Should Puerto Rico be a US state?
Debating the island’s status.
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.
THE STATEHOOD MOVEMENT
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.
“A CARRIBEAN NATION”
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."
People line up with gas cans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.