BY BRIAN TAYLOR
UNITED NATIONS - After hearing testimony from pro- independence and other groups August 10-11, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization voted to approve a resolution, sponsored by Cuba, supporting the right of Puerto Rico to self-determination, including independence.
In submitting the resolution, Rafael Dausá, who is the deputy permanent representative of Cuba to the United Nations, explained, "Cuba believes it is an unavoidable duty of this committee to denounce the situation faced by Puerto Rico and the continuing effort to ignore the inalienable right of this sister nation to its self-determination and independence" (see statement on facing page).
The commission's decision is "an extraordinary triumph for Puerto Rican independence, given that it's been seven years since the committee approved a resolution on this question," said Fernando Martín, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. "They have postponed it year after year."
This year 10 governments voted for the resolution, with zero against and six abstentions. In addition, the representative of Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) missed the vote and later asked that their vote in favor be counted. The representatives of Russia and Venezuela were among those who abstained from the vote, saying that the committee should not issue a resolution on Puerto Rico's status because a plebiscite is projected there in coming months. The findings of the Special Committee will be presented to the next UN General Assembly.
Unlike previous years, UN officials closed the visitor's gallery to the public during the committee hearings.
A U.S. government spokesperson responded to the Special Committee decision saying Washington does not recognize UN jurisdiction on matters regarding Puerto Rico. Major U.S. newspapers chose not to report the UN Special Committee's decision.
Of the more than 30 delegates who spoke at the hearing, the majority were pro-independence. Some called for Puerto Rico to become the 51st U.S. state and a few defended the existing "commonwealth" status. Nearly every speaker described Puerto Rico's current status as that of a colony, offering divergent solutions to this problem.
Significance of telephone strike
A few speakers referred to the significance of the telephone workers' strike against the sell-off of the government-run company. "In the past months, our people have opened an extraordinary fight in the streets in defense of our national patrimony and against privatization," stated Julio Muriente, president of the New Movement for Puerto Rican Independence (NMIP). "The government has responded with repression and police brutality.... The strike of the people led by the telephone workers shook Puerto Rico with an impressive, national two-day strike, unmasking the treacherous and anti- national character of the colonial administration."
"We call your attention to the U.S. military presence in Puerto Rico," said Eunice Santana, a leader of the World Council of Churches. She underlined the "deteriorating quality of life" for Puerto Ricans in Vieques, where the United States Navy is expanding its operations. "Since 1972 they have had knowledge of the presence of toxic and carcinogenic contaminants."
Under the pretext of fighting drug trafficking, the U.S. Navy plans to build radar installations, which emit harmful electromagnetic rays, in Vieques and the southern town of Juana Díaz. Vieques residents have a 26 percent higher rate of cancer than inhabitants of the rest of the island, Santana pointed out. Puerto Ricans are denied access to beaches, fishing areas, and cultivable land in Vieques, and "the ecosystems are altered and destroyed, putting in danger the marine life, plant and animal life, and the future of the inhabitants for generations to come."
Vanessa Ramos of the American Association of Jurists asked how it is possible to carry out a process of real self- determination "with the intimidating presence of the FBI and other U.S. police agencies, surrounded by active military bases and operations all over the island? This is not a process of self-determination. It is a flagrant violation of the fundamental human rights of a people...that continue to stand and fight.
Other speakers who petitioned for independence included Lolita Lebrón, who commanded a group of four Nationalists that carried out an armed action on the U.S. Congress in 1954 and spent a quarter century in U.S. prisons; Juan Mari Bra's, a longtime leader of the movement for independence; Manuel Fermín Arraiza, president of the Lawyer's Guild of Puerto Rico; Jorge Farinacci of the Socialist Front of Puerto Rico; Olga Rodríguez of the Socialist Workers Party (see statement on facing page); and others.
A number of the pro-statehood speakers began their remarks by offering examples of the colonial status of Puerto Rico, but argued that statehood would rectify the island's second-class status.
Fernando Escabí Méndez, 24, who came as part of the pro- statehood delegation, described himself as "a citizen with no vote...[on] an island where the concept of sovereignty is vague at best." He gave a scathing account of Washington's colonial exploitation and domination of the island. He then said that becoming a state would give Puerto Rico greater representation in the U.S. government.
Escabí complained that not all U.S. politicians want Puerto Rico as a state. "Unfortunately, some regressive lawmakers still resist to sponsor this process because of biased views about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. For instance the noted U.S. Representative of Connecticut, Republican Nancy Johnson, recently said to a delegation of Puerto Rican leaders that the United States is a melting pot and that Puerto Ricans have failed to melt."
A few of the speakers present at the Special Commission proceedings supported Puerto Rico's current status. Carlos Vizcarrondo Irizarry of the Popular Democratic Party defended the commonwealth status, arguing that previously held plebiscites, which usually have yielded a majority of votes for commonwealth, reflect an autonomous decision by Puerto Rican people. He opposed statehood status because it would strip Puerto Ricans of their national identity
Debate on plebiscite
Some of the speakers supported a plebiscite on Puerto Rico's status. One such initiative is the Young Bill, introduced into the U.S. Congress by Rep. Donald Young, which calls for a referendum on Puerto Rico's political status to be held by Dec. 31, 1998. That bill has also been backed by the ruling New Progressive Party, led by Puerto Rican governor Pedro Rosselló. The bill would give U.S. Congress the authority, among other things, to expand English-language requirements on the island.
Pro-statehood governor Rosselló, frustrated by the fact that the bill has stalled in Congress, has also been pushing for a local referendum, which was just agreed to in Puerto Rico's House of Representatives August 12. If approved in the island's Senate, the vote will probably take place in December. The results will be nonbinding on the U.S. government. The Rosselló administration has been pushing to get four voting options in the referendum, a change from the three usual categories of statehood, independence, or commonwealth. The new "free association" category, a form of commonwealth supposedly offering more autonomy, further fractures those opposed to statehood, potentially giving the statehood forces a majority vote.
Marisol Corretjer, representing the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, said, "One hundred years ago the United States invaded Puerto Rico, our national territory. And still, in 1998 they are playing with our sovereignty in the Congress of this empire with the Young Bill.... This project is not valid because they must hand over all [state] power to the people of Puerto Rico and then we can sit down and talk about a plebiscite."
Wilma Reverón Collazo, leader of the Hostos National Congress, an umbrella group of a dozen pro-independence organizations and nonaffiliated independentistas, said, "The U.S. government has always been a magician in the art of appearances.... While they draw up papers, bills, and discussions regarding Puerto Rico's right to self-determination and its own government, they violate each and every one of the principles recognized as necessary in any self-determination process."
Free Puerto Rican political prisoners
Several speakers at the UN meeting, as part of their testimony, demanded the release of the 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners in U.S. jails. Ana López, coordinator of the New York chapter of the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and Political Prisoners, told the UN Committee, "It is evident that the continuous imprisonment of these Puerto Rican men and women continues to violate all international human rights laws.
"Their sentences are disproportionately longer than those given to people convicted of the most heinous offenses; their sentences ranged from 35 to 90 years. Most," she continued, "have served more than 18 years, or three times as long as the average time served to people convicted of homicide. And they continue to be subjected to inhumane prison conditions, which violate basic human rights. López pointed to the wide ranging support for the release of the prisoners including 11 Nobel prize winners, several U.S. Congresspersons, and Puerto Rican elected officials on state and federal levels.
Benjamín Vélez, representing Pro-Libertad, issued a written statement calling for the release of the prisoners. The statement highlighted the case of Oscar López, a political prisoner held in Marion "prison from 1986 to 1994, during the period when the prison was scrutinized and widely condemned by human rights organizations in the U.S. and internationally." The testimony described the conditions López faced in solitary confinement, locked up in an 8 ft. wide by 9 ft. long cell - for an average of 22 hours a day and for several days." Vélez said that after a long fight to get López out of Marion after being placed there again, "I am exuberant to announce that...López was taken out of Marion last Thursday, August 6," and is being transferred to a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he will be in the general prison population.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home