The United Nations General Assembly may review the question of Puerto Rico’s colonial status next year, thanks to a resolution passed in June by the Special Committee on Decolonization. The General Assembly has not addressed the issue since 1953, when it approved a U.S.-sponsored proposal to remove the island from its list of colonized nations, following the establishment of its “commonwealth” relationship with the United States. Although the committee has reiterated Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination over the years, it had not formally requested the General Assembly’s review of the issue.
This year’s hearing was different in several important ways, according to Wilma Reverón, president of the Committee for Puerto Rico at the United Nations, a group of independence activists who coordinate presentations at the annual decolonization hearings. Unlike in past years, delegates from numerous Latin American and Caribbean nations—including Saint Lucia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, and especially Cuba and Venezuela, which co-sponsored the resolution—voiced their support for Puerto Rico’s decolonization. Also unprecedented was the attendance of a U.S. delegate who sat up front and listened to all the many presentations. According to Reverón, U.S. delegates in the past have disparagingly observed the hearings from the back of the room.
These new moves may mark a decisive turning point in the long history of efforts to call for the decolonization of Puerto Rico within the United Nations. The island originally appeared in UN files in 1946 in Resolution 66 (1), which described it as a “nonautonomous territory,” thus requiring the United States to submit an annual report on social and economic conditions to the secretary general, as required by Article 73 of the UN Charter. The following year, Ramón Medina Ramírez, interim president of Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico (Pedro Albizu Campos, renowned Nationalist leader, was incarcerated at the time), was accepted as a nongovernmental UN observer, with no right to participate in debates, but this observer position was revoked unilaterally and without explanation after the October 30, 1950, Nationalist uprising in Jayuya, Puerto Rico.
In 1953—largely as a result of U.S. hegemony within the United Nations—Resolution 748 (VII) approved Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, noting that the “Puerto Rican people had exercised their self-determination,” that the country had “achieved attributes of political sovereignty,” and that “the requirement of providing information to the General Assembly will end.” But by 1960, following the Cuban revolution and the admission of 16 decolonized African nations to the UN, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 1514 (XV), which “solemnly proclaims the need to remedy immediately and unconditionally the colonial situation in all its forms and manifestations.” It furthermore declared that “steps must be taken to transfer all the power to all the peoples and all the territories which have not gained their independence.” This led to the creation of what is now known as the Special Decolonization Committee.
Beginning in 1972, this committee issued a series of resolutions calling for Puerto Rico’s case to be reconsidered. The language of the resolutions became more assertive and explicit year after year. In 1978, the committee heard presentations defending independence, continuing the commonwealth, and U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico, and for the first time all parties agreed that a colonial relationship existed and that the status question had to be resolved. The resulting resolution called for “a democratic process which utilizes a mechanism freely chosen by the Puerto Rican people.” The committee also heard testimony of repression and harassment committed against pro-independence organizations and people by the U.S. police forces and intelligence agencies; it concluded that this violated Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence, as described in Resolution 1514.
Thereafter, the case of Puerto Rico remained under the observation of the Special Committee, whose later resolutions reiterated the1978 language. Yet during the 1980s and 1990s, the committee largely suspended Puerto Rico from its agenda, with no review between 1992 and 1998 and no resolutions, despite its declaration in 1990 of the International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (redeclared in 2001). Only after President Clinton’s granting of clemency to 12 Puerto Rican political prisoners in 1999 did the issue reappear. The committee made specific reference to this effect in 2000, noting that it welcomed the prisoners’ release and expressed its hope that the president “would release all Puerto Rican political prisoners serving sentences in United States prisons on cases related to the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico.”
Meanwhile the struggle to rid Vieques, an island municipality of Puerto Rico, of the U.S. Navy reached worldwide attention. The committee again used forceful language in its 2000 resolution, calling on the U.S. government to, among other things, halt its military drills there and to “return the occupied land to the Puerto Rican people.”
Whether the decolonization mandate of Resolution 1514 should be extended to Puerto Rico could be discussed as early as the 2008 General Assembly, but getting the item on the agenda for a vote will take longer. If a vote takes place, the United States will likely win over European countries that maintain territories (in addition to its usual maneuver of attaining the support of developing nations by threatening to cut off their foreign aid), since the passage of such a resolution would set a precedent that other territories could use to push for their own independence, according to Reverón. While a UN resolution in favor of decolonizing would be nonbinding—and the United States has made it clear it is not bound by UN votes—it would mark the first time a majority of nations rejected the United States’ grip on Puerto Rico.
Ana M. López is an adjunct professor in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program and Humanities Department at Hostos Community College, Bronx, New York. Gabriela Reardon is the coordinator of NACLA’s Media Accuracy on Latin America (MALA) program.