The U.S. House of Representatives in December of 2019 passed two articles of impeachment for President Donald J. Trump. The heart of their charges is that Trump abused the power of his office by withholding aid from Ukraine for personal and political benefits. During the build-up to the vote, many members of the U.S. House of Representatives delivered impassioned speeches on democratic rule, corruption, and dedication to the U.S. Constitution. These politicians, and the media, championed impeachment as a tool of democratic accountability.
The political spectacle must seem disorientating for the people of Puerto Rico as they still, two years after Hurricane Maria hit, await the release of Congressionally approved aid by the U.S. Executive Branch. It is unclear whether the island’s aid was withheld through malicious intent, political selfishness, or bureaucratic incompetence. Whether it was through extortion or inept governance, the aid has been withheld. Yet for most of the country’s leaders, this fell far short of an impeachable offense. If impeachment is a tool of democratic accountability, then the question is, for whom? It seems to only work in select circumstances, when the narrative is compelling enough to the right people. Aid for Puerto Ricans apparently fails meet those criteria. As they continue to languish without recovery, Puerto Rico’s colonial citizens they must need to learn to be better storytellers of their own place in the nation, and in their own claims to the U.S. Constitution.
Although impeachment was written into the U.S. Constitution as a tool of democratic accountability, it was not built for colonial policy. Past impeachments, or threats of impeachment, as occurred when Nixon covered up the Watergate break-ins, were due to abuses of power domestically. For Trump, it was in dealing corruptly with a sovereign foreign nation. Puerto Rico is neither. As Justice Henry Billings Brown reasoned in Downes v. Bidwell (1901), Puerto Rico is “foreign… in a domestic sense.” In less legal terms, Justice Brown meant the island was “just something else.” That “something else” is called a colony. The island has no voting representative in the U.S. Congress. Neither are they a sovereign nation who can lean on allies. Puerto Rico still functions as a colony where the people must await the decisions of various and disconnected Washington, D.C. based agencies. Most of the economic decisions on the island remain in the hands of an oversight board that is not elected or appointed by anyone in Puerto Rico. Instead, its members are installed by Washington. It is difficult to demand democratic accountability when decision-making and power is dispersed undemocratically.