SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Saying his Caribbean island is emptying, dying and disappearing, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan called on Puerto Ricans everywhere to help “refound” their common motherland.
Speaking at Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York, he was not referring to an actual political move – like founding a country – but to a human sense of unity on behalf to the financially ailing Caribbean island.
Refounding “is a word that Pope Francis likes a lot,” said Archbishop Gonzalez. “He stated this when asked about the re-establishment, or refounding, of the European Union, following the refugee and the euro crises.”
Pope Francis used the term at a May 6 ceremony in Rome, where he received the International Charlemagne Prize from the citizens of Aachen, Germany. Since 1950, the prize has been bestowed on individuals who do “exceptional work performed in the service of European unity.” St. John Paul II was so honored in 2004.
As Europe faces an unprecedented influx of immigrants and refugees and struggles to address continued economic woes, Pope Francis urged the continent to step up to its responsibilities with renewed hope.
During his speech, Archbishop Gonzalez proposed the start of a dialogue among all Puerto Ricans.
“We Puerto Ricans are not united,” he said. “We are very divided and polarized; we are not united, we are stuck. In that sense, our motherland’s refounding effort can become a project for the creation of such necessary unity all ‘boricuas’ (Puerto Ricans) long for.”
Puerto Rican communities on both sides of the Atlantic have been divided mostly along political lines regarding the island’s current financial crisis – including how it should be resolved – and the territory’s political relationship with the U.S. Both issues are intertwined.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said June 14 that the Senate would consider a financial package for Puerto Rico by the end of June. On June 9, the House June 9 approved the measure, which would allow U.S. formation of a control board to manage Puerto Rico’s financial affairs.
The move has been widely opposed locally, but some politicians and pro-statehood advocates have argued for it. Archbishop Gonzalez is a supporter.
“I support the current legislation because it gives Puerto Rico breathing space – so the payment of pensions and social services are made first, before debt payments,” he wrote in a commentary published June 7 in Washington’s The Hill newspaper.
Archbishop Gonzalez’s commentary also made indirect reference to the fact that holders of Puerto Rico bonds have been considered the local people’s enemies because of their push to get paid even under dire circumstances.
“In full disclosure, my Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan is also a creditor,” he said. “Many of the island’s faith groups that continue to call to bring the debt to sustainable levels own Puerto Rico bonds. … For the most part, we are not dealing with a situation of bad people, we are all victims of a bad situation.”
Puerto Rico’s financial crisis became inadvertently tied to its political status in a U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with the dual sovereignty doctrine, whereby a person can be tried by more than one state for the same crime despite double-jeopardy provisions. In its June 9 decision, the high court said “U.S. territories – including an earlier incarnation of Puerto Rico itself (as a Spanish colony) – are not sovereigns distinct from the United States.”
The 6-2 decision reaffirmed that, despite its small degree of sovereignty and having a U.S.-approved constitution, “Puerto Rico cannot benefit from the dual-sovereignty doctrine.” The decision’s practical effect is a reminder that the island does not have the rights of a sovereign entity or a state. In addition, the high court June 13 ruled Puerto Rico cannot restructure more than $20 million in public debt, which is the debt of its financially ailing public utilities.
The early June clash of Puerto Rico finances and politics, fueled by the start of the local political elections campaigns, has intensified the local social debate. Angry discussion waged on the airwaves and public places is common, further fragmenting the population into ideological camps.
Given its timing, Archbishop Gonzalez’s New York speech seemed prophetic.
“I am sorry to say it … but the reality,” he said, “is that we are regressing on things economic, political, social, in tolerance values, in the ability to give, to live together.”
The archbishop mentioned several “justifications” for refounding Puerto Rico, including:
– A social situation that encompasses poverty, migration and unemployment, and a financial crisis with a stagnant economy.
– A Puerto Rican identity crisis owing to more than 500 years of colonial status.
– A political crisis with a population divided between wanting full sovereignty or statehood, and a spiritual crisis manifested by a loss of values.
“I suggest using Pope John XXIII’s ‘Pacem in Terris’ (‘Peace on Earth’) encyclical principles and pillars as a guide for the island’s refounding,” Archbishop Gonzalez said.
Pope John’s document deals mostly with the order between human beings, the relationship between the people and the “public powers”; the relationship among the political communities; and the relationship among individuals, families, political associations and communities on the one hand and the global community on the other.
In “conforming to the church’s social teaching,” the archbishop added common good, solidarity and ecology as additional refounding pillars.
“Please see this visitation of a control board on our island as a wake-up call,” wrote Archbishop Gonzalez in The Hill. “Whether you favor independence, statehood or a type of free association with the United States, the time is now for our people to begin a process to resolve the status of our homeland. We are the only ones who can protect our identity and dignity.”
He closed his call to unity along Pope Francis lines.
“Without mercy to be received, without mercy to be given, without mercy to be expected, the motherland will never be refounded,” he said. “A political or governmental body without mercy risks ignoring its citizens’ misery.”