By Marc Palen
A remarkably underreported vote transpired on Election Tuesday early last month.
No, I am not referring to the reelection of Barack Obama, but to a vote taken on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.
On November 6th a slim majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favour of US statehood in a non-binding referendum that now goes to the US Congress for the first time in the island's more than 100-year history as an American territory.
Puerto Ricans had been given a similar option three times before — in 1967, 1993, and 1998 — but with opposite results.
Why this apparent about face?
Because of a weakening economy, a decreasing population, and because "the current relationship simply does not create the number of jobs that we need," says Puerto Rican Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock.
As it stands, 58 percent of Puerto Ricans now live in the mainland US. Puerto Rico's four-million residents — the 42 per cent remaining on the island — are American citizens but can't vote in American elections.
But all this could change if Puerto Rico becomes the fifty-first state of the Union.
Flashback to the year 1898, and you would witness the US acquisition of a series of colonies — among them, the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico — following America's successful war against the Spanish Empire.
Puerto Rico's ambiguous colonial status was subsequently fleshed out in a 1901 US Supreme Court decision that legalised the burgeoning American Empire.
The Supreme Court's legal decision in Downes v. Bidwell (1901) became the first of the now-infamous Insular Cases. By allowing Republican President William McKinley and Congress to implement protective tariffs upon Puerto Rican goods rather than granting them free access to the American market, the decision decreed that the US Constitution "does not follow the flag."
The Supreme Court's decisions had long-lasting ramifications for American imperialism. The Insular Cases have even played a crucial role in dealing with detainees held in US military detention in Guantanamo Bay after September 11th; and to this day they are still used to deny Puerto Ricans constitutional rights guaranteed to the rest of American citizens.
And so Puerto Rico has remained a phantom limb of the American body politic — not quite an American state, not quite a US colony, and not quite a sovereign nation. "The kind of imperial colonial status created at the turn of the century has never been eradicated," notes Roger Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
It is a problematic position that might easily find sympathy — and historical lessons — within Australia, a nation that has long sought to redefine its relationship with the British Crown. As historians James Curran and Stewart Ward describe in The Unknown Nation: Australia after Empire (2010), since the 1960s the former British colony has itself struggled to uncover a new nationalism in "the wake of empire."
Antipodean lessons abound for Puerto Rico as it sets out to redefine its own century-old colonial status within the American Empire. Especially if Congress undermines last month's vote in favour of statehood, as such a move might very well encourage Puerto Ricans to seek formal independence instead of statehood.
Indeed, sizeable hurdles yet remain.
The biggest impediment will be the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which now gets to determine Puerto Rico's fate.
While President Obama states he is "committed . . . that the question of political status is a matter of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico," it looks very unlikely that Republicans will agree.
Because Puerto Ricans living in the United States overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and the political parties in Puerto Rico invariably are "one shade of Democrat or another," John Hudak of the Brookings Institute points out.
Thus, if Puerto Rico were to become a US state, it would likely mean that the Democrats would gain a half-dozen voting members in the House and — more importantly — two Senators.
One can imagine the reactionary Republican response to such a sizeable political reorientation in favour of the Democratic Party. It is also but a further reminder of the Caribbean territory's long-time subordinate relationship to the United States.
But it is an ambiguous quasi-colonial status quo that could very well change in 2014 if the Democrats take back control of the House and garner a stronger majority in the Senate.
After more than a century of neglect, such a sizeable shakeup of the American political system might finally give Puerto Rico its due attention from an otherwise absentminded empire. In the meantime, the Caribbean isle would do well to look to Australia's imperial legacy for guidance.
This article was originally published by The Australian