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Where are you going, Puerto Rico?

September 21, 2019


PUERTO Rico’s being in the news recently reminded me of something that happened to me in the 1980s. I was waiting for the orchestra to play the overture and for the curtain to rise at the Metropolitan Opera in New York when a man suddenly ran up the stage to tell the audience to get out because a tear gas canister had been exploded at the back of the auditorium. We, the audience, filed out quietly through the exits he pointed to. After waiting for just over a half-hour in the open air, the ushers called us back and we returned to our seats as quietly as we left them a while ago. The theater staff handled the affair marvelously. We did not smell a whiff of the tear gas at any time that night. The international cast of singers and musicians, including a Jessie Norman on the rise and a Regine Crespin retiring, proceeded to perform gloriously.

The following day, there was buried in the inside pages of the New York Times a small item about the tear gas incident at the Met being the work of guys belonging to the Puerto Rico independence movement.

I doubt that anyone in the audience today remembers that the opening of the opera at the Met that night was delayed nor of the reason for it. In the first place, the show overpowered that little incident. It was Francis Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues des Carmélites,” that most powerful opera about the French Revolution’s chopping by guillotine of the heads of all the nuns of the Carmelite Order. For many nights after watching that opera, one could hear in his inner ear the finale of the opera. The doomed nuns kneel and sing the “Salve Regina” to Poulenc’s music. By order of precedence, starting with the Mother Superior, one by one they stand up and walk to the execution platform, and shortly after each disappears, a loud slicing sound is heard. As the nuns left kneeling keep singing at the same volume level despite their number diminishing, the loud slicing sound is heard at regular intervals, again and again. I would read somewhere that it was actually the amplified beating offstage of a paper cutter.

But probably alone in that audience I remember the incident because I know it was the work of Puerto Ricans, a people whose history at one point was intertwined with that of the Filipinos. Close to the turn of the 19th century, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba, the last remaining colonies of Spain, erupted in nearly simultaneous revolutions against Spanish rule. At first pretending to be an ally helping to liberate them from their repressive colonizer, the United States occupied all three countries to secure markets for its surplus agricultural production. As a country with a democratic and human rights tradition, the US had to justify its colonizing of these countries by portraying their peoples as savages unfit for self-government.

After realizing that the Puerto Ricans were behind the tear gas incident, I wished in fact that they had made a mess of that evening at the Met and a splash in the following day’s newspapers with the asphyxiation to death of some of the well-clad opera-goers that evening!

Gemma Cruz Araneta in her newly published book 50 Years in Hollywood engagingly describes the similar ways American rule started in the three countries. The revolutions in Cuba and Puerto Rico happened a few years before the Philippine Revolution. The Americans applied in the Philippines the same scenario of events that happened in Puerto Rico and Cuba. After the local revolutionaries had gained control over their countries, the Americans engaged the Spaniards in mock battles. The Spaniards surrendered to the Americans who prevented the victorious local revolutionaries from participating in the surrender rites. The three countries were all to be outraged by the Treaty of Paris because Spain thereby ceded to the US countries it no longer owned or controlled.

(Rizal was arrested on his way to Cuba where he had volunteered to serve as a military doctor. If history had taken a different path and Rizal reached Cuba, he could have gotten in touch with Jose Marti, now Cuba’s national hero, or his followers who rushed the Cuban Revolution because, while in exile in the United States, they got wind of the intentions of American expansionists. Might Rizal have warned Aguinaldo about the US’ real intentions?)

The US put Cuba under military occupation for some five years, and then withdrew its troops, leaving the country to its independence, because of the Teller Amendment. When President McKinley asked the US Congress for authority to occupy Cuba, a senator from Colorado had an amendment approved prohibiting the annexation of Cuba because the latter’s sugar would be competing with the former’s. The same circumstance would also be a significant factor in the US’ granting of independence to the Philippines but this would come much later.

The US invaded Puerto Rico, on the other hand, because it could be developed as a market for US sugar. These complementary interests may be the reason why Puerto Rico has lasted the longest as a US territory.

Nationalism is a deeply ingrained character of all three peoples. This was noted by many officials reporting on their stint or travel during the American period in the Philippines. Various Puerto Ricans have sought to win complete independence for their country from the United States.The US quashed those attempts though censorship and repeated jailing of revolutionary leaders.

Maybe because the US recognizes this quality of most of the people and of the usefulness of Puerto Rico as a territory, Puerto Rico has a somewhat ambiguous status. Puerto Rico is a self-governing Commonwealth whose citizens are US citizens who can elect a non-voting representative to the US Congress and vote in presidential primaries, but cannot vote for the US president because Puerto Rico is not part of the Electoral College. Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917 to make them available for the military draft during the First World War. They have been the soldiers of choice to guard the Panama Canal.

Puerto Ricans are in a heated debate among those who support the present Commonwealth status, those who favor full-fledged Puerto Rican statehood, and those who want the island to be an independent nation. After three separate votes in 1967, 1993 and 1998 reaffirmed Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, a majority of residents who voted in a 2012 referendum said they were not satisfied with the status quo and indicated their preferred choice was independence over statehood. A fifth referendum in 2017 ended in a majority vote for statehood, but only 23 percent of voters, a historic low, turned out.

Those who favor statehood may be gaining in number in recent years because Puerto Rico is in an economic crisis as economic growth has slowed and the national debt has rapidly expanded. These economic woes have been compounded by the catastrophic effects of Hurricane “Maria.” Statehood can bring in additional aid from the federal government.

But for the same reason, the US Congress may not be in any rush to support statehood for Puerto Rico. Expect less from President Trump who is not indebted to Puerto Rico because it’s not in the Electoral College and the people are mostly Democrats. This explains his much-criticized delayed response to Hurricane Maria’s tragic aftermath. His joke about trading Puerto Rico for Greenland says much. ‘Tis said nobody in either territory was amused.

Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net


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