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Puerto Rico: Statehood or Independence?

Interview with Julio Ricardo Varela.

By Michael BlairPublished 7 years ago 4 min read
The man himself. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to Julio Ricardo Varela, a Puerto Rican political journalist and advocate of a shared agreement approach to the future of the place of his birth and upbringing.

A graduate of Harvard, he was originally interested in Sports Journalism as a career path and contributed to the Boston Globe.

He has since worked on Al Jazeera, a host of other media outlets including The Guardian, and co-hosts "In the Thick", with Maria Hinojosa. He has worked in many parts of the USA but has gone back to live in Boston.

His interest in social media, and especially Twitter, as a method of journalism, came to him quite unexpectedly, as he told me:

"I was tweeting live updates on the progress of the US golfer Tom Watson, as he played the final holes in the 2009 Open Golf championship at Turnberry."

Watson was attempting to be the oldest winner of the Open Championship.

Julio continued,

"I got a message saying not to stop tweeting updates, as the person was in an airport and didn't have access to any other means of keeping up with Watson's progress. At that point I felt like a bulb lit up, and I realised people were connecting with me, and that here was an opportunity to change how journalism worked."

As the founder of in 2011, the largest website of its kind, I asked how digital journalism had impacted his long-held views on the politics of his native Puerto Rico.

"I saw this medium could be used to inform more people about the strange political situation Puerto Rico had found itself after decades of being what is really a colonial outpost of the USA".

Colonial? I asked.

"Yes, but before I expand on that particular word, I'll give you some background to the history of the island and its relationship with the USA.""Puerto Rico has been owned by the United States since 1898, and is considered to be a" territory". This means that the US government has almost absolute power over Puerto Rico. No" territory" of the USA has rights under the constitution, and can make different laws for territories than for states, which makes Puerto Rican people virtually second-class citizens!"

So why, I asked, was the turnout so low (20%) for the recent referendum, when Puerto Rican people are being treated this way?

Julio explains,

"Because different factions within Puerto Rican politics can't agree with each other on the way forward politically."

He added,

"Also the way the the ballot paper was worked, made the vote too uncertain. To have made the vote strictly between Statehood or Independence, would have focused the minds of the voters on the real issues at stake, but to give an option for the status quo, was pointless! The third option for the status quo was added at the last minute and has only muddied the water." "The status quo shouldn't be an option because there are no advantages for Puerto Rico."

I asked why that was the case. Julio continued,

"There are very few advantages to staying what it is, in almost all respects, a colony owned and ruled by the USA".

Michael Blair: Colony? Surely that's harsh?

Julio Ricardo Varela: Yes, I said colony. People might not like the description, but that's the reality. Puerto Rico isn't a State and it isn't an independent country, so yes, we were and still are colonially ruled! "We have no voting rights in the United States. We cannot trade with any nation other than the USA. All goods are shipped into the island by US vessels and we have to pay taxes for the privilege.

So, it is in America's interests financially to keep Puerto Rico as a colony?

Yes. If we were to become the 51st State, we would have many advantages, but it would cost the Federal government of America money it doesn't want to spend, especially given the huge debt Puerto Rico has currently. Plus the debt is making US banks millions in high percentage interest, so there is now great will amongst American politicians, especially the Republicans, to do anything except keep Puerto Rico as it currently exists.

Is there or has there ever been political violence or an independence movement in Puerto Rico, and on what part of the political spectrum are you, Julio?

Ah, good question. I would back independence if there was a political and public appetite for following that route, but I would be seen by some as of the left, but I regard myself as a moderate, somewhere in the centre. As for independence and activism, not so much now, but back in the fifties and sixties, when a revolution was in the air, there was more of a demand for independence. If the idea is floated here, people tend to see it as a sixties thing and imagine a blood on the streets type of revolution to gain independence. But it is becoming more popular now with a younger generation, so time will tell.

Does the USA have a military presence in Puerto Rico?

Not a big presence, only two bases left, but they had many more a few decades ago, when Cuba was their enemy and Puerto Rico was in a strategic position to be useful for American armed forces. One of the most glaring anomalies of the USA/Puerto Rico situation is that while there are over 10,000 Puerto Rican personnel serving across the US armed forces, and they can be conscripted, they have no voting rights in the United States. They can die for the USA but cannot vote. Quite incredible!

So, what are the main reasons stopping Puerto Rico from becoming the next State of the USA?

As I said, mainly the lack of cohesion and understanding amongst the political parties here. And there is the American political situation. They, the US, don't want Puerto Rico to be a financial drain on their resources. The Jones Act, signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917, which has been changed and modified many times, but always to the advantage of the USA, restricts Puerto Rico and all other American "territories" to being only able to have goods delivered by US-made ships filled with US-made goods and crewed by only US citizens. This, as you can imagine, in this day and age, has made trading impossible.

So Julio, what do you think should be done to put pressure on the US government, to grant statehood to Puerto Rico?

Well, I see this as much a human rights issue as a political one. The only way to get to the people who can give statehood to Puerto Rico, Congress and the Republican majority, is to let the world know what is happening to this "territory" of America. We need widespread publicity from all types of media, to highlight the making of second-class citizens of these Stateless US citizens. In the 21st century, this is not what is expected of the most powerful country on the planet and the so-called Land of the Free. Politicians on all sides should be hanging their heads in shame at the lack of will and common sense, in welcoming the positive impact of having Puerto Rico as it's 51st State.

So there we have it. A country which isn't a country. A State which isn't a State, ruled unfairly, as I see it, by the United States for their own benefit. This unjust treatment should be trumpeted around the world, to make America see sense and give Puerto Rico Statehood.


About the Creator

Michael Blair

I'm a medically retired grumpy Scotsman with a good sense of the ridiculous. I write some political satire and some more serious pieces. I'm here to wake people up!

On twitter I'm @mmjblair and email me at [email protected]

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