Three Shouts for Autonomy, Colltalers
The two-punch tragedy of Puerto Rico – Hurricane Maria’s devastation and Trump administration’s neglect – has unexpectedly resonated with two political events that happened far from the Caribbean Sea over the weekend: the independence referendums held by Kurds and Catalans.
That’s because Puerto Ricans too have sought independence from the U.S. through popular consultation, or at least, to gain the power to vote on matters of their own sovereignty. Their only upside over those other groups, is the small land they own, which is currently underwater.
While the results in Iraq and Spain may seem encouraging, though, they’re unlikely to galvanize enough international support to their cause. On the other hand, the flood in Puerto Rico does have the potential to revive its independence movement, more than previous referendums.
Without getting in too deep about the changing nature of autonomy movements in modern times, or generalizing about what’s essentially diverse situations, is still possible to gather insights about the challenges ahead for the three nations. And for all the political will and genuine desire Kurdish, Catalans and Puerto Ricans may have for self-determination, they’re faced with formidable adversaries on their quest.
By far, the biggest obstacle to old fashioned assumptions of national identity and independence is the globalization of the economy. The world’s means of production and sustainability was never more intricately linked as now. And that conspires against the birth of any new nation. Not just what kind of trading partner it aims to be, based on what it produces, but also, who it’ll trade with and under what conditions.
It’s at this intersection of economic interests and geopolitics that lies the success, and more often, failure of contemporary movements for independence. Unlike the mid 20th century wars for self determination, waged by former European colonies in Africa and Asia, or the turmoil and resistance against military dictatorships in Central and South America, the world circa 2017 is an entirely different animal.
It took a major coalition of nations to end the ethnic cleansing massacres that followed the already bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia, in the 1990s. And the independence referendum that forged South Sudan has only worked so far to the extent that it halted a brutal civil war. Hostilities and starvation, however, rage on, and the international community seems to have run out of ideas about what to do about them.
To have an idea of the complexities involved in any kind of secession, no matter how legitimate it seems for those longing for independence, consider Quebec and Scotland. Despite a respectable
percentage of their citizenry wanting a split up from, respectively, Canada and United Kingdom, both recently held failed referendums. Arguably, the results may have actually boosted a backlash against the separation.
The Kurds will very likely keep at it, not just energized by the vote, but also because they’re used since biblical times, to being systematically persecuted, oppressed, and even gassed, by Iraq, Iran and Turkey. They will resist because that’s always been an integral part of being Kurd.
But prospects for them to have their own land, nation, and international recognition are all but unfortunately, nil. Unless, for some unforeseen factor, they suddenly become useful pawns in a global power game. They were much closer to it when Saddam Hussein was their enemy.
A similar fate may follow the referendum in Barcelona. As Spain took a page from a Turkish playbook and not just banned the referendum, but engaged in remarkable truculence to curb the Catalan movement, the world seems to have completely ignored their pleas for support.
They too will continue to press on, and may even score further political wins, mainly having candidates at the state-level and in the Spanish parliament. But their dream of building a formal border, and to dialogue with Madrid on equal footing is a quest for decades, not years.
Puerto Rico, however, stands a fair chance to secede from the U.S. in the near future, assuming of course, that it’ll recover from this not completely unavoidable heartbreak. It’ll have to overcome incredible odds, though. Even if no other hurricane hits this season, it’ll face a nightmarish public health crisis, potential epidemics, and staggering rebuilding costs. That’ll become its main priority for years ahead.
But giving all that, or despite of it, it has the right motivations. Even as its last referendum failed, just a few months before Maria, being part of the U.S. hasn’t been working well for Puerto Rico lately. After all, it’s a member of the union with no saying whatsoever over its destiny; it’s often ignored by all but its mainland relatives; and it’s currently being ran like a bankrupted teenager by Wall Street sharks, er, bankers.
Despite being home to 3.5 million American citizens, a fact that the president seemed unaware of, Puerto Rico and the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, were also publicly chastised and insulted by him. With the unnecessary and unappropriated feud, it’s no wonder that residents, just like Katrina victims of the Bush administration’s incompetence, are quickly losing hope that they’ll be helped anytime soon.
The president, who’s finally found time to visit the island tomorrow, weather permitting and a full two weeks into its Bangla Desh-style humanitarian crisis, preferred to spend last week insulting a radically different demographics: the NFL elite player corps, from the top down.
But against plenty of odds, and in what some see as a silver lining of the administrative disasters of the past eight months, Trump may have reawaken a long dormant tradition: that of top ballplayers expressing political views and, grasp, engaging in a national discussion about race.
But beyond the symbolic kneeling, a gesture that has spread through fields and turfs to bleachers, lockers and corporate rooms, equally important are other issues that may be up for debate, rather than used as weapons in the cruel racial battles being fought in American streets.
They also belong to a full conversation about self determination and right to dissent, foundations for any free nation building. The future may be pointing to a new way by which different countries may coexist under the same flag and the same democratic principles of freedom rights.
Perhaps more important than to build new borders and walls to perpetuate ethnic divisions, what we really need are common laws to regulate, without restricting, diversity. It may not be about merely reenacting old traditions, but to add their wisdom to our current shared experience.
Scientific achievements of our age aside, ancestral ethnicities may hold the key to a new, badly needed understanding among nations. We root for those who, despite scarcity, still hold hope and guts to dream a world of their own. As the U.S. Supreme Court starts a new term, we also celebrate Thurgood Marshal, who 50 years ago today, became its first black Justice. ‘Sometimes history takes things into its own hands.’ WC