John Oliver has featured Puerto Rico again in his show on HBO. This time, he focuses on the ongoing debt crisis on the island. Yesterday’s episode also features Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the hit show Hamilton.
There’s an interesting article in Bloomberg from a Harvard law professor on the same-sex marriage case in Puerto Rico. This one provides some analysis from an actual legal expert on the usage of the Insular Cases in the decision. The author thinks that the reasoning in the decision is ultimately not well supported but also that the status of Puerto Rico as defined by the Insular Cases is basically indefensible.
A federal judge has invalidated same-sex marriage in Puerto Rico. The general consensus seems to be that this will almost certainly be overturned at the Supreme Court, which ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. One interesting thing that people have brought up is that the judge cited the Insular Cases, which were a series of court cases from the early 1900s defining the relationship between the US and its newly acquired colonies such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Among other things, they basically created a form of second-class citizenship for the residents of those places and declared that most constitutional rights didn’t need to apply in colonies. Most of that has since been overturned by Congress but as far as I know the Insular Cases largely still stand as a matter of constitutional law. It would be interesting, then, if the modern Supreme Court ends up returning to those decisions.
The Department of Education recently released a list of schools that it is monitoring for financial reasons. There are several hundred schools on the list, although many appear to be for-profit vocational schools rather than what most people would think of as universities. The for-profit sector comprises most of the list. This extra scrutiny apparently involves extra reporting requirements in order to receive federal student aid money.
There aren’t really any major names on the list, and few details are supplied about the exact reasons why each school is on the list, so being on the list doesn’t necessarily mean that the school is facing a financial crisis. The most notable name that I noticed on the list is the University of Puerto Rico system. The entire government in Puerto Rico has major financial problems (not just the university) and Puerto Rico is also much poorer than the mainland US, so this may just be reflecting a situation that exists independently of the university.
This past week, John Oliver had a segment on US territories that’s gotten a lot of press. He talks a bit about the history of the current set of US territories and also some of the drawbacks to living there. It’s good to get more people to hear about life in the US but outside the fifty states and DC, but I would take issue with the large focus on voting rights in the piece.
Oliver chooses to point to the insular cases (a group of Supreme Court cases from the early 1900s) as setting up a territorial legal regime based in large part on racial/cultural/religious animus against the people living in the territories. There is a lot of truth to that, but the piece seemingly conflates this with voting rights, when that really isn’t true. People in territories don’t have representation in the federal government because the Constitution sets up Congress and the presidency as representing the states rather than the individual citizens. The president is elected by the electoral college which is in turn elected by the people. Members of Congress (both houses since the 17th amendment was passed) are elected by the people of each state rather than by the people of the United States as a whole. Non-state territories don’t really fit in, so any representation would require Constitutional amendments, as was done to give DC its three presidential electors. Regardless of any bigotry directed toward people in US territories, the lack of voting rights is a deliberate feature of the Constitution and is not something that is easily changed.
Furthermore, while I understand Oliver’s point about Justice Sotomayor and her family being Americans all along and not immigrants, the truth is more nuanced than that. Puerto Rico was (and still isn’t) really the same as just another US state. People in Puerto Rico weren’t granted citizenship until 1917 and a normal republican government along the lines of the state governments wasn’t allowed until the 1950s. The Puerto Rico where Sotomayor’s parents grew up would not have been recognizable as just another part of America. Instead, it would be better understood as a foreign country ruled by Americans for the benefit of the mainland US and not the actual people on the island. Fortunately, the political situation has improved enormously from those days, even if things aren’t exactly perfect right now. Additionally, while Sotomayor’s parents were born US citizens (if her Wikipedia page is accurate), their actual experiences in the mainland would have been those of immigrants rather than American citizens. They would have been treated as foreigners in what was technically their own country.
There are plenty of other things than voting rights to talk about if you want to focus on poor treatment of territorial residents at the hands of the rest of the country. Oliver even touches on some of them – lack of government support and government funds, weird nationality status that’s at odds with what most people think about nationality and citizenship, etc. The insular cases that Oliver mentions weren’t even about voting rights. They were about what rights, if any, residents of newly-acquired territories had. Unfortunately, the answer in many cases was that these residents had no real civil rights unless they either moved to the mainland (after one of the cases declared that the US couldn’t keep them out) or unless the rest of the country decided they could be allowed to have rights. The insular cases led to the creation of things like the “US national” status (i.e. second-class citizen) and also gave support to exploitative colonial governmental systems that ruled the territories throughout much of the 20th century. As far as I am aware, the insular cases have never been overturned, so even the rights and privileges of citizenship that nearly all the territorial citizens (except American Samoa) currently enjoy are not Constitutional rights but rather are rights granted by the federal government, which retains the ability to revoke these rights whenever it wants.
In one of the more absurd news stories of the past week or two, Turkish president Erdogan claimed last week that when Columbus reached the New World he found Islam already spreading throughout the population and even saw a mosque on top of a hill in Cuba. He went on to offer to build a mosque on top of that same hill in Cuba. Needless to say, Erdogan’s remarks – which are not in fact a joke – have been met with near-universal mockery. Despite this, Erdogan is continuing to insist that what he said is true. The Washington Post has some interesting thoughts on why Erdogan isn’t backing off his comments and also has a blog post reviewing the sources he’s probably citing. The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor thinks that maybe Erdogan doesn’t actually care about the truth and this whole affair is a purely cynical political ploy to shore up support for Erdogan by somehow declaring that denying these claims is tantamount to insulting Muslims. The Guardian also reports on this but avoids any editorial comments.
Reportedly, the story about the mosque comes from some random paper from the ’90s that used a version of Columbus’ journal recorded by Bartolomé de las Casas in the mid-1500s. The actual journal has been lost, so there is no true primary source. Wikisource has a copy of the Spanish text of an 1892 edition here. The relevant portion is the entry for October 29th, where it says:
Señala la disposición del río y del puerto que arriba dijo y nombró San Salvador, que tiene sus montañas hermosas y altas como la Peña de los Enamorados, y una de ellas tiene encima otro montecillo a manera de una hermosa mezquita. [from Wikisource]
Which I would translate (my Spanish isn’t great but you can easily find better translations online) as:
He [Columbus] describes the position of the river and port mentioned above and named San Salvador [Holy Savior], which includes beautiful tall mountains similar to the Peña de los Enamorados [Lovers’ Rock], and one of them has on top of it a ridge [or mound/hill] that looks like [lit. in the manner of] a beautiful mosque.
The Spanish text looks like it’s been modernized but if we assume that it is a reasonably faithful rendering of de las Casas’ manuscript it’s clear that the mosque Erdogan mentions exists only in his own mind. The reports that the mention of a mosque in the journal are metaphorical are understating how clear it is that it’s not describing an actual building.
As for the additional claim that Islam was spreading throughout the Americas prior to Columbus, there is no credible evidence accepted by legitimate historians of this. To a non-expert like me this seems highly unlikely even if we accept the claim that contact between the Muslim world and Latin America (and the Caribbean in particular) was common before Columbus’ first voyage.
Consider the political context of Spain in 1492 – at that time a union between Castile [Castilla] ruled by Isabel I [called Isabella in English for some reason even though that’s Italian and the name is actually Elizabeth] and Aragón, ruled by Fernando II [i.e. Ferdinand in English]. At the beginning of the year, the emirate of Granada fell and was subsumed into Castile. Shortly after, all Jewish people in Spain were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave the country. However – and this is very important to note – Muslims were still allowed to remain for another 10 years until the Spanish monarchy broke the terms of the Treaty of Granada ensuring the rights of Spanish Muslims.
So, when Columbus left from a port in Andalucía, he and his crew left a country that had just ended centuries of warfare between various competing Christian and Muslim states (and Granada had been allied with Castile at various points anyway) and still had a large minority of Muslims who were supposed to be tolerated by the authorities. Some of the crew may have even been converts or descendants of recent converts. They traveled west, expecting to reach Asia. Had they reached the Caribbean and found that many among the Taíno people practiced Islam, we would almost certainly know. Columbus and his crew must have been at least somewhat knowledgable about Islam (even the metaphorical usage of the word mosque assumes that the reader knows what one looks like), and they thought that they had reached Asia, where it might not be surprising to find people practicing a familiar religion. Furthermore, had many in the Americas already practiced any religion known to Europeans, we might expect the writings of men such as de las Casas (who, though he came to regret it, was shamefully one of the first to call for the use of African slave labor in the colonies) and Sepúlveda to have very different views on the treatment of the native people of the New World.
Now, is it possible that an errant ship here or there from Asia, Europe, Africa, or Oceania could have reached the shores of the Americas? I don’t see why not, but to the extent that this ever happened, it would be little more than a historical curiosity. Even the purported (as far as I know its identity has largely been confirmed by archaeologists) Norse colony in Newfoundland and any possible related colonies on the North American mainland left little to no influence on the course of history other than inspiring some some literature. At the very least, the lack of Old World diseases in pre-Colombian America and the staggering death tolls of the plagues introduced by Europeans soon after arriving would appear to preclude any significant or sustained contact between the people of the Americas (or at least people outside the Arctic region where the continents are close together) and the various interconnected societies of Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Thus, this appears to be just one in a long line of dubious attempts to stake a claim to a discovery of the New World prior to Columbus and just one in a long line of even more dubious attempts to co-opt the cultural identities of the native peoples of the Americas. Columbus remains important not because he was the first to make the trip – he almost certainly wasn’t – and not because he was a good man – he wasn’t – but rather because of what happened after his first voyage. For better or worse, Columbus brought knowledge of the existence of the New World (even if he still thought it was Asia) to the rest of Europe and helped usher in an era of European colonialism.
There’s been a lot of articles published over the past few years about the massive economic problems plaguing Puerto Rico. This one in Slate is the most recent.
Basically, the economy has been terrible for a long time. It’s so bad, in fact, that the population has shrunk by over 5% since 2000. Incomes are very low, unemployment is very high and nearly half the population is under the US poverty line. When it’s easier just to move to the mainland to find better opportunities than to stay, many people will choose to stay. The economic trouble and the fact that PR is far poorer than any state are two things (though certainly not the only potential issues) that I suspect will prevent the island from becoming a state if the people ever decide to push for that. It also means that independence isn’t a serious option and won’t be for many years. So, even though few people actually want the status quo (outright independence is unpopular too: the population is roughly evenly split between statehood and being a territory with greater autonomy than now), it seems that that is what Puerto Rico will be stuck with for the foreseeable future.