As woes deepen, Puerto Ri­cans see an op­por­tu­nity

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY DAN­ICA COTO

Revel­ers ar­rived in cars sport­ing the Amer­i­can flag and wore clothes in red, white and blue as they cel­e­brated the an­niver­sary of Puerto Rico’s pro-state­hood po­lit­i­cal party with deaf­en­ing salsa mu­sic and speeches.

Like many oth­ers wor­ried about the U.S. ter­ri­tory’s fu­ture, those ral­ly­ing Thurs­day night in the coastal town of Ma­nati be­lieve that state­hood can help pull it out of a nearly a decade of eco­nomic stag­na­tion. “Puerto Rico has to be­come a state,” in­sisted 63-year-old cel­e­brant Norma Can­de­lario.

With un­em­ploy­ment at 12 per­cent, and the public debt reach­ing US$72 bil­lion, ad­vo­cates for mak­ing the Caribbean is­land the 51st state say the eco­nomic woes are strength­en­ing their ar­gu­ments. As a state, Puerto Rico’s mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and public util­i­ties would no longer be pro­hib­ited from restruc­tur­ing their debts through bank­ruptcy. It would also re­ceive more of cer­tain kinds of fed­eral fund­ing that other states get.

“The cri­sis has made us more vis­i­ble world­wide,” said Car­los Pes­quera, a for­mer Puerto Rico trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary who at­tended the rally. “I would have pre­ferred that the cri­sis not hap­pen, but we’re go­ing to take this as an op­por­tu­nity to de­fine our sta­tus, to see it as a so­lu­tion.”

Puerto Ri­cans have been di­vided over their re­la­tion­ship to the U.S. main­land for decades. Since 1967, most vot­ers in three ref­er­en­dums have fa­vored re­main­ing a semi-au­ton­o­mous ter­ri­tory, which ad­vo­cates say pre­serves the is­land’s cul­tural iden­tity and pro­vides more lo­cal con­trol.

State­hood was a close sec­ond place in all three votes, with in­de­pen­dence com­ing in a dis­tant third. But sup­port for join­ing the union rose in each ref­er­en­dum and ap­pears to be gain­ing. In the most re­cent elec­tion, in Novem­ber 2012, for the first time more than half of vot­ers said they fa­vored a change from the ter­ri­tory’s cur­rent sta­tus and a plu­ral­ity said they sup­ported state­hood. Back­ers of the sta­tus quo said the bal­lot was flawed and re­jected the out­come.

A re­cent poll by lo­cal re­search firm Gaither In­ter­na­tional found 40 per­cent of Puerto Ri­cans fa­vored state­hood, with 27 per­cent op­posed and 33 per­cent ex­press­ing no opin­ion. Among those with an opin­ion, 60 per­cent fa­vored state­hood, com­pared with 56 per­cent in a sim­i­lar poll con­ducted five years ago.

“Puerto Rico needs state­hood at some point be­cause of the eco­nomic cri­sis,” said Nel Bal­seiro, 43, a fu­neral home owner and for­mer mayor who un­til two years ago sup­ported the sta­tus quo. “We need that to have a real chance at pro­gress­ing.”

The gains for state­hood re­flect the dis­mal times on the is­land, said Gilberto Cas­tro de Ar­mas, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at Gaither In­ter­na­tional.

An es­ti­mated 144,000 peo­ple left the ter­ri­tory be­tween 2010 and 2013 in the largest ex­o­dus in decades and about a third of all peo­ple born in Puerto Rico now live in the U.S. main­land. So many busi­nesses and schools have closed and so many peo­ple have left the is­land that some neigh­bor­hoods re­sem­ble ghost towns.

“Po­lit­i­cal changes oc­cur dur­ing times of eco­nomic and so­cial stress,” said Cas­tro de Ar­mas. “You don’t have to be a for­tune teller. Peo­ple are aban­don­ing the ship be­cause they think it’s sink­ing.”

State­hood pro­po­nents say the ex­o­dus is the best proof of grow­ing sup­port for their cause.

Ju­dith Colon, 44, who man­ages so­cial media ac­counts for Puerto Rico’s pro-state­hood party, said mov­ing to the U.S. is among the few op­tions avail­able to Puerto Ri­cans strug­gling eco­nom­i­cally.

She and other state­hood sup­port­ers say join­ing the union would pro­vide the kind of needed eco­nomic ben­e­fits Puerto Ri­cans get when they move to the main­land.

The lo­cal gov­ern­ment re­ceives lower Med­i­caid and Medi­care re­im­burse­ments, forc­ing it to spend more than US$1 bil­lion a year in Med­i­caid alone than if it were a U.S. state, said is­land con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tive Pe­dro Pier­luisi, who is run­ning for gover­nor next year. Puerto Rico also faces lim­ited child tax cred­its and is barred from ac­cess­ing other tax cred­its in­clud­ing one meant to pro­mote la­bor par­tic­i­pa­tion, and there is no sup­ple­men­tal So­cial Se­cu­rity in­come for dis­abled peo­ple, he said. In ad­di­tion, there’s a cap on a nu­tri­tional as­sis­tance pro­gram in which the is­land is short­changed by roughly US$1 bil­lion a year, he said.

“The cur­rent cri­sis has brought to light the lim­its of Puerto Rico’s cur­rent ter­ri­to­rial sta­tus,” said Pier­luisi, who prom­ises to hold a ref­er­en­dum on whether the is­land should be­come a state if he’s elected. “From an eco­nomic stand­point, there’s no ques­tion that bil­lions of ad­di­tional dol­lars would be flow­ing into Puerto Rico’s econ­omy if we were treated equally and fairly ... The dis­par­i­ties we have in the way fed­eral pro­grams ap­ply in Puerto Rico are atro­cious.”

State­hood sup­port­ers also say join­ing the union would end their per­ceived sec­ond-class sta­tus. Even though Puerto Rico res­i­dents are U.S. cit­i­zens, they can­not vote in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and have only one rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Congress who has lim­ited vot­ing power.

But the is­land’s Gover­nor Ale­jan­dro Gar­cia Padilla, whose party sup­ports the cur­rent com­mon­wealth sta­tus, has said state­hood “would turn Puerto Rico into a ghetto.”

Oth­ers, like Jorge Col­berg, sec­re­tary of Gar­cia’s Pop­u­lar Demo­cratic Party, say Puerto Rico’s eco­nomic prob­lems are a re­sult of poor public ad­min­is­tra­tion, not its sta­tus. “Spend­ing more than what you have has noth­ing to do with po­lit­i­cal sta­tus,” Col­berg said.

He said that hold­ing a plebiscite now would cre­ate un­cer­tainty for in­vestors as the is­land tries to re­struc­ture its debt and warned that state­hood would elim­i­nate cer­tain tax breaks and in­crease other taxes.

Puerto Rico state­hood would re­quire ap­proval from the U.S. Congress, where it would face a tough fight be­cause the ter­ri­tory is con­sid­ered to lean to­ward the U.S.’ cen­ter­left Demo­cratic Party and it would have two sen­a­tors and five rep­re­sen­ta­tives if it be­came a state. But it could be hard for Congress to block it if a strong ma­jor­ity of Puerto Ri­cans demon­strated sup­port for join­ing the union.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has said he sup­ports state­hood if Puerto Ri­cans clearly back it, and op­po­si­tion Repub­li­can Party pres­i­den­tial candi- date Jeb Bush has said he be­lieves state­hood is the best op­tion.

Many on the is­land think Puerto Rico is near­ing that day.

“This is the best in­her­i­tance we can leave our chil­dren,” said Can­de­lario, who moved back to the is­land from the Bronx to help out a strug­gling daugh­ter. “I have grand­chil­dren, and I would like to leave them some­thing spe­cial. It would be good if they could study here and work here.”


(Top) A sup­porter of the New Pro­gres­sive Party waves a pro-state­hood flag at a rally mark­ing the party’s 48th an­niver­sary Ma­nati, Puerto Rico, Thurs­day, Aug. 20. Ad­vo­cates for mak­ing the Caribbean is­land the 51st state say the eco­nomic woes are strength­en­ing their ar­gu­ments. As a state, Puerto Rico’s mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and public util­i­ties would no longer be pro­hib­ited from restruc­tur­ing their debts through bank­ruptcy. It would also re­ceive more of cer­tain kinds of U.S. fed­eral fund­ing that other states get. (Above) A New Pro­gres­sive Party sup­porter wears a U.S. flag T-shirt dur­ing a rally in Ma­nati, Thurs­day. State­hood sup­port­ers say be­com­ing the U.S.’ 51st state would, among other things, end their per­ceived sec­ond-class sta­tus. Even though res­i­dents are U.S. cit­i­zens, they can­not vote in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions and have only one rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the U.S. na­tional leg­is­la­ture who has lim­ited vot­ing power.

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