From 1493 to 1898, Puerto Rico was a possession of the Spanish Empire. During this extensive time period, Spanish culture had an influential role in the development of a Puerto Rican identity. Such influence was reflected in the island’s economy, jurisprudence, ethnic composition, the political arena, cultural traditions and society as a whole. However, in 1898, an event occurred that would prove be the beginning of a challenging era for Puerto Ricans. As a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States gained possession of Puerto Rico. Although the United States’ culture was not fully incompatible with Puerto Rico’s, such events did create a major sociological and anthropological clash between two dissimilar nations.
On the one hand, was Puerto Rico, which at the time had an agricultural economy based on exports, an Iberian tradition, colonial history and a culturally-diverse society. On the other hand was the United States, known for its industrial sector, expansionist philosophy at the time and a predominantly White Anglo-Saxon society. Public opinion in the United States at the time supported the notion it was the country’s moral obligation to transform Puerto Rico’s Spanish colonial system, which had left the island and its inhabitants in terrible political and socioeconomic conditions. To the United States, it became a matter of whether the laws, social conditions, inspirations and aspirations of one country can successfully be engrafted upon another. As result, since 1898 and until the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1952, the United States had a direct role in assimilating Puerto Rican society to that of the U.S. Scholars in the field label such process of assimilation the americanization of Puerto Rico.
Law, not surprisingly, was a major instrument in the island’s process of americanization. This was the case because it was a sphere whose assimilation to the United States led to powerful and enduring effects. After all, not only were the law and the legal institutions themselves americanized, but they were also instrumentalized to produce a new social reality based on the preferences of its designers. Most scholars agree that the United States utilized law and legal institutions to actually americanize and, in this manner, impose their own laws and traditions into the island. This has led to conflicts with Puerto Rican residents, who feel that democracy is denied to them. Good examples of the American denial of democracy in Puerto Rico are found in the island’s application of the death penalty.
A New York Times article published on 2003 illustrates this, “The Island, it is safe to say, hates capital punishment. It has not had an execution since 1927. It outlawed the practice two years later and wrote this antipathy into its Constitution in 1952, which explicitly states that ‘the death penalty shall not exist.’ That is why a federal trial here, in which the Justice Department is seeking the execution of two men accused of kidnapping and murder, has left many Puerto Ricans baffled and angry.” The President of the Puerto Rican Bar Association at the time said, “although we are talking about some facts that are very gruesome, the people of Puerto Rico do not approve in any way capital punishment. He later said: “How can I explain that my Constitution is not respected by the nation that teaches us how to live in a democracy?” Meanwhile, the Governor of Puerto Rico at the time argued that there must be further reforms in the U.S.-Puerto Rican relationship to end the application of federal laws that infringe “on our autonomy, our culture, our own laws and customs.”
Although the United States has not listened to such petitions, Puerto Ricans have found a way, under the status quo, to make sure that their will is respected. Joel Rivera and Hector Acosta’s trial is a notable example. On a February night in 1998, these two men shot to death and dismembered a grocery store owner in Puerto Rico after kidnapping him and not receiving the one-million dollar ransom they demanded. Later that month, they were arrested and formally accused by federal authorities of the crime under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994. During a press conference, the prosecution assured that it had substantial evidence to convict both men for the crime. However, on July 31, 2003, Rivera and Acosta were acquitted of all charges and released from custody. Why? Well, it was not because the evidence was unreliable. Nor it was because the defendants were mentally insane. They were acquitted for cultural and political reasons. Not only did the Puerto Rican jury have problems understanding the federal legal system, but they also disagreed with its laws.
To this date, not a single Puerto Rican has been executed under federal law. But pro-statehood officials continuously prosecute Puerto Ricans under the Federal Death Penalty Act, knowing that the island’s Constitution — which was drafted by its people — bans capital punishment. Situations such as this one make us reflect on the United States and its policies towards other countries and territories. Although the United States proclaims itself a champion and promoter of democracy, the reality is different. One does not need to go all the way to Iraq to bring democracy when it has been denied to Puerto Ricans for centuries. Although Puerto Rico has “self-government,” the supremacy clause applies to the island — just like in the case of a state of the union. The crucial difference is that even though Puerto Rico is subject to federal law, it has no voting representatives on the U.S. Congress. In other words, they frequently are subject to laws they have not created. Even under U.S. law, this constitutes a violation of the 14th Amendment under the Equal Protection Clause. I believe that, the United States government should revisit this issue, as its policies have become even more out of line with the realities of the 21st century.
Abdiel Ortiz-Carrasquillo is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I Respectfully Dissent appears alternate Fridays this semester.