In the social and political history of Puerto Rico, no figures inspire as intense admiration and hatred as Pedro Albizu Campos and Luis Muñoz Marín. They inspired those passions in each other until the end of their lives and in the Puerto Rican people to this day.
Most controversial and polarizing at the time, Albizu Campos possessed a gift for oratory that united people from all walks for his moral crusade. For many, he was a hero, the most important champion for the independence of Puerto Rico and a martyr whose demise was hastened by the interests and power of American imperialism. For others, he was a man out of touch with reality, a mad man with a messianic complex, a man bent on violently sabotaging a crucial economic relationship with the United States. His name evokes violence: terrorism for some, revolutionary struggle for others.
Albizu’s efforts would be foiled by a former comrade in the fight for independence, a friend who became a political rival and ultimately his nemesis: Luis Muñoz Marín. Muñoz is a man that many revere as the father of modern Puerto Rico, because he brought progress and industry to an island long dependent on a single crop and established a unique relationship with the emerging great power of the free world, the United States. For others he is a traitor, a man who sacrificed the Puerto Rican nation and sold it for the cheap price of a mass migration to the mainland and low wage labor, that wouldn’t be low enough long enough to keep the US manufacturers there.
Today, unemployment in Puerto Rico is at crisis levels. An estimated 500,000 Puerto Ricans have left since 2010, mostly to the Southeast US. Congress will likely cut services such as Medicare to those left there – and doctors are becoming a rarity as well. More Puerto Ricans live outside of Puerto Rico than on the island. The economy is on the verge of collapse.
Puerto Rico has been here before, many times. In the 1930s and 1940s, still in the midst of the Depression, the belief that colonialism was the root of all of Puerto Rico’s financial troubles took hold, feeding a growing discontent with United States governance of the island. Facing a crisis much like today’s, Puerto Ricans saw independence not only as desirable but necessary for the preservation of their culture, identity and economic survival. It was a moment, many thought, in which Puerto Rico could shake off Puerto Rico’s colonial burden. But it was not to be so.
On July 25, 1952 the governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Marín, declared Puerto Rico to be a Free Associated State or Commonwealth as we know it. With the promise of economic prosperity, Muñoz Marín managed to steer the majority of Puerto Rican voters away from the path of independence to accept an arrangement that many critics describe as colonial. Sixty-five years later, that economic promise has failed as Puerto Rico faces a 72 billion dollar un-payable debt and a massive population flight the likes of which has not been seen since the Great Migration after World War II. And the debate begins anew: if Puerto Rico were independent…. This would not happen. If Puerto Rico were a state… this would not happen. Proponents of both agree the economic crisis crushing Puerto Rican society today stems from the island’s status; the inability of the Puerto Rican government to respond is a consequence of both its lack of support from the US government and the lack of its own authority to declare policies that could potentially alleviate the economic reality choking the Puerto Rican population.
As Puerto Rico’s economic hell makes headlines in 2017, pundits argue in a swirl invoking the warnings of Albizu and the vision of Muñoz Marín. The legacy of their struggles for their country and against each other are inextricably tied to today’s reality.