Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Popular Sovereignty, Ultimate Powers, and Translation Errors

Héctor Ferrer's recent speech before the Popular Democratic Party's General Council on June 7th was quickly cheered by the "sovereigntist" wing of that party. The celebration was at least in part a reaction to Ferrer's affirmation that it was necessary to "strengthen the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, through a Compact of Association based in a non-colonial and non-territorial Commonwealth [Estado Libre Asociado], based on popular sovereignty emphasis added). The reference to "popular sovereignty" appeals to free association supporters, for whom the mere reference to the word "sovereignty" (regardless of the context) is sufficient evidence of the party's clear movement toward a sovereign Puerto Rico. However, the national press put a damper to their celebration by noting that Ferrer defended "popular sovereignty" and not "national sovereignty".

Does it make sense to talk about popular sovereignty and national sovereignty in the context of the debate about Puerto Rico's status? Yes and no. Let's begin by briefly examining both conceptions of sovereignty. According to the thesis of popular sovereignty (generally associated with Rousseau), the bearer of sovereignty is the people, whose elected representatives, once elected, are required to put into practice the will of the citizenry. In other words, the government must act in conformity with the citizen's mandate, regardless of how wise or convenient that mandate is thought to be. Moreover, the people retains the right to exercise its sovereignty directly, even after regular elections take place. This theory has different strands and in contemporary times is associated with mechanisms such as recall referendums and popular initiatives to amend the constitution, which are present in the constitutional orders of countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

According to the thesis of national sovereignty (generally associated with Sieyes), the bearer of sovereignty is the nation, not the citizens. This means that public officials are supposed to represent the will of the nation and, once elected, are not required to act according to the will of their constituents. Universal suffrage appears here as the means through which the nation elects its representatives (the nation's representatives), not as the expression of a citizen's mandate for the adoption of determinate public policies. Rousseau criticized this view for separating the popular will from that of the nation. As he expressed in a famous passage on the English political system: "The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moment of its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it". The idea that a government is not obliged to act according to the will of the citizens might sound undemocratic (and it certainly is undemocratic), but the fact is that the doctrine of national sovereignty is the one followed by "liberal democracies" (as the United States and most European countries) follow in practice the doctrine of national sovereignty. In the context of Puerto Rico, a good example is the referendum on adopting a unicameral legislature: although a great majority voted in favor of such proposal, the existing legislature decided that it was not a good idea and the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico sanctioned the decision.

In a sense, the distinction between popular and national sovereignty is only relevant for the constitutional orders of individual states. That is to say, when one speaks about sovereignty in the context of the international status of a particular country the distinction becomes unnecessary: from the (juridical) perspective of international relations there is only one kind of sovereignty. Under that view, for example, both under Allende and under Pinochet, Chile was equally sovereign (and this shows, as we have previously argued, that becoming a "sovereign state" is not enough for solving the people's problems). In international relations, the idea of "popular sovereignty" is generally seen as an "internal" issue, because the recognition of a territory as a sovereign state does not depend on how its governmental structures are organized. However, it is also true that to talk about "popular sovereignty" or about "national sovereignty" (as they were defined previously), has important implications with respect to the international status of a country: a basic consequence of both conceptions is that the people or the nation can only be subject to the laws and constitution adopted by themselves (that is to say, they cannot be subject to laws adopted by another people or by another nation, as it happens in colonies). In that sense, in Puerto Rico (as in any colony), to talk about popular or national sovereignty is also to talk about the international status of the country.

But when Ferrer talks about popular sovereignty (interestingly, it has been pointed out that in the original document read by Ferrer, "popular" appeared with a capital "P", as in Popular Democratic Party), he was not referring to popular sovereignty as defined in the previous paragraphs. Instead, he seemed to be interested in doing three things. First, he attempted to settle down the "sovereigntist" wing of the party, which can be done easily by simply uttering words that could be interpreted to point towards free association: that group is characterized for happily clinging to anything that allows them to justify their loyalty to the party. Second, Ferrer made an effort to keep happy the more conservative sector of the party, happy, because the idea of "popular sovereignty" can be understood (as in international relations) merely as an issue of our internal government; that is to say, who "rules" inside the country (as Ferrer stated: "para que quede claro que aquí mandamos los puertorriqueños" or "so it is clear the here Puerto Ricans rule").

Third, Ferrer reproduced the conception of sovereignty adopted by the PPD in the 2008 Assembly: sovereignty as the power to "delegate competences to the United States" or what is the same thing, sovereignty as the power to alienate sovereignty. This is exemplified in a part of his speech that has not received any attention, where Ferrer indicates that it is necessary to develop the Estado Libre Asociado so that "Cabotage Laws don't apply to us" (my translation). We agree that U.S. Cabotage Laws should not apply in Puerto Rico, but Ferrer's silence about the general application of U.S. laws in Puerto Rico betray his position: according to the type of relationship proposed by his party, other laws of the United States (that are not the Cabotage Laws) would continue to apply in the country. Evidently, an arrangement like this constitutes the negation of the very idea of sovereignty because it supposes its alienation: giving someone else the power to decide for oneself in the future.

Incidentally, this contradictory conception of sovereignty is also expressed in a common definition of the concept as "el poder último" (the ultimate power), as in the phrase: "un pueblo es soberano si tiene el poder último para decidir sobre sus asuntos" (a people is sovereign when it has the ultimate power to decide over their issues) (see for example, here). This is the usual definition of sovereignty in English. Our leaders waste no time in rendering English to Spanish. However, último and ultimate are cognates, but they are faux amis, as último in Spanish means "last", whereas ultimate in English has a very strong connotation of goal and fundament. Whereas Spanish recalls a linear logic, English recalls a circular logic. "El poder último " is a bad translation of "the ultimate power" of the people. The idea of unconditional or autonomous power is lost--or rather perverted in translation. In order to present what they want, both to their colonial masters and the people they rule, they use an English term to disguise a logic in Spanish, and a Spanish term to hammer a logic into English. They want the so called poder último (ultimate power) over their people so that they can literally get the poder último (last power) from their masters. After everything is said and done, they want to rule. A more appropriate translation of "ultimate power", such as "poder máximo", is not an appealing term for those who just want the last word on what powers are to be alienated.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Partner,


    Those who accept colonialism believe in discrimination. Now that we know that the political parties will not solve this problem, I invite you to join the non-violent protest to demand that the United States (US) decolonize Puerto Rico (PR) immediately. It will be on Monday, June 17, 2013 from 8 AM to 5 PM outside the United Nations (UN) visitor’s entrance located on 46th Street and First Avenue in New York City.

    The UN has determined that colonialism is a crime against humanity in 1960 under Resolution 1514 (XV). That’s why the UN celebrates every year a hearing about Puerto Rico decolonization. Every year the UN puts forth a resolution asking the US to decolonize PR. Despite 30 of these resolutions, PR is still the oldest and most populated colony in the world! It is obvious by now that the US is not going to decolonize PR just because the UN asks.

    Through education, we must create a domestic and international solidarity with this cause to pressure the US to do what historically she has refused to do. This is why we need everyone who also believes that colonialism is a crime against humanity to join the protest to demand compliance to international law!

    Puerto Rico has been a colony of the US for 114 years. The US’ intention is to keep PR a colony forever unless we do something about it. It is important to note that: democracy isn’t what a government does. Democracy is what people do!
    President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” These ideas, of course, are the reasons why the United Nations was created after World War II.

    It is up to us to defend the fundamental human rights that promote world peace. The tragedy of doing nothing is that we will have the kind of government that we deserve!


    José M. López Sierra

    For more information:
    Compañeros Unidos para la Descolonización de Puerto Rico