Colonialism Meets International Athletics

This post isn't about science, but it is about something close to my heart. For a long time, I've been outraged over the eternally-unresolved status of U.S. territorial possessions like Puerto Rico and Guam, and over the disenfranchisement of Americans right here in Washington, D.C., who aren't allowed to have voting representation in Congress.

Now, a cool website is using the Olympics to publicize D.C.'s status plight. The argument is that if DC isn't granted statehood, then like the other U.S. territories (read "colonies"), it ought to be allowed to have its own Olympic team. In essence, this is a publicity stunt to draw attention to D.C.'s disenfranchised status. But I think it's a worthy one. So I suggest you go to the site and use it to send a letter, just as I did.

Incidentally, I can't resist noting that I was writing about this very fascinating subject--colonialism and international athletic competition--quite a while ago, although I focused on the World Cup instead of the Olympics. Here's the text of a brief unsigned humor article from the American Prospect, penned while the 2002 World Cup was raging. The piece, which employs the royal "we" as per the style of the magazine section in which it appeared, doesn't seem to be available online any more. So I've posted it in its entirety:

D.C. Goes For The Cup

Inspired by the ongoing World Cup in Korea and Japan, recently we found ourselves online perusing the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings for international soccer teams. When we scrolled down to numbers 197, 198, 199, 200, however, we were startled to discover that these lowly slots are held by Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa (tied with Turks and Caicos Islands), none of whom qualified for the Cup this year. What's so odd about this so-called "ranking by country"? Well, just the fact that the "countries" in question are all actually territorial possessions of the United States (# 13), which, unlike such perennial World Cup favorites as France (# 1), Argentina (# 2), and Italy (# 6), do not enjoy political sovereignty. These territories lack voting representation in the U.S. Congress, and what's more, their inhabitants cannot vote in presidential elections.

Was it possible that the Swiss-based FIFA was trying to subtly undercut lingering U.S. colonialism? Astonished by the notion that in a future World Cup, the United States might be defeated by one of its territorial possessions (what would Teddy Roosevelt think?), we resolved to get to the bottom of the matter. So we sent e-mails to FIFA and placed calls to the United States Soccer Federation and the impressively named Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). By this point, our thoughts had turned to an even more startling possibility: Might Washington, D.C. -- which also lacks full representation in the U.S. Congress and is probably no closer to statehood than Puerto Rico -- also field an international soccer team and compete against the U.S.?

Certainly there's been a long tradition, in Puerto Rico at least, of expressing nationalist fervor through international athletic competitions against the United States (though usually in baseball and basketball rather than soccer). And D.C. statehood activists have previously toyed with the idea of shooting for their own Olympic Team to dramatize their plight. Moreover, the World Cup has traditionally been a grand global forum for the rest of the world to jeer at the "arrogant" U.S., which can throw its weight around in global affairs but generally gets it handed to them on the pitch. If the hegemon got taken down by one of its own territories, so much the better, right? No doubt the French would get a real kick out of it.

FIFA didn't get back to us; they were all busy at the World Cup. But by this point we had made up our minds: Give D.C. a team! The question of the District's status has been far too long on hiatus, and at the very least this might shake things up a bit. Not to mention that resounding principle of our post-colonial era, so well understood by the Puerto Ricans: If you can't join them, beat them!

Witty, no? If you think so, that's because (as I seem to recall) I had a little help on this piece from then-Prospect editor and now Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, who has a facility with language that I will always envy.

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PR has had chances to change its status but the majority of the people there seem to like it just like it is, terrorist attacks to the contrary notwithstanding. I would like for PR to become an independent country, although I suspect it would need federal aid for a long time.

I think I have commented on the DC situation before. DC should remain a federal district, just like the authors of the Constitution intended. It would not be hard to allow residents to vote in the Maryland district in which DC would be if it were not the federal district.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 26 Jan 2006 #permalink

People always say that Puerto Rico has a choice. Not exactly. If they voted 100 percent for statehood, Congress could still turn them down, without even giving an explanation. That's what's so intolerable about the situtation.

Yes, but the point is, when given a chance to vote, most vote for the status quo.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 26 Jan 2006 #permalink

Thank for the shout out to the DC Olympic Team site. We'll be doing more events in the next few weeks, so be sure to check out the site on a regular basis.

I'm not going to comment on the Puerto Rico situation, but the founders of our country never intended the people of the Captial City to not have representation in the national legislature. It's against everything the American Revolution was fought for!

The people of the District do not favor the status quo - which is pure and simple taxation without representation.


-- In DC that wouldn't be the case.

-- And, Virginia and Maryland have both roundly rejected the idea of having DC citizens affect their vote outcome.

-- The District was an entirely different place when it was a "Federal District" -- the population has exploded and it isn't a native population that, in terms of income and cost of living to get by each day in this town, can just choose to move someplace with better representation. It is also now a place with many families and homes that have been in the district over many many generations.

I continue to disagree. The Constitution gives Congress exclusive legislative control of the seat of the federal government, and that's what DC is. I think it would be a mistake, not to mention absurd, to make DC into a state. I say give DC residents voting rights in Maryland. That solves the problem; no more taxation without representation. So sorry if Md doesn't want them. The only other possible, reasonable course would be for the federal government to simply cede the remaining district back to Maryland. DC no longer extends into Virginia, so that's not an issue.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 26 Jan 2006 #permalink

I am Puerto Rican (born and raised there, currently living in the States), so I can give a little "inside info" on the PR status thing. Not too much info, because I am in my early 20s and in my teens I wasn't really as interested in politics as I am now. However, as it is really hard to escape from politics in PR, I know some things, which I will share here.

First off, in the 2004 Olympics, the Puerto Rican basketball team beat the US basketball team one time. Yeah, it was just the one time, but it was fun and I loved it :-)

Ok, on to the status thing. Things are much more complicated than simply becoming a state or becoming an independent country. Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for quite a few centuries, and when it finally obtained a tiny bit of autonomy in its government, the Spanish-American war broke out and we were given away to the US, thus going back to colonial status. In 1916-ish (don't quite remember the exact year), Puerto Ricans were awarded US citizenship, conveniently enough to send thousands of them to WW1. During the first half of the 20th century, the governor of PR was assigned by the President of the US. In 1952, the current political status was aproved ("Estado Libre Asociado", or "Free Asociate State" if you translate literaly the words -- though my PoliSci prof in college said it doesn't really mean that), and Puerto Ricans were granted the right to elect their own government. Local industries started to appear and grow.

Eventually, three political parties evolved. One party ("Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno" - PIP) wants Puerto Rico to be an independent country. They consistently get ~4% of the votes in each election. Elections, btw, are held every 4yrs, coinciding with Presidential elections in the US. Another party ("Partido Nuevo Progresista" - PNP) wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the Union. Their numbers were very low in the 1960s when the party was formed, and have grown as time goes by, with current numbers around ~48%. They currently have majority in the PR senate and house of representatives, as well as the non-voting member in the US Congress. Some members of this party belong to the US Democratic party, while others belog to the US Republican party. The last party ("Partido Popular Democratico" - PPD) wants to keep asociation with the United States while keeping some autonomy at the same time, i.e., the status quo. The current governor is of this party. They had the majority of the votes in all elections held in the 50s and 60s, and their numbers slowly went down, and they are currently hovering around ~48%. It's pretty much a given that most members of this party want to modify the current definition of the status quo in order to eliminate that territorial/colonial feeling, but ideologies vary. Some people want more integration with the US but not to the point of statehood, while others want more autonomy but not to the point of independence.

While I apologize for the long-winded history lesson, it was necessary in order to fully grasp the political climate in the Island. A full resolution of the status issue, in my opinion, is very complicated and will not come around until very far in the future. The governor we had for the most part of the 90s was an avid supporter of statehood, and by "avid supporter" I mean he advocated "statehood or nothing", and he made sure that this would be the only viable option. He got away with signing some laws that pretty much destroyed a large chunk of the local economy, such that the Island would entirely depend on the US for all things economic, thus rendering it impossible for PR to sustain itself if it became an independent country. And his administration has gone down in the history books as the most corrupt ever, with many people appointed by him having served time in prison. He was, however, a very charismatic individual, and so he currently sits on the PR senate (yes, people still voted for him).

There are various other little issues that arise if you try to consider Puerto Rico becoming a state. The first one is language. True, there are a lot of people in California, Texas, Arizona, Florida and New York who speak Spanish -- but if Puerto Rico became a state, then there would be a state where the main language would be spanish, and english would be a second language. I once read somewhere a sarcastic comment that read something like: "Would Congress really enjoy annexing a state where the entire population is 4 million latinos?". Puerto Rican culture is remarkably different than US culture -- yet, at the same time, it is very much "americanized". Damned if you do, damned if you don't. We're way too Latinos to be called Americans, yet we're too Americans to be called Latinos.

And, of course, there are many very good points about becoming a state. If PR becomes a state, things would be much smoother and easier for, say, a student who gets her BS degree in a university in Puerto Rico and then decides to go to grad school in the States. The transition would be as easy as moving from State A to State B, instead of some weird hybrid of State A-State B and Country A-Country B. And also, you know, getting representation in Congress. This would greatly increase minority representation there in DC. And Puerto Ricans would get to vote in presidential elections -- although, I must warn you, this might be a bit touchy... I had absolutely no clue about US politics before I moved here. True, I wasn't *all that* interested in politics, but most people I know in PR don't really know how the US political system works. Example -- talking to my aunt (who is a very well-educated woman) about why I don't like President Bush, her reaction was "Well, he's the President. He probably knows best". After probing her with various questions about Iraq, evolution and domestic spying, I realized her only knowledge of US politics is that Bush is the President, and as such, he must know best. It's true that I might be generalizing a bit, but it's quite scary that a well-educated woman who is very aware of the Puerto Rican political climate doens't know what's going on in US politics, and this could very well be the norm.

And what about becoming an independent country? Well, there could be various problems -- the main one being the pretty much non-existent local economy. And there could also be various benefits -- national sovereignty and a seat in the United Nations, for example. But in general, both options are troublesome at the moment, at least in my opinion. It seems that becoming a state is less troublesome, but there would still be problems, even if all Puerto Ricans wanted it, would Congress grant it? And it would throw off the number balances in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, and the flag would change, and Puerto Rico would lose the Olympic team, etc, etc, etc. I've heard that maybe an addition of PR as a state would be similar to what happened when Hawaii joined in, but I don't know much about that, so I can't comment on it.

Right now there are three "status projects" in the senate and the house of representatives in Puerto Rico. The one that gets aproved will get passed over to the non-voting member in Congress. He would then present it in Congress or to the White House or something. I've been keeping track of it in a Puerto Rican online newspaper. And all I can think of is "Do they seriously think that Bush is going to look at their status project *now*? Please!". Their plan is to get the status resolved by the end of 2006. I don't see it happening. Yes, it needs to be solved, but I think it's a much more complicated issue than just deciding between Option A/Option B.

Again, apologies for the really, REALLY long comment. I hope I haven't bored anyone...

Emily, thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate hearing directly from someone who knows about a situation.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 27 Jan 2006 #permalink

Hi Emily!

I just wanted to clarify that Puerto Ricans (us) were granted citizenship with the Jones Act of March 2, 1917. This is an act by congress and is not guaranteed by the constitution. At any point in time Puerto Ricans could lose their US citizenship after many Puerto Ricans faught in all the wars and died for this country. I am a fierce advocate of statehood (Emily knows that) and I don't think the fact that many of us don't speak English is an obstacle (has it been an obstacle?). It is also true that we might have no idea about US politics (not me I am addicted to it) but I live in Arizona and believe me when I say that people here know less about it. One thing is for certain we love politics and in a country were only about 40% of the population vote, i.e. US (about 71620000), we could easily be a political influence. Also don't forget that there are 4 million Puerto Ricans in the island. That would put us around spot 27th in the population ranking. That is why most of the senators and representatives don't want PR to become a state. I think they are forgetting for example about people like Emily and me that came to the US to study our PhD's and have to go through not even been able to get a driver's license because they say you are not a US citizen or having to argue with a TSA officer at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport because I didn't have a passport and therefore I couldn't get on a plane to go home (to PR). That is just one of the reasons why I think statehood is good.

About the DC situation I disagree with making it a state. It is the capital of a Federation. It was not meant to be part of any of the states that forms the federation.It should be a neutral entity. That is my opinion. Thanks for the opportunity to express my opinion. I am glad people in the US are talking about the status situation of the territories. I hope you all have a great day!


"El propósito muda al sabio. El necio persevera."
-Fernando de Rojas