Viewpoint: Benign Colonialism


San Juan, Puerto Rico. This tropical island which Gerald Ford wanted to make the 51st American state holds lessons on the limits of political power and political persuasion.

It is a great place to visit to understand something of why the American experience is special in the way that it is. Puerto Rico is not America. It will never be. The Congress and the President, of course, could make a declaration to the contrary by admitting Puerto Rico to the Union. But that would not fool the Puerto Ricans. The distinction between them and Americans of the apple pie variety is fixed in their language. Their world "norteamericano" means an inhabitant of the US. This establishes a firm contrast with the Latinos who resent residents of the United States monopolizing the word "American." In an ironic sense, the very strength of the distinction between the Puerto Ricans and "Americans" provides an impetus to the drive for statehood. The current Governor was elected on the promise of seeking admission to the Union, and thus ending the stigma of "second class citizenship." Yet nothing the Governor or the Congress is likely to do will change the fundamental habit of thought which encourages Puerto Ricans to see themselves as a class separate from Americans. They can win the vote in Presidential elections. They can subject themselves to US income taxes. (The fools.) They cannot become "norteamericanos."

Many Puerto Ricans are not so carried away with emotion as to miss the advantages of their equivocal status with respect to American citizenship. The freedom from US income taxes reduces what would otherwise be intolerably high living costs. The absence of tariffs in the US on goods imported from Puerto Rico is a heavily featured attraction in advertisements luring Americans here. And should a Puerto Rican wish, he is always eligible to sample the full panoply of benefits and impositions which government has made the birthright of any American. He need only move to the United States proper, and he is automatically a citizen.

Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico on his second voyage in 1493. For more than 400 years thereafter, Puerto Rico was a Spanish colonial backwater. At first, it was part of Mexico. Then it was administered separately, becoming the "rich port" its name suggests. Spanish treasure galleons sailed in and out of San Juan harbor. This caught the attention of generations of English and Dutch pirates and imperialists. Sir Francis Drake attacked San Juan. So did the Duke of Cumberland. And the Dutch West India Company sent a major expedition which was repulsed from the gates of El Morro castle. When American warships steamed into San Juan in 1898 and the castle guns opened fire, Spain was a senile imperialist power. The US government took possession of the reins of power in Puerto Rico. It has retained them ever since.

Over the years, a half-hearted effort has been made to Americanize what is now one of the world's few colonies. The study of English in the schools was made mandatory. Almost 80 years later, however, Puerto Rico is still Spanish. The language is Spanish. The customs are Spanish. The cuisine is Spanish. And the religion is that which the conquistadors brought to the island. In old San Juan, you can walk through street after street and never see a building which was erected after the American takeover. Even the lampposts in many areas still bear foundry markings from Madrid.

There have been many changes in Puerto Rico, to be sure. But the impetus for most of them was social rather than political. The educational bureaucracy could not teach the people to speak English. But the exigencies of commerce could. In the urban areas, almost all tradesmen speak English, not because the government in Washington thinks it's a good idea but so they can communicate well enough to earn a Yankee dollar from the touristos.

Social power works. Political power does not. Or if it works, it works only barely and not nearly so well as its intense advocates suppose. In 80 years, the American government has failed to make the Puerto Ricans speak English. That is because language is one phenomenon which is truly social. It is not under the direct control of any single mind. And any mind which thought it was, would surely be, as the Spanish say, loco. That was one of the insights in Woody Allen's movie "Bananas." In the story a hairy revolutionary comes down out of the hills in fatigues to take charge of some small Latin American country. As his victorious followers are gathered in the Capitol Square and cheering, El Dictator announces his platform. "From now on, the official language…will be Swedish. Underwear will be changed once an hour. It will be worn on the outside, so we can tell.…"

Thankfully, the details of social order are not open to being totally stipulated according to the individual whim of whatever madman happens, at the moment, to hold power. Not even Woody Allen's revolutionary can make Swedish the official language of a Latin country. After 80 years of trying, the US government has succeeded in supplanting Spanish by about the same degree as it has been supplanted in Costa Rica or Mexico. That is to say the effect is just about as far reaching as it would have been if President McKinley had granted Puerto Rico its independence at the end of the Spanish-American War. Given tourism and trade, the people would have learned English anyway.

If the American State had left the Puerto Rican elites to their own devices at the turn of the century and allowed them to form their own independent state, the odds are that the Puerto Rican people would now be living under a much more oppressive, costly, and reactionary government. The average age of a State in the twentieth century is slightly over 30 years. In Latin America, the life expectancy of governments is even lower. If Puerto Rico had been turned loose as was Cuba or the Dominican Republic, the population by this time would probably have suffered under the ravages of three or four unpredictable dictatorships.

As it is, they've had the advantages of colonialism. Those evolve out of the fact that the main seat of power in a colonial government is many thousands of miles away. The farther away the government, the better. The distance not only makes it impractical and unlikely that the major political figures will exercise any direct control, it also makes it unlikely that leading local citizens can exercise any influence over the government. This makes everyone behave. When individuals who would otherwise form the power elite cannot manipulate power, and thus change the rules of social order to their own advantage, they have to be content with living within the rules. This means that people who would otherwise go into politics commit their energies to commercial life instead. Where the legal structure provides free access and opportunity to trade and protects property rights, as has been the case in most American and British colonial efforts, the natives are positively blessed so long as ultimate lawmaking authority rests at home in the imperialist country.

The Puerto Rican economy today is benefitting from the benign neglect of colonialism. Government spending is extremely low by mainland US standards. Duties, tariffs and taxes on many products are nonexistent. Industries locating in Puerto Rico are guaranteed, under some circumstances, that they will be immune to certain taxes for many years to come. These guarantees are worth much more in the current circumstance, where ultimate political authority resides in Washington. If Puerto Rico were an independent nation, the prospects that any government would last long enough to provide meaningful guarantees of commercial freedom would be minimal.

If Puerto Rico were a state, as Gerald Ford proposed, the citizens would be as heavily taxed and as over-governed as those in New York or Massachusetts. The prospects for individuals to prosper in politics would be greatly increased and before long politics would be engrossing everyone's attention.

And that must be bad, from the perspective of any friend of liberty. For as one soon discovers when he steps outside the small circle of intellectually active persons for whom the cause of liberty is important, that cause plays almost no role in the emotional and imaginative life of average people. This is true, even in the continental United States, where the tradition of libertarian sentiment is stronger than perhaps anywhere on earth. In other lands, in Latin countries especially, this tradition is far less viable. Most of the important works of libertarian literature, academic as they are, are not even available in Spanish. Even if they were, one would hardly know how to go about making them an active part of a people's imaginative life. If one wants to know what really interests people and thus will be part of their politics, he looks to their popular, best selling books; their movies, records and other entertainment—even the graffiti written on their walls.

In Puerto Rico I spent days looking at the walls. They are never of a uniform color, having been painted and patched dozens of times over the centuries. Here and there, the modern, pastel colors have chipped away to reveal another century's thoughts. Most could have been written yesterday: Lovers announce their intentions. Visitors proclaim "I was here." And always, there is the symbol of the cross and the legend "Christo Viene." Here and there in modern magic marker is scribbled the hammer and sickle, "Apoya Socialism," or sometimes a stenciled rifle is held in a spray-painted black fist. Other common slogans include "fuera pornografia." Only once did I see the word "libertad." It was written in neon on the marquee of a jeweler's shop.