The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Puerto Rican Independence
JIM LEHRER: Good evening. The issue of how Puerto Rico should be governed raised its stormy head again today, this time at the United Nations. A U.N. Committee on Decolonization met this after noon to hear reports and then take testimony from witnesses on the political status of the Caribbean island, a U.S. possession for seventy-eight years, the last twenty-five as a U.S. commonwealth. The committee, pushed by Cuba and various third world nations, may pass some kind of formal resolution on the subject that would go to the full U.N. General Assembly this fall.
The U.N. activity comes at a time when the issue is still fresh in many American minds, particularly New Yorkers.. It was just eleven days ago that a series of bombs went off in New York City, killing one person, injuring seven and causing thousands to evacuate office buildings in Manhattan. An independence-for-Puerto-Rico terrorist group claimed responsibility for the bombings, as they have for more than fifty others over the last three years in New York and Chicago.
Tonight, with an extensive interview with the Governor of Puerto Rico, an examination of what`s involved in this continuing Puerto Rico story. Robert MacNeil is on vacation, and sitting in in New York is
Linda O`Bryon of Public Station WPBT, Miami, Florida. Linda?
LINDA O`BRYON: Jim, the U.N.`s concern with Puerto Rican independence dates from 1960, when it passed Resolution 1514. Some third world countries hailed 1514 as the Magna Carta of decolonization. In brief, the resolution called for immediate steps to transfer power to the people of all territories which had not yet attained independence. In 1961 a special Decolonization Committee was formed to implement the resolution.
But the question of whether Resolution 1514 applied to Puerto Rico was and still is disputed by the United States. The U.S. says that Puerto Rico is not a territory nor a colony, but rather a self governing commonwealth freely associated with the United States, and furthermore that the U.N. had no business interfering with the status of Puerto Rico, which ultimately should be decided by the people of Puerto Rico.
One man who has been watching these and other developments for more than twenty-three years is Bill Otis, U.N. correspondent for the Associated Press. Mr. Otis, the issue of Decolonization Committee and Puerto Rican independence has been with us for several years. What exactly is the committee doing this week?
BILL OTIS: The committee is discussing a report on what`s happened in regard to Puerto Rico since 1974. This report was put together by the rapporteur of the committee, Syrian delegate Sami Glayel, in response to a decision that the committee made last year. And the committee has three days to talk about the report and listen to witnesses and come to some decision.
O`BRYON: What are some of the highlights of that report?
OTIS: Well, it`s a factual report simply reviewing political developments in Puerto Rico, but the significance of it in respect to the present debate is that it compares the percentages obtained by various parties in the last two general elections in Puerto Rico; and these comparisons show that while the pro-independence groups in Puerto Rico have gained considerable strength between the two elections, their total strength among the electorate is less than seven percent, as against the pro-statehood and the pro-commonwealth parties.
O`BRYON: How was this report compiled?
OTIS: It was compiled out of information from delegations, from the press, official reports on the elections and things like that.
O`BRYON: The Decolonization Committee -- what exact powers does it have and what would be the next step, if it makes some type of resolution concerning independence, for Puerto Rico?
OTIS: This committee can make recommendations to the General Assembly as to what should happen in particular territories, and the Assembly then can, on the basis of these recommendations, make similar recommendations of its own. And from there on it`s up to the administering powers in the territories whether they abide by these recommendations or not.
O`BRYON: If it should call for independence, would that call be binding on the United States?
OTIS: It would be a recommendation only.
O`BRYON: All right. What is the makeup and the mood of the committee at this point?
OTIS: Well, I don`t know. I haven`t talked to enough people on the committee.
O`BRYON: Who makes up the committee? What countries?
OTIS: The committee is made up of twenty-four different countries from all sections. It`s heavier, naturally, in African and Asian and Latin American countries because they make up the major ity of the membership, but it has some western countries -- for example, Australia -- on it.
O`BRYON: But does there seem to be a leaning toward independence or commonwealth status or statehood?
OTIS: It varies from year to year. In 1972 and 1973 the committee adopted resolutions saying that the Puerto Ricans should have self determination and independence, and thereby implying that they hadn`t had self- determination. And then later on, in 1975, a similar resolution, considerably broader, was submitted, but this resolution was not adopted; it was put off till the following year, when it was forgotten.
O`BRYON: At that time it was reported that the United States had implied certain threats on the member nations of withholding economic aid or other such favors if indeed a resolution for independence would be passed. Is there any indication that that`s happening now?
OTIS: No. I was told that the United States is not putting on a pressure campaign this time.
O`BRYON: What about the Cuban government?
OTIS: I don`t know what the Cuban position is. There is some speculation that Cuba is not so eager to get into this this time because of improving relations with the United States, but I can`t swear to that.
O`BRYON: Okay. We`ll get back to that issue. Thank you, Mr. Otis. Jim?
LEHRER: The political options for Puerto Rico are basically three: continuing the commonwealth arrangement; statehood as the fifty-first state of the United States; and full independence. Before going on vacation Robert MacNeil discussed these three options and the impending U.N. discussion with the current Puerto Rico Governor, Carlos Romero Barcelo. The Governor was visiting in New York at the time, and here is an edited, videotaped portion of that interview.
(Recorded August 2, 1977.)
ROBERT MacNEIL: What would your own personal answer be to those people in the United Nations who are pushing for independence? What would you tell them if you had an opportunity?
CARLOS ROMERO BARCELO, Governor of Puerto Rico: That they`re intervening in our internal affairs, that they`re meddling with our internal affairs. And it`s our own decision; the people of Puerto Rico should decide when, how we`re going to change our status, and it`s up to us. We have the constitutional means and the legal means to do it, and we have the freedom of choice and the free elections and the participation in the elections like very few jurisdictions or political areas in this world have.
MacNEIL: There`s been a lot of evidence in the past that Fidel Castro had ties to the people who were pushing for independence, or some of them, in Puerto Rico. Is that still the case, from the evidence available to you, or is Mr. Castro easing off a little bit because his relations with Washington are improving?
ROMERO BARCELO: Well, we won`t know how that is going to ease off or not until the case comes up before the United Nations and is finally discussed. But at this moment the Independence Party of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, has no ties to Castro. The Puerto Rico Socialist Party, which is a communist party, has ties to Castro. But the Socialist Party did not even get enough votes to stay registered as a party. The Independence Party got about six percent of the vote, the communist party - Puerto Rico Socialist Party -- got about one percent of the vote.
MacNEIL: Do you have any evidence from your own sort of internal intelligence that the Cubans have been, so to speak, stirring it up in Puerto Rico recently or have not been doing that?
ROMERO BARCELO: We find less stirring it up at this moment than there has been in the past.
ROMERO BARCELO: Yes. At least, we perceive it less.
MacNEIL: You perceive it less. Do you attribute that to his improving relations or a desire to improve relations with the United States?
ROMERO BARCELO: I would hate to make some kind of a decision yet, because it could be that sometimes you have the calm before the storm; sometimes people are making preparations and you don`t hear anything, and then something happens. So we really don`t know at this point. All we know is that the outward activities have calmed down.
MacNEIL: I see. You personally support -- and ran on a ticket when you became Governor last year -of statehood for Puerto Rico. Just before he left office President Ford surprised everyone by himself coming out for statehood. What prospects do you see of achieving a statehood under the Carter administration?
ROMERO BARCELO: Let me explain that even though a party advocates statehood, we ran on the issue -economic and social issues for the election, and I made it clear that even though we understand statehood is the best solution to our status dilemma we would dedicate all our efforts and resources during this four-year term to put Puerto Rico back on the tracks to progress and to economic development, so that we will not be pushing for a plebiscite or a referendum vote during these four years. Now, the possibilities for statehood or for change these four years are very small because of our decision not to pursue it.
MacNEIL: Not to push, yes. Do you believe that in the long term the present status, the commonwealth status, is doomed?
ROMERO BARCELO: I have no doubts about it. I think there are definite signs of it, I think it`s reached the end of the road; I think that the status has served Puerto Rico to develop to a certain point. Now we need to make these final decisions and we need to make the decision are we going to completely integrate the economy within the federal economy or are we going to go our own way? There are obstacles to growth now, and the people of Puerto Rico are not receiving -- the people that need it, the needy people, the poor people -- are not receiving the full benefits of federal programs so that a few can benefit by not paying federal income taxes.
MacNEIL: Because at the moment Puerto Rican citizens are not obliged to pay U.S. income tax.
ROMERO BARCELO: Yes, but if we were a state...
MacNEIL: You would be.
ROMERO BARCELO: ...between sixty and seventy percent would not have to pay taxes.
MacNEIL: Because of their economic level.
ROMERO BARCELO: Because of their economic level. So there are only about from thirty to thirty-five percent of us that would be paying taxes.
And the benefits that we would receive for medical services, for social programs, for education would more than overcome whatever payments were made to the Treasury as far as help to the government and the people of Puerto Rico.
MacNEIL: Why would statehood be any more successful in solving Puerto Rico`s considerable economic problems than independence?
ROMERO BARCELO: Well, let me put it this way: Puerto Rico has a density of population of over 900 people per square mile. Up to now we have had no mineral resources, except now some copper and nickel is to be found in Puerto Rico; we have not exploited yet because of ecological problems. There`s also most probably some oil off the north shores of Puerto Rico, but that`s still not developed. So without any mineral resources and with such a dense population, Puerto Rico has come up in thirty or forty years from the Caribbean poorhouse. We had so much poverty in Puerto Rico we were then poorer, had more unemployment, more poverty, more famine, more hunger than Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba -- than any other area in the Caribbean. Yet we are now the Spanish-speaking political jurisdiction or country with the highest per capita income in the world.
How did we achieve that in such a short time? What has been different between Puerto Rico and these other areas? Well, in the first place, the desire of the people of Puerto Rico to improve themselves and to better themselves, and the desire to give their children more than they have received and to have their children better educated so that they can have a better means to provide for themselves. But that would be insufficient if we didn`t have the means to do it, just like the best athlete in the world, if he wants to jump fifteen feet, no matter how determined he is he won`t be able to do it. But if he takes a pole vault and he learns how to use it, he`ll make it. Where was Puerto Rico`s pole vault that other countries have not had? I think the federal funds to build public housing, to build roads, to build airports, improve our port facilities, to build hospitals, schools, to help us train our people -- these have been the tools that have helped us improve our economic development, plus the industrialization program of Puerto Rico, which could not have come about had this other aid to the infrastructure of Puerto Rico not been available.
MacNEIL: I see. There are those who claim, as you know very well, that Puerto Rico`s economic problems are essentially structural and that neither statehood nor the continued commonwealth status are really going to solve them, that only independence will get rid of that structure, which they claim is largely based on the profitability for certain large U.S. corporations in Puerto Rico, which people of your country do not benefit from.
ROMERO BARCELO: We`re changing that, in the first place. I have advocated that we cannot keep on giving income tax exemptions to corporations and that we have to have a transition period whereby the new corporations that come to Puerto Rico will have to start paying taxes so that the government will have the resources to further help the people of Puerto Rico. When you talk about whether Puerto Rico would be better off with independence or not, you have to compare Puerto Rico with other countries. We were poor -- very poor. We`re still poor, but we`re better off than these other countries.
MacNEIL: You`ve said that as Governor you will ask the United States Congress once for full statehood and that if they say no, then you yourself would opt for independence. Now, if you believe, yourself, that independence is thus an alternative, why don`t you just go for it directly rather than go through the great difficulty of asking the Congress for statehood?
ROMERO BARCELO: In the first place, I didn`t say "once."
MacNEIL: I thought you said one single request.
ROMERO BARCELO: No, I didn`t put any limit on the number of times and I didn`t say it was once or twice -- I just didn`t mention any number, and I never have. All I said is that if statehood is denied to Puerto Rico, then that will mean that we as fellow citizens were not accepted as equals in the nation, so how could I wish or expect to remain being a citizen of a nation where my fellow citizens do not accept me as equal? Therefore I would have to opt for independence. I think that people must also have dignity, and-that is why I say independence is the other alternative. To remain as we are, as a commonwealth, where we keep on coming here to ask and ask -- ask for this program, ask for this concession to Puerto Rico, ask for this favor to Puerto Rico -- instead of demanding our rights as a state: you can accept it as a transition for an interim period, but you cannot accept it as definite.
I think Puerto Rico as a state has to maintain its culture and its language and has to strengthen it, at the same time that we also strengthen the teaching of English so that we also become truly bilingual, to be able to also help the nation reach a friendly arm towards Latin America and have better understanding. Puerto Rico as a commonwealth cannot help bridge that understanding with Latin America because we`re looked upon as second-class citizens in our actual situation; we`re looked upon as the lackeys of the imperialist Yankees.
MacNEIL: You`re looked upon as a colony, as colonial people. Do you believe that the present status is in effect a colonial situation?
ROMERO BARCELO: Not exactly "colony" in the way it is thought to be, but at least we have colonial vestiges, is the least we can say. And why do I say we have colonial vestiges? Because we are full-fledged citizens in every sense of the word -I would if I moved to any one of the states of the Union -- but in Puerto Rico we`re deprived of having our political rights.
MacNEIL: You can`t vote in federal elections and you don`t have a voting representative in Congress.
ROMERO BARCELO: Nor senators.
MacNEIL: Nor senators.
ROMERO BARCELO: And if we were a state we would have more representation than twenty-five of the fifty states of the Union.
MacNEIL: You supported President Ford`s election.
ROMERO BARCELO: I did.
MacNEIL: Are you now getting what you would regard as adequate cooperation and sympathy from the Carter administration?
ROMERO BARCELO: So far, yes. Just about every time that we`ve had any contact with the Carter administration they have been very helpful, very cooperative.
MacNEIL: As you said, everybody thinks there`s a strong probability of oil being off the north coast of Puerto Rico on the continental shelf. If you were a state you would only command up to three miles beyond your shoreline. You have asked the United States government to recognize your jurisdiction to ten and a half miles, I understand.
ROMERO BARCELO: That is correct.
MacNEIL: That`s in the special case of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth. If you become a state, wouldn`t you be reduced to three miles that most of the United States states have?
ROMERO BARCELO: No. Because the same reason that the west coast of Florida has the three marine leagues, at 10.35 miles, and the coast of Texas gives Texas the same jurisdiction, that would be the same reason that we`re asking for those 10.35 miles, or the three marine leagues. Because that`s what the jurisdiction during Spanish times used to be, and that is the reason behind our request.
MacNEIL: I see.
ROMERO BARCELO: So as a state we will maintain it, the same way Texas has it and the same way the west coast of Florida has it.
MacNEIL: But any oil found beyond that, if you were a state, would belong to the federal government.
ROMERO BARCELO: Yes, but in the north coast of Puerto Rico nobody`s going to be tackling any oil beyond that because the depths are so great beyond those ten miles that it`s just too much to dig. The deepest waters in the world are right in the north coast of Puerto Rico.
MacNEIL: And finally, to come back to the United Nations situation, have you spoken to Ambassador Young about this forthcoming intervention by the United Nations?
ROMERO BARCELO: Yes, we have, and I have told Ambassador Young that our position is that Puerto Rico has a right to self-determination; and we not only have the right, we have the constitutional authority and the legal means and the democratic means to do it. And once Puerto Rico decides, and when we decide to change, then we`ll request Congress and I feel confident that Congress and the President will support us, as has been already stated.
MacNEIL: Would you prefer the United States to get up and -- supposing this reaches the General Assembly -- to get up and make a strong statement, or would you prefer them just to ignore the whole issue?
ROMERO BARCELO: It doesn`t make any difference to me one way or the other because we feel it`s an intervention.
MacNEIL: Governor, thank you very much.
ROMERO BARCELO: You`re very welcome.
LEHRER: A reminder that that interview was taped two weeks ago, when the Governor was visiting in New York and before Robert MacNeil went on vacation. In the forefront of the pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico is the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Juan Mari Bras is Secretary-General of the Party. Mr. Mari Bras, President Barcelo says your party has ties to Fidel Castro. What kind of ties are those, sir?
JUAN MARI BRAS: Well, we have the ties of solidarity that comes from a common history since the nineteenth century. The Cuban independence and the Puerto Rican independence struggles met since the year 1868, when both began; and since that the two peoples have been struggling for independence, first from Spain, then from the United States.
LEHRER: What about the current government of Fidel Castro?
MARI BRAS: That`s right. Fidel Castro, as he told Barbara Walters, received the first strokes of the police of Cuba in a picket line in front of the American consulate in 1950 or `51 in favor of Puerto Rico`s independence. At the same time I started our solidarity with Cuba, participating in the 26th of July campaign, when Fidel was in the mountains in 1957. So that solidarity is very strong.
LEHRER: Do you receive any financial support from President Castro?
MARI BRAS: No, we have never asked for it, we have never been offered that kind of support. We believe it is necessary for the people of Puerto Rico to support its own struggle, and what we ask of our friends is the kind of political and moral support that we are obtaining from the Cuban government and the governments of several countries in the world.
LEHRER: The question that was put to Governor Barcelo -- I called him President a moment ago; it`s Governor Barcelo -- and also to Mr. Otis at the beginning, was whether or not Fidel Castro and the Cuban government was easing off in its support of Puerto Rican independence now because of its desire to initiate better relations with the United States. What have you felt?
MARI BRAS: President Castro has said very clearly on several occasions that the solidarity with Puerto Rico`s independence is a non-negotiable principle of the Cuban revolution. He repeated that to Barbara Walters and he repeated it to us last May when we went to Havana, and he told us that as long as there is one single Puerto Rican struggling for independence, he believes it is the obligation, moral and political, of the Cuban government and people to support that struggle.
LEHRER: All right. Do you feel that you represent the majority views of the people of Puerto Rico wanting independence?
MARI BRAS: We believe that it is not necessary to represent directly the majority of a people to claim the rights of that people. If we were going to surrender or in any way abridge the rights of the Puerto Rican people, then we would need a special mandate, but not to claim the full rights of our people, which is what we are doing.
LEHRER: The Governor said, as you heard, that right now the Independence Party plus your party represents -- or at least got seven percent of the vote in the last elections. Do you think that is an accurate representation of the strength of pro-independence in Puerto Rico, seven percent?
MARI BRAS: Not at all. That is the result of all the pressures, combined with a huge propaganda campaign dominating the mass media, made by the parties that are loyal to the colonial system, the State hood and Commonwealth parties. But that doesn`t represent the actual sentiment of the Puerto Rican people.
LEHRER: All right. Is your group tied in any way to this FALN, the terrorist group that took credit or blame -- whatever -- for these bombings a couple of weeks ago?
MARI BRAS: No, we don`t have the slightest idea who they are, and of course we don`t have any connection with them except that we recognize the right of all the Puerto Rican people to fight for independence in the form in which they want.
LEHRER: Do you think that bombings like that hurt the independence cause more than it helps, or just the opposite?
MARI BRAS: We don`t think it is a good way of struggling, attacking the American people, innocent American people. We believe the American people will be our allies in claiming independence for Puerto Rico since the great majority of the American people are not benefiting from the colonial exploitation of Puerto Rico. However, we respect the right of every Puerto Rican to struggle for independence in the way in which he believes.
LEHRER: Including bombing, then.
MARI BRAS: Including armed struggle of all kinds, the right of every colonial people -- the same you exercised against Britain when you obtained independence.
LEHRER: The Governor also says that Puerto Rico already has the right to self-determination; in other words, it`s in the Constitution that the people of Puerto Rico can go any way they want to. Do you agree with that?
MARI BRAS: Not at all. You cannot exercise self-determination when you are intervened by a foreign government and power, and the Governor of Puerto Rico, regardless of whether he was formally elected by the people of Puerto Rico, responds absolutely to the mandates of the federal government, to which he has submitted.
LEHRER: How do you respond to his position that what the U.N. may do is an intervention in the affairs of Puerto Rico?
MARI BRAS: No, the only foreign power that has been intervening in Puerto Rico for seventy-nine consecutive years is the United States, that came to our country with armed forces, invaded the island, took charge of it, didn`t consult the Puerto Rican people in any plebiscite. And what we are asking from the United Nations is that they recognize the right to self- determination of the Puerto Rican people, the right not to be intervened by the only foreign power that is intervening, which is the United States.
LEHRER: Mr. Mari Bras, we have to leave it there. Mr. Otis, good night and thank you. Good night, Linda. Other news permitting, Linda 0 Bryon and I will be back tomorrow night as Abba Eban and George Ball look at the growing split between the United States and Israel over Middle East policy. I`m Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Puerto Rican Independence
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- NewsHour Productions
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- This episode features a discussion on Puerto Rican Independence. The guests are Linda O'bryon, Bill Otis, Juan Mari Bras, Crispin Y. Campbell. Byline: Jim Lehrer
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- Copyright NewsHour Productions, LLC. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode)
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Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
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Identifier: 96461 (NARA catalog identifier)
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Puerto Rican Independence,” 1977-08-15, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 30, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-vt1gh9c665.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Puerto Rican Independence.” 1977-08-15. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 30, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-vt1gh9c665>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Puerto Rican Independence. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-vt1gh9c665