Review of The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico

Sotomayor, Antonio. The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 330. 14 photographs, 2 illustrations, 2 maps, 2 tables, index. $60.00 hardcover.

 Reviewed by Wesley R. Bishop

The world of sports and the world of politics are never far apart. Following each other like shadow and form, the two arenas are often a painful and stark display of larger social relations, cultural attitudes, and economic forces. Nowhere is this marriage between sports and politics more apparent, though, than in the realm of the Olympic Games. As the world readies for the thirty-first modern Olympics in Rio this August, this relation between the political and athletic world will be on full display. Considering the recent impeachment of Brazil’s first female president, and the continued political turmoil of Brazil’s national government, it will be interesting to see how the political elites of the country deal with the month-long global spotlight of the games.

Sovereign Colony Cover

University of Nebraska Press, 2016

Such intersections of politics, sports, and Olympic history have provided historians no shortage of material to analyze. To this field of research, Antonio Sotomayor offers a fascinating new historical study well worth the time of researchers who focus on sport, nationalism, and Latin American history. The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico explores the way in which Puerto Rico came to have a separate delegation of athletes to the Olympic Games, and that delegation’s larger historical significance. Sotomayor grounds this history in the larger issues of nationalism, international politics, and ethnic and national identity. He demonstrates that the field of sport history, specifically the history of Olympic participation, provides a key insight in the understanding of how national identity develops, especially as various international leaders use the games to promote particular political ideals and engage in a kind of cultural diplomatic exchange.

As Sotomayor argues, “In other words, sport is politics and sport is culture” (p. 30).

Sotomayor shows how, beginning with the transfer of colonial control of Puerto Rico from Spain to the United States in 1898, sports and athletic education aided not only the transfer of power, but more importantly in the cultural establishment of US legitimacy. This hegemony over the island resulted from the YMCA and the newly created education system, where the US and its approach to physical fitness was able to gain a foothold in “popularity, as they represented the dawn of a new progressive, democratic, and physically fit society” (p. 32).

Sotomayor then progresses through six chapters in a chronological fashion. Beginning with annexation to the United States in the late 19th century (chapter one), Sotomayor moves through the decades of 1920s and 30s (chapter 2), and then focuses on the impact World War Two, colonialism, and a push to sovereignty had on Puerto Rican identity, and more specifically, how sport culture encapsulated many of these questions (chapters 3 and 4). He concludes with a detailed focus of Cold War politics, and how Puerto Rico’s sport culture was an avenue to reflect international conflict and diplomacy (chapter 5), before ending with a study (chapter 6) examining the career of Julio Enrique Monagas as one of the fathers of Puerto Rican athleticism.

 

All of these chapters combine to explain both the development of Puerto Rico as a US colony, while also showing the growing disconnect of some of the island’s inhabitants toward US rule. Yet, Sotomayor argues, it was the more conservative leadership of Puerto Rico, and specifically the “autonomists,” who used the Olympics, and sports in general, as a vehicle to gain a “stronger relationship with the United States, openly using Olympic delegations as a diplomatic envoy to foster the US good neighbor policy in Latin America…” (p. 12).

This position became increasingly difficult, Sotomayor argues, as Olympic participation and athletic prowess combined with other cultural accomplishments in the arts, literature, science, and politics to challenge US rule and Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Following World War Two, both the need of the IOC to reassert the importance of the games, and the US and international community’s worry over images of colonial control, granted Puerto Rico the ability to compete as a separate “national” delegation. As the Caribbean became an increasingly active site for the Cold War–with Cuba’s embracing of communism and the rise of Fidel Castro–the IOC, United States, and Puerto Rican leadership were forced to figure out how the island would maintain both its claim to be colonial territory of the United States, but also a sovereign entity free of western imperialism.

These tensions reached a head in 1966 during the tenth Central American and Caribbean Games (X CACG). As a US territory opposed to Cuba’s political leadership, the island colony had become a haven for political exiles and refugees. Many of these Cubans were conservative, and vehemently opposed to communism and left-wing politics. This growing contingency combined with the more conservative leadership of the colony, creating a particular atmosphere for conservative and right-wing politics. As Sotomayor writes, “From 1967 to 1986 Cuban exiles and the Puerto Rican right, condoned by the government, carried out one–hundred and six terrorist attacks that included destruction of property, usually with explosives, political assassinations, kidnappings and disappearances, and psychological warfare. These attacks could be considered the star of a rightist alliance of anticommunist repression in Puerto Rico” (p. 162).

This anticommunist sentiment eventually threatened the very success of the X CACG, as Puerto Rican political leaders like Sánchez Vilella, the soon-to-be second governor of the commonwealth, supported the denial of visas to the Cuban delegation of athletes. “This Government decidedly opposes that a Cuban team come to Puerto Rico to participate in a said games as long as the present Cuban regime governs that island,” Vilella stated. “We do not think their presence can be of any service but, to the contrary, it will create a difficult and intolerable situation in the country” (p. 167).

Cuban officials countered by saying that the Puerto Rican officials were little better than colonial governors, that Puerto Rico was little better than a political proxy for the United States, and that the Puerto Rican people were colonial subjects.

“These accusations were most despised by the commonwealth leaders,” Sotomayor explains, “[the commonwealth leaders] were trying to present their new political status as a decolonized country” and Cuba’s criticism undermined much of that effort (p. 168).

This stand-off over the visas led to a momentary international crisis, with the Cuban delegation defying the sentiment of the Puerto Rican leadership, traveling to the island, and then being momentarily detained and blocked from entry to the shore. Although cooler heads did prevail, and the games commenced, the tensions throughout the event were palpable, and Sotomayor chronicles the repeated problems Puerto Rican officials had with the 18,000 Cuban exiles incensed that the communist delegation was participating in the games.

Now remembered as a “success” of diplomatic athleticism, Sotomayor argues the tension and precarious conditions highlights the politically charged atmosphere of the Olympics and international competitions. Likewise, the entire incident surrounding the X CACG demonstrates, he suggests, the duality of Olympic history in Puerto Rican national identity.

Simultaneously a vehicle to build a sense of unique national identity, and therefore Puerto Rican nationalism, the games have also served as a way to strengthen the formal economic and political ties of the colony to mainland United States.

Sotomayor draws heavily on the theoretical works of thinkers like Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, then, to explain the construction of the Puerto Rican national identity as a vision of shared community, but also relies on the work of John Hutchinson to “argue that cultural nationalism can be a separate experience from political nationalism” (p. 8).

Sovereign, to a certain degree especially in the sense of distinct cultural and national heritage, yet bound in real terms by politics and economics as a colony to the United States, this tension of Puerto Rico to the rest of the US is far from over. With the growing debt crisis, neoliberal economic policies of the US federal government, and a continually fraught relationship of colony to supposedly free and non-imperial republic, this tension will continue to be a source of interest for scholars studying issues of international relations, global politics, and nationalism. Antonio Sotomayor has provided a unique and valuable contribution to those concerns by focusing on the realm of sports. Well written, meticulously researched, and very timely, this book is highly recommended to both scholar and lay reader alike.

 

Wesley R. Bishop is a PhD student at Purdue University. He studies the history of the American labor movement, social reform, and cultural representations of the working class. He can be reached for question, comment, or debate at bishopw@purdue.edu

2 thoughts on “Review of The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico

  1. Pingback: News and Reviews | University of Nebraska Press blog

  2. Pingback: Roundtable Reflections on the Rio Olympics, Part 1 | Sport in American History

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