Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a historical bill to advance statehood for Washington, D.C., acknowledging that the capital’s 700,000 residents lack proper representation in Congress. However, the same could be said for over 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, who have for decades been in a similar struggle to no avail.
Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. is rooted in a history of discrimination. The island has been a territory of the United States since Spain ceded it in 1898, following America’s invasion of it during the Spanish-American War. Three years later, the Insular Cases of 1901 made clear that Puerto Ricans were bound to an unequal, colonial relationship grounded in racism in which the island’s residents were seen as inferior: The cases state the island is “inhabited by alien races” that could not understand “Anglo-Saxon principles,” and is, as a territory, “belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States.” The Constitution’s territorial clause gives Congress the power to determine which parts of the Constitution apply to territories and which do not; accordingly, Puerto Ricans were not granted citizenship until 1917, and only then so that they could serve in World War I. It took until 1947 for the people of the island to be given the right to vote for their own governor. Even today, only about half of American adults know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has a single non-voting delegate in Congress: its resident commissioner, representing a constituency that would be entitled to five seats and votes if it were located anywhere else in the nation. The island also is over 70 billion dollars in debt, but lacks many of the bankruptcy protections available to states. Scholars, politicians and activists agree that the current political status is unfair and unsustainable, but pro-statehood, pro-commonwealth and pro-independence perspectives constantly clash when looking for solutions.
This November, the island held its third status referendum of the decade, but regardless of its results — which favored statehood — the vote seems inconsequential. True power to amend Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States lies in the hands of the seemingly complacent federal government, where the people of the island have no representation. The nation’s legislators must heed the call of Puerto Ricans and make moving forward with a process of self-determination a priority.
Current Status and Political Perspectives
The question of status shapes Puerto Rican politics. The island’s main political parties are assembled based not on how liberal or conservative their ideologies are, but rather on what association with the U.S. they think is best for the island. The two biggest forces are the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista, or New Progressive Party, and the pro-commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático, or Popular Democratic Party. Both encompass diverse perspectives and have ties to the Democratic and Republican Parties, but within each party, its members agree on what relationship would be best for the island to have with the United States. The Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, or Puerto Rican Independence Party, has also existed since 1946, but fails to garner electoral support of the same scale.
Still, there is a general consensus among all of these parties that the current association is flawed. As Luis Fortuño, a former governor and resident commissioner from the pro-statehood PNP, told the HPR, “To believe that we can continue to live in this limbo forever simply makes no sense and puts us at a disadvantage.”
Fortuño claims that these disadvantages are partly responsible for Puerto Rico’s population decline. The Puerto Rican diaspora has seen the amount of Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states increase to nearly 6 million in 2018, from about 4.5 million in 2010. “The population of Puerto Rico is not only fewer people now, but it’s older,” explained Fortuño. “The younger population tends to leave the island because they see opportunities elsewhere.”
Even some members of the pro-commonwealth PPD acknowledge the need for reform. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who has also served as Puerto Rico’s governor and resident commissioner, confirmed this to the HPR: “I don’t think anybody is happy with the current relationship as it is … What we [members of the PPD] all agree on is that we want a relationship of association with the United States that is not subject to the plenary powers of Congress.”
Those plenary powers give Congress, in which the island has no true representation, power to pass bills that shape the island’s future, like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. PROMESA, passed in 2016, established “an Oversight Board to assist the Government of Puerto Rico … in managing its public finances, and for other purposes.” The Board members are appointed by the U.S. president, with the exception of an ex officio member designated by the governor of Puerto Rico, and have sweeping power over the local budget and economy. The Board’s main mission is “to create the necessary foundation for economic growth and to restore opportunity to the people of Puerto Rico,” but since its appointment, the island has seen many austerity measures go into effect under the body’s oversight, including cuts to the pensions of over 65,000 retirees and the closure of 283 public schools.
The imposition of such a board demonstrates that, like in 1901, the U.S. still believes Puerto Rico to be somewhat incapable of governing itself. On June 1, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Board’s appointment after a challenge to PROMESA argued that the appointment of local officers by Congress was unconstitutional. “Congress has ‘full and complete legislative authority over the people of the Territories and all the departments of the territorial governments,’” concurred Justice Clarence Thomas, citing an 1880 decision.
The fact that Puerto Rico is subject to the powers of this federally appointed board, of which no member is elected by people of the island, seems like a near-perfect example of colonialism. Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, an active advocate for Puerto Rican’s rights in Washington, concurs. “I think it’s important to use the word colony … Americans do not see themselves as a colonial empire, because it’s not taught in their schools,” Sierra-Zorita told the HPR.
Juan Dalmau, the only pro-independence PIP senator currently in the Puerto Rican Senate, also considers the distinction important, arguing that Puerto Rico is a nation in itself, with its own history, language and way of thought. In an interview with the HPR, Dalmau stated, “Contrary to Rosa Parks, who fought because she wanted to sit in the front of the bus and wanted to have equal rights, we think that Puerto Ricans, as a nation, have to aspire to drive their own bus.” According to Dalmau, the island would forever be subject to the rest of the nation’s wishes with any type of association, even as a state.
In short, politicians across the island have different ideas of what they want Puerto Rico to look like — but none of them desire a future that is similar to the island’s present.
The 2020 Referendum
Recent challenges have underscored the urgency of reevaluating Puerto Rico’s status. After Hurricane Maria struck in 2017, federal aid was slow to arrive and insufficient. A similar situation played out after earthquakes rattled the island in early 2020. It is impossible to know whether these responses would have been any different if Puerto Rico were a state, but there are clear differences from the aid states have received for comparable disasters. These differences exacerbate disparities in health care, education and more.
Some members of the PNP see these events as a spotlight on the unequal status that Puerto Rico possesses in the nation and, as a result, avidly promote the new referendum as a solution. However, the referendum has been met with opposition from the PPD and the PIP. When asked about the plebiscite, Eduardo Bhatia, the PPD minority leader in the Puerto Rican Senate, said, “It’s a totally local decision made by the governor [Wanda Vázquez] to cheat and lie to the people.” Bhatia claims the vote is insignificant and meant to reduce the impact of the very problematic term the PNP has had while in control the last four years.
Vázquez’s political problems largely stem from what is often referred to as TelegramGate. After a Telegram text chat in which former Governor Ricardo Roselló and several members of his cabinet used homophobic, sexist and racist language was leaked in the summer of 2019, people took to the streets to demand his resignation. When he and much of his cabinet resigned, the responsibility of governing fell upon then-Secretary of Justice Vázquez. Vázquez said she would only serve until the end of this term but announced her campaign for reelection toward the end of 2019 and was defeated in the primaries earlier in 2020. “Many members of the New Progressive Party had decided to not vote [in 2020], to stay home … They are trying to grasp whatever she can to try to see if she can muster a majority,” Bhatia claimed.
Bhatia’s point could perhaps be substantiated by the unique way this referendum poses the question of the island’s status: It does not ask Puerto Ricans which option they prefer, as the question has mostly been constructed before, but rather asks for a “yes” or “no” response to becoming a state. The “yes” majority vote that was favored will establish a seven-member commission that would develop a transition plan to be presented to Congress. A similar outcome would have resulted from a “no” majority vote, but their plan would not include statehood in the solution.
Even leaders in the PNP acknowledge that this vote will not be the island’s saving grace — but they still believe in the vote itself. “When something is difficult to attain, it is because it is worthwhile,” argued Fortuño. “It is going to be a process, and I believe this November’s vote is part of a process, not the beginning nor the end.” After all, Puerto Rico held referendums on status in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017, but Congress has not been engaged in the process or seemed to care about any of them.
If this was a move by the PNP to get their voters out, it seems to have worked. Their candidate for governor, Pedro Pierluisi, won the election with merely 33% of the popular vote, highlighting how the two traditional Puerto Rican parties, the PNP and PPD, have been steadily losing ground the past few elections. Smaller parties such as the PIP, the left-leaning Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizen’s Victory Movement), and the right-leaning Proyecto Dignidad (Dignity Project) will all hold seats in the Puerto Rican legislature these next four years.
If no locally designed referendums have led to anything, maybe it is time that Puerto Rico tried something different. Sadly, however, the island cannot do this alone. Sierra-Zorita believes the vote on status in 2020 will have no consequences, but she also said a potential alternative could be a binding referendum drafted in cooperation with Congress.
However, Puerto Rico’s path to statehood is not straightforward, and would certainly face opposition. It is not unusual to see progressive activists calling for outright Puerto Rican statehood, but Sierra-Zorita noted, “Whenever non-Puerto Rican people … talk about, with very good intentions, that we should be a state — it’s like, that’s not up to you to decide, it’s up to Puerto Ricans, and I feel really strongly and am irritated by that kind of talk.” The concept of self-determination is based on giving Puerto Ricans the power to decide their own fate. Imposing statehood would be as coercive as the island’s current status.
The Path to Change
When talking about changes to Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S., the island is downplayed and constantly portrayed as a burden. Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt cannot be overlooked. However, we do not contextualize the debt with the fact that Puerto Rico is subject to the Jones Act, which means Puerto Rico can only receive goods shipped from U.S. ports on American-owned ships, greatly benefiting the nation at the island’s expense. Studies have concluded that without the Jones Act, Puerto Rico could have gained nearly $1.5 billion of economic activity and 13,250 jobs. Similarly, we ignore the fact that the U.S. Navy controlled over 26,000 acres of Puerto Rican land on the island of Vieques from 1941 to 2003, a large part of which they rented out to other armed forces for profits of over $80 million a year. Moreover, most U.S. companies pay virtually no taxes to the Puerto Rican government. The island’s colonial status has hindered economic development and continues to do so.
This presidential election was undeniably consequential for Puerto Rico. President Donald Trump has said statehood for Puerto Rico is an “absolute no,” and Mitch McConell vehemently opposes it as well, but the Republican Platform of 2016 fully supported statehood. President-elect Joe Biden, on the other hand, wrote a column claiming he would favor “a process of self-determination, listening and developing federal legislation that outlines a fair path forward.”
Though statehood for Puerto Rico is unlikely to pass in Mitch McConell’s Senate, Congress should show the same level of concern for the rights of the disenfranchised citizens of Puerto Rico that they do for those in D.C. The United States benefits from having Puerto Rico as a colony, but at the expense of the Puerto Rican people. Senators like Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have introduced bills that could provide debt relief for Puerto Rico; however, it is time for Congress to tackle the root of Puerto Rico’s issue and seek to amend its status through a process of self-determination.
Not only Puerto Ricans living in the states but all Americans should care about their fellow citizens on the island and hold their representatives accountable to help break the vicious cycle in which Puerto Rico has been stuck: waiting for Congress, in which they have no say, to care about its people’s rights and representation. Until that shift, it seems like the island’s plight will go unanswered, and its residents will keep bearing the brunt of colonialism.
Image Credit: “US and Puerto Rican flags on a car in San Juan, Puerto Rico” by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0