By Zoilo Torres (September 19, 2014)
Though it’s disappointing that the Scottish independence “yes” vote lost by 10% in the Thursday’s referendum, it is a process with which progressive, pro-independence Puerto Rican political activists should become familiar. The 45 percent of the popular vote that the Scottish National Party garnered for national independence makes it a force with which the British will have to contend as the Scots demand expanded freedoms. The Scots taught us that a clear and viable message, intense organizing, and a keen understanding of community are grounds on which the future can be built.
Since the U.S. military invasion in 1898, the Puerto Rican voters on the island have partivipated in four status referenda purportedly to advise the U.S. Congress and President on the island’s preferred political relation to the United States. All these consultations, however, have been marred by historical circumstances: voter boycotts, unclear language, and confusing processes. The first status referendum in 1967, for example, came on the heels of a decade of political violence. This reality has rendered dubious outcomes that thwarted rather than assisted the free expression of self-determination.
One novel aspect of the Scottish referendum was the simplicity of the question put to the voters: “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or No.” Such simplicity is unheard of in past Puerto Rico referenda, particularly the last one in November 2012. In that year, a one-part question was followed by a two-part question, the latter being boycotted by over 400,000 voters.
The use of fear and self-doubt as political tools by Britain and its allies among Scottish voters are tactics to which Puerto Ricans have also been subjected. Fear of the loss of jobs, financial security and public services would most certainly weigh heavily on workers looking for an alternative to an already crisis-ridden situation elites have created. Unless you are a political activist seeking social change, why would you not want to find consolation in the security of the status quo?
This is of particular interest to me and many other Puerto Ricans like me who were born and raised in New York City after the Puerto Rican Diaspora of the mid-1940s. Many of us still visit family in Puerto Rico and may someday want to live there. Not dissimilar to the latest Puerto Rican population shift, that massive migration can in many ways be connected to U.S. colonialist policies. These policies affect the island’s economic development, shipping rights and international trade, among other things. If we can’t attain independence because of historical circumstances then we should look to expanding our power over our immediate conditions, like the Scots have managed to do.
I have no doubt that some Puerto Ricans, like the rest of the world, are closely following developments in Scotland. They may carry lessons for our own decolonization.
Zoilo Torres is a field representative for the union, 32BJ SEIU, He was formerly director of organizing and advocacy for the Fifth Avenue Committee for Community Development, and director of public health campaigns for the NYC Department of Health. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.