Should Puerto Rico be a US state?

De­bat­ing the is­land’s sta­tus.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire - MOLLY HEN­NESSY-FISKE

Dev­as­tated by Hur­ri­cane Irma at the end of Sep­tem­ber, Puerto Rico has barely even be­gun to re­cover. Most of the is­land is with­out shel­ter, wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, and cru­cially, aid is slow to ar­rive and be ef­fec­tively dis­trib­uted. With the fu­ture look­ing very bleak, the catas­tro­phe has reignited the de­bate about whether this U.S. ter­ri­tory, should be­come the 51st Amer­i­can state.

Puerto Ri­cans have long felt like sec­ond-class U.S. cit­i­zens. The is­land lacks vot­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress or any power in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Nearly ev­ery­thing costs more, in­clud­ing health care. And now, amid the dev­as­ta­tion of Hur­ri­cane Maria, Puerto Rico has an­other re­minder of its sta­tus as a non-state: the slow ar­rival of fed­eral as­sis­tance. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ex­pla­na­tion for the dif­fi­culty of pro­vid­ing aid only re­in­forced its sense of iso­la­tion. “This is an is­land, sur­rounded by wa­ter,” he said. “Big wa­ter. Ocean wa­ter.” 2. The re­sponse to the dis­as­ter has re­vived a long-stand­ing de­bate over the ter­ri­tory’s re­la­tion­ship to the rest of the United States and what could be done to ad­dress the in­equal­i­ties.“It is cer­tainly the re­spon­si­bil­ity of all U. S. cit­i­zens to ask them­selves if we be­lieve in democ­racy, if we be­lieve in rights and equal­ity which are the pil­lars of our so­ci­ety, how can we still have a colo­nial ter­ri­tory with more than 3 mil­lion cit­i­zens that don’t have ac­cess to the same rights and the same po­lit­i­cal power?” Puerto Rico Gov. Ri­cardo Ros­sello told re­porters.


3. Ros­sello and his New Pro­gres­sive Party ar­gue that the first step to right­ing the wrongs is to make the is­land a state. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Puerto Ri­cans ap­pear to agree with him, based on five ref­er­en­dums held on the is­sue since 1967. The most re­cent, in June, of­fered vot­ers three op­tions: the cur­rent ter­ri­to­rial sta­tus, state­hood or in­de­pen­dence in free as­so­ci­a­tion with the U. S. State­hood won with 97 per­cent of the vote. But turnout was his­tor­i­cally low at 23 per- cent, in part be­cause of a boy­cott by the Pop­u­lar Demo­cratic Party, which fa­vors the sta­tus quo.

4. Ul­ti­mately, Puerto Rico has lit­tle say in whether it be­comes a state. That power rests with Congress — both the House and Se­nate would have to ap­prove it — and the pres­i­dent, who would have to sign off on it.

5. The U. S. seized Puerto Rico in the Span­ishAmer­i­can War in 1898 and granted its peo-

ple ci­ti­zen­ship in 1917. They pay fed­eral taxes, but the res­i­dent com­mis­sioner who rep­re­sents them in Congress has no vote, and their votes in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions are largely sym­bolic, since the is­land has no elec­toral votes.

6. The is­land’s deep eco­nomic cri­sis was al­ready fu­el­ing new calls for state­hood when Hur­ri­cane Maria hit on 20 Sep­tem­ber. Its dev­as­ta­tion has given new life to the cam­paign. Jose Fuentes, chair­man of the Wash­ing­ton-based Puerto Rico State­hood Coun­cil, said now is the time for Congress to put Puerto Rico “on the road to state­hood” by bring­ing its tax, ed­u­ca­tion and health care re­im­burse­ments in line with the main­land. “The de­struc­tion in Puerto Rico gave the U.S. a chance to do the right thing and re­build the ter­ri­tory as a state,” he said.


7. The push for state­hood has mixed sup­port among mem­bers of Congress with Puerto Ri­can roots, ad­vo­cates and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers on the is­land. Two of the is­land’s main po­lit­i­cal par­ties sup­port ei­ther in­de­pen­dence or a ver­sion of the cur­rent com­mon­wealth sta­tus.

8. San Juan Mayor Car­men Yulin Cruz, who has traded barbs with Trump in re­cent days over de­layed fed­eral hur­ri­cane aid, said that state­hood won’t turn Puerto Rico into “Dis­ney­land.” She noted that deep dis­par­i­ties in wealth, ed­u­ca­tion and other eco­nomic-so­cial indi­ca­tors ex­ist be­tween U. S. states.

9.“I’m an ad­vo­cate of a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship with the U. S. that al­lows us more power, more sovereignty, and that rec­og­nizes Puerto Rico as a Caribbean na­tion,” she said. “In the next few months we have to talk about what that re­la­tion­ship should be.”

10. Loom­ing over the ques­tion of Puerto Rico’s sta­tus is the exodus of Puerto Ri­cans to the U. S. main­land, a process that was al­ready

be­ing driven by eco­nomic hard­ship but seems poised to ac­cel­er­ate in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Maria.

11.“We don’t know if these folks are over­whelm­ingly pro-state­hood, or pro-com­mon­wealth. We have no idea who’s leav­ing the is­land,” said Amil­car Bar­reto, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, in­ter­na­tional af­fairs and public pol­icy at North­east­ern Univer­sity.

12. For many Puerto Ri­cans, he said, “The sta­tus is­sue is about your iden­tity: Do you iden­tify as Amer­i­can? More Puerto Ri­can than Amer­i­can?”As Ros­sello pointed out, any Puerto Ri­can can sim­ply move to the U. S. main­land and be guar­an­teed the full rights of all cit­i­zens.


13. On the streets of San Juan, it isn’t hard to find sup­port for state­hood. “I was born in New York. Now I live in Puerto Rico. I don’t have the same rights I had there?” said Peter Carasquillo, 50, a film writer and di­rec­tor who voted for state­hood in the last ref­er­en­dum. “They should have taken up this is­sue a long time ago.” He had lost his home in the hur­ri­cane and was wait­ing in a line for help from the Fed­eral Emergency Man­age­ment Agency. He hoped to stay on the is­land and re­build. 14. Sit­ting nearby, Odalys Baez agreed. “We are Amer­i­can,” said Baez, 34. “I lived in Mi­ami for six months and there’s so much more help there: more med­i­cal help, ed­u­ca­tion for chil­dren, op­por­tu­ni­ties to bet­ter your­self, to set up busi­nesses.” She and her fa­ther, a Pen­te­costal pas­tor 20 miles south in Naran­jito, had come for help re­pair­ing their church, which lost its roof in the hur­ri­cane.

15.“We should be­come the 51st state,” said the Rev. Car­los Baez Rivera, 56. “I know the U. S. has its own prob­lems, but we should be uni­fied. We are part of the United States. We have prob­lems the U.S. can help us with, like the econ­omy, but mostly it’s the feel­ing in­side, that we are Amer­i­can.”

"We have prob­lems the U.S. can help us with... but mostly it's the feel­ing in­side, that we are Amer­i­can."

(Ger­ald Her­bert/AP/SIPA)

Peo­ple line up with gas cans in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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