation and a Senate trial. But if that is true of his actions in Ukraine, then the case can be made that similar investigations should have been discussed in relation to Puerto Rico. Unless, of course, this was not an abuse of power and was instead simply a manifestation of colonial practice working as intended.

Since 1898, Puerto Rico has occupied an “in-between” legal status under the U.S. flag that has allowed U.S. officials to largely avoid democratic accountability. That explicit legal design allowed the U.S. to claim Puerto Rico as an “unincorporated territory” in compensation for their invasion of the island during the Spanish-American War. “Unincorporated territory” from the perspective of the U.S. government has loosely been defined as “ours, but not really our responsibility.” That much has been clear for Puerto Ricans for over a century. In 1905, for example, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor sought to help unionized strikers in Puerto Rico, but struggled to locate in Washington, D.C. the “man or the bureau at the helm of the island’s affairs.” Isabel Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican activist whose case for Puerto Rican citizenship reached the Supreme Court in 1904, knew that this was intentional.[2] It was clear from Puerto Rico, she wrote, “that same invisible authority and lack of responsibility are the sources of the misfortune of the so-called dependency.”[3]

In this cartoon, President William McKinley drives while Uncle Sam courts Hawaii in a “free trade” buggy while excluding and impoverishing Puerto Rico. Louis Dalrymple, “The ill-fated Sister—a Case of Unjust Discrimination,” Puck, April 25, 1900, Library of Congress.

For over a century, this invisible authority has governed the island. There remains no office with direct accountability for the affairs of the people of Puerto Rico. The two highest ranking politicians in Puerto Rico are the resident commissioner and the governor. The commissioner is a member of Congress who holds no voting power. As for the governor, the realm of his legislative powers is subordinate to the whims of Washington D.C. The real decision-making power is dispersed amongst a D.C.-based bureaucracy where the welfare of the island is secondary. The people of Puerto Rico are deprived of real democratic political power or ability to appeal to it. This situation is meant to be towards the betterment of the island and its people. The veracity of that is most evidently challenged whenever Puerto Ricans are in most need of emergency aid.

If nobody is truly responsible for a colonial territory, then aid is a charitable contribution, and charity is not the mandate of a democracy. That was the case after the island of Puerto Rico was hit by the San Ciriaco Hurricane in 1899. This hurricane devastated the island and its people, causing millions of dollars of damage and killing a recorded 3,000 people. As an incorporated territory, a colonial possession, the world’s nations could not send aid directly without the permission of the United States. Likewise, as an unincorporated territory, aiding the island was not entirely required of the U.S. government either. At least one U.S. Senator after this 1899 hurricane stated this explicitly. In the midst of Congressional debate on sending aid to the island, Benjamin Tillman (D-SC) said “if you start another freedmen’s bureau on a small scale in Puerto Rico with this money…I warn you that your efforts to rehabilitate that island and put it on its feet will be unsuccessful.”[4] The subtext here was that the U.S. government limited responsibility to aid African Americans in the South during Reconstruction. For Tillman, the U.S. had similarly limited responsibility to aid Puerto Ricans decades later. African Americans in the post-Reconstruction U.S., and Puerto Ricans in the early twentieth century, were not full members of the U.S. polity, and were not entitled to the resources of the U.S. government. To provide aid would be charity. When seen as charity instead of a democratic requirement, the question U.S. political figures ask is whether the people are deserving of this aid. Their answer to people of color was, and has remained, a resounding no.

In this 1899 political cartoon, Uncle Sam disciplines the seemingly unruly new peoples represented by the four racist caricatures of the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. The racial hierarchy of citizenship implied by the cartoonist is quite clear: African Americans are relegated to manual labor, Indigenous people occupy the dunce chair, and Asians are excluded from entry entirely. Louis Dalrymple, “School Begins,” Puck, January 25, 1899, Library of Congress.

Weighing the “worthiness” of those scheduled to receive colonial aid has not changed since 1899. When Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, just as the San Ciriaco hurricane 119 years before, it devastated the island, killing close to 3,000 people again. If anyone thought that Puerto Ricans obtaining legal citizenship in 1917 with the Jones-Shafroth Act would change their circumstances, that belief was misplaced. Neither has Puerto Ricans serving en masse in the U.S. military since World War I. When another hurricane was scheduled to hit the island the following year, instead of assessing the actual need of the people of Puerto Rico, President Trump tweeted out a range of attacks on the island. He called it “one of the most corrupt places on earth” and full of “Crooked pols” (politicians).

If Puerto Rico is corrupt, then the United States has nobody but itself to blame by nominally “granting” Puerto Rico local self-government. Meanwhile, the real legislative power is dispersed through various bureaucratic entities in Washington amongst people who seem to care little, and know even less, about their own governmental powers over the island’s affairs. Depending on the request, a Puerto Rican citizen may need to appeal to one or more of the following: their own insular governor, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Financial Oversight Board, or the U.S. President directly. Clearly, if they cannot navigate this system themselves, it is Puerto Ricans’ own fault for the situation they find themselves in. Their just punishment, for the administration, is conditional aid. Through it all, Donald Trump and his kleptocrats have deflected attention from their own corruption and exploitation of this system.

Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery efforts have proven to be a boon for disparate U.S. governmental actors and business elites seeking to exploit colonial loopholes. For example, the hurricane severely damaged Puerto Rico’s electric grid. To rectify this, the federal government gave a grant to a company named Whitefish Energy Services to rebuild the grid. At the time it received the $300 million contract, Whitefish only had two full-time employees on staff. Furthermore, their previous largest contract was $1.3 million to fix 4.8 miles of transmission lines in Arizona. This was quite the jump up to rebuilding 100 miles of transmission lines in Puerto Rico, for a much larger fee. As if that was not enough, the company bypassed the traditional bidding process for receiving a federal grant in an emergency. Perhaps that atypical bidding process had something to do with the fact that the CEO of Whitefish is a neighbor of former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. This is in addition to the backlogged Congressionally approved recovery funds of almost 20 billion dollars held up by Housing and Urban Development. Even the $331 million that was meant to rebuild military bases on the island was diverted by the Pentagon to the Southern U.S. border wall. The numbers seem staggering and the conflicts of interest innumerable. The rationale seems to be that Puerto Rico remains a site where the U.S elite benefit as the island’s bridges, dams, drinking water, ports, and roads continue to deteriorate past their breaking point. Puerto Rico is a site of material extraction for the U.S. elite, at the expense of the actual people who live there.

Protesters demand the resignation of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló outside of La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion. Photo by Jose Jimenez via CNN.

The avenues for which Puerto Ricans, colonial U.S. citizens, can hold anyone responsible for this corruption are restricted. Former Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló witnessed the mounting frustration of the island populace firsthand. After a series of text messages were released that demonstrated members of Rossello’s cabinet speaking disparagingly of Hurricane Maria victims, the streets flooded with protestors demanding his resignation. Reports noted that up to a third of the island population eventually spilled into the streets, functionally shutting down commerce and movement in Puerto Rico. This mass action forced the ousting of Governor Rosselló.

While Rosselló was held accountable for his failures, the U.S. White House and the Executive Branch whose corruptions are even greater lie outside the reaches of accountability. Despite several hundred thousand Puerto Ricans bringing the island to a standstill, leaders at the U.S. White House, Department of Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency continue to act without regard for Puerto Rico. Would the other two thirds of the island need to protest for anyone in the mainland United States to also be forced into resignation? That is an unanswerable hypothetical. But we do know that there has been no investigation into U.S. federal officials’ comments and responses into a failed disaster relief effort. Instead, in the U.S. mainland, even those on the left were too ready to claim “victory for Puerto Rico” and democratic action after Rosselló.

This brings us back to the inherent tension in calling the impeachment of Ukraine a measure of democratic accountability. Despite the White House blocking key witnesses from testifying and refusing to turn over documentation requested by the U.S. Congress, the President has earned his impeachment. His actions against the Ukraine warrant full investigations. However, similar investigations in relation to Puerto Rico were just as legitimate. They did not occur, nor do they seem likely to come later. To call this impeachment “justice” then is not truth. Justice, or even a show of equity, would require that Puerto Ricans are heard as well. But let me return to the aspect of story-telling.

Impeachment demands a good story and the best stories have villains. The U.S. Oath of Office demands defense against all foes foreign and domestic. The villains of the Ukraine narrative are both domestic (Trump) and foreign (Russia). Protecting the U.S. Constitution from a President who makes decisions for his benefit, while simultaneously empowering an aggressive Russia against a vulnerable Ukraine? That is compelling for hungry U.S. media and the U.S. public. But the villains in the Puerto Rico story are neither foreign nor domestic. Then who would Congress be protecting the U.S. Constitution from? Just natural disasters, institutional neglect, and exploitation. Those are not American villains. That is American exceptionalism. In other words, a century-long ideology of empire written into colonial law operated as intended. Clearly, that is a story for which the U.S. Congress and media had no appetite.

DJ Polite is a PhD Candidate at the University of South Carolina who researches race, empire, and citizenship. His dissertation topic looks primarily at the mutually reinforcing growth of U.S. Jim Crow policies and empire in the Caribbean, particularly in Puerto Rico. It explores the ways that the solidification of both relied on one other and cemented secondary citizenship status for African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and especially women of both groups. DJ also serves on the Southern Historical Association Graduate Council, holds a Gilder Lehrman Research Fellowship, and serves on the Columbia Police Department Citizens’ Advisory Council.

Further Reading

[1] For more, see “‘Foreign in a Domestic Sense’: Hispanic Americans in Congress During the Age of U.S. Colonialism and Global Expansion,” History, Art, and Archives of the United States Representatives, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CDOC-108hdoc225/pdf/GPO-CDOC-108hdoc225-2-3.pdf

[2] Gonzalez v. Williams (1904) is one of several “Insular Cases” that reached the Supreme Court to determine the status of new imperial territories.

[3] Isabel Gonzalez. “According to a Resident the Government of the Island is in Colorado.” New York Times (1857-1922), Apr 23, 1905, https://login.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/docview/96559927?accountid=13965 (accessed December 30, 2019).

[4]Tillman, speaking on H.R. 9080, S6522.

1 comment on “The Colonization of Puerto Rico and the Limits of Impeachment

  1. Lawrence Glinzman

    What a thoughtful and insightful article, and not because you’re a primero. Great job


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