Foreign in a Domestic Sense
Two days after the Brexit vote, a woman in Barnsley, with a tear in her eye, told Channel 4 News that her ‘parents and grandparents fought for England to be free and it was about time we came back to be free.’ The referendum allowed for the inflation of a rhetoric that the people of the United Kingdom have no right to employ. The insufferable Nigel Farage suggested that 23 June should be celebrated as the UK’s ‘independence day’. When was the last time the British were colonised? At which point in the history of colonialism were the British the enslaved rather than the slavers?
Unhomely post-referendum England has made me think of home, the place I haven’t lived since I was 18 years old. Puerto Rico is a small island in the Caribbean with a population of 3.6 million, a number now decreasing thanks to a financial crisis that has seen the largest exodus from the island since the mid-20th century. A territory of the United States since the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico has an unserviceable debt of more than $70 billion. Last Friday it defaulted on an $800 million repayment.
In the early days of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US – a relationship not of equals, but of imperial possession – the US Supreme Court decided that the island was an ‘unincorporated territory’ to be treated as ‘foreign to the United States in a domestic sense, because the island had not been incorporated into the United States, but was merely appurtenant thereto as a possession.’ This definition of who Puerto Ricans are – ‘foreign in a domestic sense’ – is an impossible proposition, first spelled out in terms of trade relations between the US and the island, which has determined our identity since 1898. Since it is neither one of the United States nor an independent country, Puerto Rico’s options for responding to the debt crisis are severely limited. Last week the US Congress approved the formation of a committee of four Republicans and three Democrats with extraordinary powers to oversee Puerto Rico’s affairs, effectively dismantling the autonomy granted to the island in 1952.
‘Freedom’ and ‘independence’ are not words that should be tossed around flippantly. Anyone in the UK who feels like using them in relation to Brexit – a decision to abandon an equal place in an organisation that has spelled out freedoms and rights which have helped to secure peace in Europe since the Second World War – would do well to think of other people in the world who are locked in relations of dependence, many of them desperate. Then perhaps they will see how idle their meaning of freedom is.