UNITED NATIONS - Prominent individuals representing the pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico, as well as figures advocating statehood and the U.S. colony's current "commonwealth" status, participated in a July 25 hearing before the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization.
"This hearing occurs on the 98th anniversary of the armed invasion of Puerto Rico, which took place July 25, 1898, at the port of Guanica," said long-time independence leader Juan Mari Bras.
Statements were presented to the committee from Robert Underwood, the elected, nonvoting delegate of Guam to the U.S. Congress, and from Yann Celene Uregei, of the Popular Congress of New Caledonia, a French colony. Underwood urged the committee to "reaffirm the right to self-determination for the indigenous people of Guam." The native Chamorro people are 43 percent of the island's population.
Other participants in the session included Fernando Martin, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party; Julio Muriente, president of the New Movement for Puerto Rican Independence (formerly Puerto Rican Socialist Party); Noel Colon Martinez, leader of the Hostosian National Congress; Carlos Vizcarrondo, a representative of the Popular Democratic Party in Puerto Rico's legislature; and Luis Vega Ramos, president of PROELA. The last two advocate maintaining the island's current colonial status as a commonwealth.
From 1972 until 1991, the UN committee adopted resolutions supporting the right of the Puerto Ricans to self-determination and independence from the United States. As in the last several years, no resolution on Puerto Rico was introduced for debate this time, only testimony from groups speaking for the three main political currents.
Many speakers referred to the July 14 La Nacion en Marcha (The Nation on the March) demonstration, where more than 100,000 people rallied in response to the pro-statehood stance of Puerto Rico's colonial governor, Pedro Rossello, who had told the media that Puerto Rico "is not and has never been a nation." The march was seen by many as a show of support for Puerto Rican nationhood and, for a significant number, for independence.
"Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans repudiated Rossello'," said Mari Bras.
Victor Vazquez Hernandez, of the U.S.-based National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, said, "The march was the reaffirmation of Puerto Rican sovereignty." Vazquez and Mari Bras called on Washington to release the 15 political prisoners who are serving time in U.S. jails for their activities in the independence movement.
Some participants defended a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress in March by Rep. Donald Young, who is pro-statehood. The bill, dubbed the "United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act," calls for a referendum in Puerto Rico before the end of 1998, the centennial of colonial domination by Washington.
The nonbinding referendum would ask voters to choose independence, statehood, or the existing commonwealth status. A plurality - 48.4 percent of voters - voted for the status quo in a plebiscite held in 1993 under Washington's supervision.
Muriente said the Young bill would be one of a series of "fraudulent and manipulated plebiscites" and an "attack on self-determination and independence." Colo'n Marti'nez stated that "as part of the Young bill, major U.S. Congressional leaders are proposing that Spanish be replaced by English as the official language of Puerto Rico." He pointed out that "only 20 percent of the population speaks English."
The 3.5 million residents of Puerto Rico are governed by U.S. laws and courts, and are subject to U.S. military service. They are U.S. citizens, but have no vote in federal elections.
"Puerto Rico is still one of the oldest colonies in human history," said Vazquez. "When the United States invaded Puerto Rico [in the late 1800s while intervening] in the Cuban war of liberation, Puerto Ricans operating out of bases in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston joined with their Cuban brothers and sisters to throw off the chains of Spanish colonialism. Once Puerto Rico became a colony of the United States, Puerto Ricans in the U.S. continued to defend the right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination."
Humberto Riverio, counselor of Cuba's UN mission to the United Nations, said the "colonial situation of Puerto Rico is an open wound in the heart of Latin America." Riverio declared the 100,000-strong march on the island was a way for Puerto Ricans to proclaim, "We want to be Puerto Ricans, not North Americans."
Riverio said, "The Cuban delegation trusts next year our committee will be able to hold a debate and adopt a position to support the struggle of the Puerto Rican people who are crying out for independence."
Speaking on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party, Laura Garza backed the fight for Puerto Rico's independence. "The struggle for the defense of the Puerto Rican nationality and its integrity as a Latin American nation deserves the active support not only of other peoples of Latin America, but of all those in the Americas, especially workers and farmers in the United States," Garza stated (see statement on this page).
Mari Bras, like other petitioners, noted that Washington "has never accepted the jurisdiction competence of the Special Committee" and "paralyzed" its actions regarding Puerto Rico.
"The U.S. government is trying to destroy the special committee because they have been unsuccessful in removing their colonies from the list of territories to be free of colonial domination," said Ronald Franquez Teehan, secretary of the Organization of People for the Indigenous Rights in Guam. He was there to testify on the status of that U.S. colony. Teehan explained in an interview how Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines were conquered by the U.S. military in its war against Spain in 1898.
Teehan, who spoke at protests against U.S. military bases in Okinawa, Japan, and organized similar actions in Guam, said the U.S. government and "their allies in Great Britain and France say the special committee has outlived its usefulness." He said the indigenous people in Guam are waging a struggle against the U.S. military over land rights.
"I believe people will refuse to accept denial of their right to self-determination. If the U.S. government continues to deny this right there will be increased social strife," Teehan said.
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