Devaluing American democracy
The United States has always prided itself as a beacon of democracy and civil rights. It has advertised this discourse worldwide as a non-negotiable pre-condition to progress and stability. It has served as a potent tool to spearhead denunciations against the legitimacy of the exercise of political power abroad. Democracy has spectacularly helped to propagate the American political system and way of life. Most of these democratic values, particularly the right to political participation, have gained such support that they have attained almost universal recognition as the cornerstones of our human rights system. However, the reality is much murkier.
As some U.S. officials like to state, when people are not paying attention, these values are more aspirational than practical. In essence, it’s a beautiful discourse but irrelevant when it ceases to run parallel to their short-term agendas. For them, in reality, the virtues of democracy are not universal but pliable principles to be judged on a case-by-case basis. This attitude, much more prevalent than what people may think, has sparked a discussion that has recently come to the national forefront due to a complicated election marred by reciprocal denunciations of fraud, legal alterations, and political posturing. However, for the American citizens of Puerto Rico, this is not new. Instead, it is a century-long struggle that has been constantly discussed behind closed doors but publicly, conveniently swept under the rug.
Puerto Rico’s lack of political participation at the federal level had been somewhat easy to ignore because, regardless of the ethical implications of the territorial system, there was not an official repudiation by the people or demand for another political status. However, this drastically changed during the past decade. After two previous plebiscites rejecting the current territorial condition and favoring statehood, on election day, Nov. 3, 2020, the American citizens of Puerto Rico were presented with a question identical to that used by former territories admitted as a state: Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the union as a state? A majority of the people of Puerto Rico supported statehood.
Notwithstanding, a new batch of obstacles is being put forth by officials who either have a fear of change due to speculation regarding national political ramifications of admission or are affiliated to political groups in the island whose preferred option has been consistently rejected by the people.
Regardless of the motives, it is a blatant contradiction to proclaim the virtues of democracy and then work hard to prevent it. Consistency and credibility are intertwined. Political spin should not discredit democracy. The status issue is not a matter of personal loyalties but legitimacy. We, the people of Puerto Rico, have spoken, and our democratic aspirations should be respected. We demand equality, fairness, respect, and full recognition of our rights as American citizens.
Political discourse is only transcendent when it is supported by action. When principles are treated as a catchphrase, they lose their value and become mere propaganda. As stated by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” For more than a century, the U.S. government has given a poor example of the values it preaches to cherish. Congress has a chance of teaching the nation a new lesson in the immutable importance of fundamental civil rights or runs the risk of continuing to devalue American democracy.
José Aponte Hernández is a former Speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives and current member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.