“American rule has not yet made our new colonies as perfect as some people would have us believe,” begins an article in theSacred Heart Review from 1903.
The article, transcribed below, concerns a hospital for sufferers from leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Whatever the details of the scandal, the first sentence holds a message for us about the way people on the mainland saw Puerto Rico at that time.
First, like many documents from the early years of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, the newspaper is not shy about calling Puerto Rico a colony. Today, Puerto Rico is remains a colony, often called a territory, but many people uncomfortable with those terms prefer to call the island a“Commonwealth” – a label that has brought about significant confusion. Second, the writer gives us a glimpse of how enthusiastic “some people” were about the beautiful new territories — and thus shows that others were not.
Leper Colony Scandal in Porto Rico.
American rule has not yet made our new colonies as perfect as some people would have us believe. The latest scandal reported from Porto Rico is certainly grave enough to warrant immediate action on the part of the authorities. It concerns the leper hospital or colony at the entrance of San Juan harbor and was called to the attention of Acting-Governor Hartzell by Senor Goenaga, of the board of charities. His report revealed what is described in the newspapers as a horrible and dangerous state of affairs. It appears that chickens and pigs raised by lepers have been freely sold in the city of San Juan, and goats, rabbits, poultry and dogs have been herded in the patients’ quarters in indescribable filth. Some of the lepers have no clothing. Intercourse between the leper colony and the mainland has been permitted. An old man, who is not a leper, has been confined in the colony for years. No physicians’ books or financial books showing the state of the patients’ funds are kept. B. 11. Osterhoudt, who is said to be a director of charities of San Juan, and who is at present in Poughkeepsie, N. V., is reported by the Sun to have denied the charges made against the management of the leper colony.
C. Berry-Caban has written a thorough discussion of the leprosy hospital on Isla de Cabras, the Lazareto de Isla de Cabras. Leprosy was reported in Puerto Rico as early as the 1700s, and continued to be a public health issue into the 20th century. A 1914 report from the Governor of Puerto Rico mentioned the then-new idea of treating Hansen’s disease patients outside of leper colonies, but rejected it, saying, “The disease is such a horrible one and up till the present time is recognized as so incurable that in my opinion the government would be justified in taking any steps whatsoever that might be necessary to avoid the possibility of transmission of the disease to a well person.” Accordingly, government officers actively sought out sufferers of the disease and confined them until diagnosis was confirmed. It is this attitude and approach that probably explains why, when the Lazareto was made uninhabitable by hurricanes, the inmates were moved to a special building at the jail.
Other documents exist supporting the claim that the condition of the leprosy hospital in Puerto Rico was a scandal. But the tone of the article reflects the Imperialist vs. Anti-Imperialist conflict of the time in the United States. Some saw the new possessions as an opportunity for the United States, at the time nothing like a world power, to build an empire. Others were opposed, either on grounds which to modern ears sound like mere racism or because the United States was supposed to be a beacon of freedom and democracy.
Mark Twain may have expressed the conflict best in his remarks in the New York Herald, October 15, 1900:
I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with he Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do
I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which had addressed ourselves. But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. . .
It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
Because statehood decisively won the status vote in 2012, Puerto Rico’s two local anti-statehood parties are seeking to delegitimize the last referendum. History and international law support those who argue that the statehood party should concede nothing to the revisionists who would deconstruct a valid act of self-determination, in which the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico freely expressed their wishes in a fully informed and democratic manner.
The combined tactics of the parties favoring independence and status quoaimed at discrediting the 2012 vote are a frontal assault on referendum results certified by the duly-constituted Puerto Rico Elections Commission. Yet, history shows that the 2012 status vote was an act of self-determination more authoritative and definitive than many of the votes leading in the past to admission of territories to the union.
The 2012 vote met all federal and international legal criteria for a valid act of self-determination. The moral credibility of our nation’s condemnation of Russia for the controversial and hastily conducted vote in Crimea is undermined if we fail to honor the 2012 status vote in Puerto Rico, which was an orderly and fair process with high participation that was voluntary and free of coercion.
Contrary to rhetorical contentions by local anti-statehood factions in the territory, the 2012 referendum was not conducted in a local political vacuum outside the reach of federal law. Indeed, in 1952 the U.S. Congress amended and ratified the Constitution in Puerto Rico and authorized its entry into force based on congressionally mandated revisions. The 2012 vote was conducted pursuant to the authority of the local government conferred by Congress when it approved the local constitution.
While obviously the issue of territorial relations with Washington is not exclusively a local issue, it also is not exclusively a federal issue. The 1952 constitution gives the local government sufficient authority to authorize a vote enabling the U.S. citizens of the territory to inform Congress of their freely expressed wishes. This local capacity to conduct a status vote was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in S. Res. 279 (Sept. 17, 1998), recognizing but unfortunately failing to act on petitions by the local Legislative Assembly for a federally sponsored status resolution process leading to full self-government.
Thus, the 2012 vote was an orderly act of self-determination conducted consistent with and subject to federal law, and there is no historical or legal basis for disputing the certified results. In particular, the idea that another vote is needed because blank ballots should count against statehood has no support in U.S. or international election law.
Indeed, the state of Washington was admitted to the union based on self-determination process that included a referendum in which a large percentage of blank ballots were not counted, for the very reason that non-votes do not express the ascertainable will of the voters. Similarly, in 1984 the United Nations did not assign any legal meaning to a high percentage of blank ballots in the referendum to ratify the treaty of free association resolving the status of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
Of course, the anti-statehood parties in Puerto Rico did not rely on interpretation of blank ballots in respect of 1993 and 1998 locally controlled status votes in which the current status narrowly out-polled statehood, even though neither received a majority. After those earlier votes Congress and the White House recognized the need for ballot language that does not promote legally impossible status doctrines, thereby preventing a majority for a valid option.
The 2012 vote meets the criteria recognized by Congress and the White House for a valid act of self-determination based on the real options. Thus, if the anti-statehood parties obstruct further self-determination authorized by Congress, the 2012 will stand as the most recent and only legitimate and legally sufficient expression of the will of the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.
*The author served as lead counsel in the White House National Security Council and provided advice and counsel on territorial status affairs during the Reagan administration. The views expressed above are his personal opinions only and do not necessarily represent the views of the Puerto Rico Report. This is the second in a three-day series of articles.
Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government and statehood party president, Pedro Pierluisi, has said that the first law he will sign if elected governor… Read More
U.S. Senator Brian Schatz yesterday sponsored the Senate bill to require the president of the United States to propose a plan to make Puerto Rico… Read More
A forthcoming article by Willie Santana in the Spring 2014 issue of the Tennessee Journal of Law & Policy examines Puerto Rico’s relationship with the… Read More
Puerto Rico’s territorial government receives less money in competitive Federal grants than the governments of any of the States although the territory is home to… Read More
“American rule has not yet made our new colonies as perfect as some people would have us believe,” begins an article in the Sacred Heart…Read More
Puerto Rico’s statehood party went to court today to force the insular Elections Commission to act on the Federal authorization for a plebiscite on the… Read More
The “Commonwealth” party president of Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission this week acted to prevent insular voters from choosing what the territory’s ultimate political status should be under… Read More
The chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has become the 131st member of the U.S. House of Representatives to sponsor a bill committing to statehood… Read More
Puerto Rico’s Department of Education has announced a plan to close 100 schools. The numbers of people leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland and the… Read More
The first military unit in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was established on March 2, 1899, less than a year after the July 25,… Read More