Is Statehood Next for Puerto Rico? It’s Complicated.

Can a century-old colonial crisis be solved before a once-in-a-generation opportunity passes the island by?

Gabriela Medina was around 10 years old when she first learned in school that the United States’ president was her president, too. The Congress she’d heard about? The one that met thousands of miles away across the ocean? Well, they made laws that applied to her as well, laws that often superseded the ones enacted by leaders at home in Puerto Rico.

But what really stuck with Gabriela was something so fundamentally unfair, so mind-blowingly unjust, it began shaping her political identity. As a Puerto Rican living in the archipelago, she would never be able to choose who represented her in the White House, or on Capitol Hill. Her place of birth made her effectively voiceless in the democratic process. This is the curse of living in the oldest colony in the world, which the U.S. took control of following the Spanish-American War nearly 123 years ago.

Gabriela’s newfound knowledge made her furious. The way she saw the situation, Puerto Rico had two options to solve this stalemate: become a U.S. state or an independent nation. But independence felt drastic, as did the thought of losing the American citizenship Puerto Ricans have had since 1917, and with it the ability to easily see family members who had relocated stateside. Statehood, with all of its benefits, seemed like the logical solution.

“It was a little bit more simplistic back then. I thought of this in 10-year-old terms, but it actually hasn’t changed that much in the fundamentals,” said Gabriela, 33, now president of the Young Democrats’ Puerto Rico chapter. “My arguments have just become more refined.”

The status question is the beating heart of politics in Puerto Rico today. It’s the issue that anchors its major political parties, fills the airwaves, and triggers family arguments on Mother’s Day. For estadistas like Gabriela, welcoming Puerto Rico into the union is a long-overdue matter of civil rights. But unlike the status of Washington, D.C., where nearly 90% of the population supports statehood, there are other schools of opinion on the island.

There are those who believe in the current territorial status, who argue Puerto Ricans are their own people — not Americans — and what should remain is a partnership that allows for self-governance with long-lasting support from the United States. Others believe the benefits Puerto Rico currently receives can be further expanded without necessarily becoming a state by making it an “enhanced commonwealth.” And then there are those who believe Puerto Rico is its own nation and should be free from the shackles of empire, something the island has not experienced since 1493 when it was first claimed as a colony by the Spanish crown. Independence, they argue, would allow Puerto Rico to finally live up to its modern potential, without oversight from a foreign power. It could cut its own trade agreements, build its own economy, and preserve the island’s national identity.

Despite these profound disagreements over what’s best for Puerto Rico, most boricuas these days seem to agree on one thing: The current territorial arrangement, which has been in place since 1952, is unsustainable. The Estado Libre Asociado (ELA), which cemented the archipelago as a U.S. colony, feels like a failed experiment. The problem comes down even to its name, which literally translates to “associated free state,” as Puerto Rico is neither associated, nor free, nor a state.

Today, the planets seem to be aligned to put an end to the U.S. colony’s perpetual state of disenfranchised limbo. Two competing bills attempting to solve the status issue were filed in March in the U.S. House and Senate. The Natural Resources Committee, which oversees territorial affairs, is set to consider both pieces of legislation in a historic hearing set for April 14. But, as with most things in la Isla del Encanto, the question of Puerto Rico’s status is more complex than it seems.

On Election Day 2020, boricua voters were asked in a local, nonbinding referendum, “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?” The “Yes” option won with 52.5% or 655,505 voters. “Even with five parties against the referendum, the U.S. Department of Justice’s refusal to support this process, and the pandemic, our people were clear and a majority chose statehood,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who was elected in November and belongs to the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), said. “To question and ignore the people’s will is disrespectful.”

While statehood won the referendum, Pierluisi himself only obtained 33% of the gubernatorial vote, the first time a major party candidate has failed to reach 40%. Both chambers of the Puerto Rican legislature are now controlled by his opposition, the pro-commonwealth party Partido Popular Democrático (PPD). And the gubernatorial candidate for the pro-independence Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP) locked a historic 14% of the vote, a double-digit win the party hadn’t achieved since the 1950s. Depending on who you ask, the results either indicate strong support for statehood separate from the island’s partisan politics — or they show that Puerto Ricans remain as divided as ever on the status question.

Hugo Rodríguez, a former pro-independence senatorial candidate, said the referendum is not representative of what boricuas want. “The United States has been here in Puerto Rico for more than a century, spreading federal money to a lot of people, persecuting the independence movement,” he said. “After all that time, it has a little margin — only 53% for statehood. That cannot be seen as a victory of the statehood movement.”

But bolstering Pierluisi’s cause is the fact nearly two in three Americans support Puerto Rican statehood. Nationally, there’s also more awareness about the archipelago’s colonial status than ever before, due to a series of cascading crises in recent years: the catastrophic Hurricane Maria with its 3,000 deaths and $139 billion in damages, the downward financial spiral caused by the government’s debt crisis, and a series of devastating earthquakes just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Locally, Puerto Ricans have been rebelling against the status quo: They ousted Gov. Ricardo Roselló in 2019, gave 30% support to minority gubernatorial candidates in November’s election, and have forged mutual aid networks to fill the void left by the government.

Stateside Democrats, who are unsurprisingly friendly to the idea of Puerto Rico as a 51st state, now hold majorities in the House and Senate. And President Biden, who personally supports statehood, campaigned on working with representatives of each status option to “engage in a fair and binding process.”

Florida Democratic Rep. Darren Soto and Puerto Rico’s nonvoting GOP Rep. Jennifer Gonzalez-Colón are betting on Biden’s personal belief in estadidad with the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act. Their bill offers a straightforward path: Puerto Ricans would vote again on statehood, but this time the election would be federally binding. The measure is supported by the entire Democratic delegation in Florida, where over a million Puerto Ricans live. The bill, which has bipartisan support in the House but not the Senate, offers a path similar to what Alaska and Hawaii followed to become states, Soto said. (González-Colón did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Despite the fact that statehood has been part of the Democratic National Committee’s platform for nearly a decade, the bill faces opposition from a key Democrat. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said in recent months that he won’t support a statehood bill because the latest referendum showed “there is no consensus, there is division” on the status question. He added he is concerned about local legislation that could accelerate the process of Puerto Rico becoming a tax haven for the rich.

The other elephant in the room is how hostile the GOP has been to the idea of Puerto Rican statehood. Republicans claim it would automatically mean adding two Democratic Senate seats and conservatives would “never” get back control of the chamber. The consequence would be “full-bore socialism.” Despite this fear-mongering, the GOP has supported making the island a state in its platform for the last two elections. In practical terms, the statehood bill would need 60 votes to pass in the Senate, and those are numbers Soto and Gonzalez-Colón do not have yet. Two potential GOP allies, Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, have said they would favor making Puerto Rico a state but have not yet signed on to the latest push. “They need to step up,” Soto said. “They were happy enough to count their support for statehood as they were running for office and getting votes from Puerto Ricans across the state. Now’s the time for action.”

Meanwhile, Hugo Rodríguez’s party, the PIP, is supporting legislation put forward by New York Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represent the state with the second-largest boricua settlement in the U.S. “This is a problem of self-determination of a nation, a different nation from the United States,” Rodríguez said. “We have to confront the Congress with their responsibility to solve the problem.”

The AOC-backed Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, which has been endorsed by over 80 progressive organizations, would create a “status convention” made up of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters. These delegates would be responsible for coming up with long-term alternatives to the island’s territorial status — whether that’s statehood, independence, a free association, or other options — and developing transition plans for each. The options would be put up for a vote among the Puerto Rican people in a federally binding election. “This is not a regular election, this is an election to end colonial rule,” Rep. Velázquez said. “It’s an election that recognizes that it is inherent to the people of Puerto Rico to determine their political future.”

The act had about 30 more co-sponsors, including a Republican senator, than the statehood bill at the time of its introduction. “For decades, referendums and plebiscites have done more to delegitimize and undermine a process of self-determination than to advance it. They have been conducted unilaterally by one party without the input of other duly elected parties and Congress,” a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez said.

A similar measure creating a constitutional convention, known as HR5, was introduced locally by the pro-commonwealth PPD in January. HR5 would not be binding and would require an election to determine whether Puerto Ricans want to go ahead with the self-determination process. While the measure could potentially pass in the PPD-controlled legislature, it’s unlikely to be signed into law by Gov. Pierluisi.

History is not on the side of estadistas who want Puerto Rico to be admitted into the union. It’s also not on the side of people like Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez, who are proposing binding, two-way negotiations between the Puerto Rican people and Congress — something that has not happened since Hawaii became a state in 1959.

A major reason the U.S. hasn’t moved faster to make Puerto Rico a state is that boricuas have a firmly held national identity. Puerto Ricans call the island a país, nuestra patria — a country, our motherland. And for all the U.S. rhetoric about “our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a majority of boricuas identifying themselves as American first. The unofficial Puerto Rican anthems are “Preciosa” and “Boricua en la Luna,” not “America the Beautiful.” Christmas is full of pernil and arroz con gandules, late-night parrandas instead of caroling. English is not Puerto Ricans’ first language, nor is the American flag the one that flies above many homes, especially after Hurricane Maria.

“It’s just an important current that you cannot underestimate — the call to our national providence: a need to defend Puerto Rico’s dignity, Puerto Rico’s right to maintain its personality, its Spanish, its Olympic representation, its representation in beauty pageants, that want to keep las peleas de gallo,” said José Colón, PhD, a political scientist and professor at the University of Puerto Rico.

Despite profound disagreements over what’s best for Puerto Rico, most boricuas these days seem to agree on one thing: The current arrangement is unsustainable.

But there’s seldom any recognition of the feedback loop involved, with boricuas resisting assimilation because they are treated as an afterthought by the U.S. No president visited Puerto Rico after JFK in 1961 until President Obama visited for four hours in 2011. Nearly half of Americans as recently as 2017 didn’t know boricuas were U.S. citizens. Puerto Ricans have limited access to federal programs, including Medicaid and Social Security benefits, and have experienced uncountable instances of racism stateside.

The Insular Cases claimed at the turn of the 20th century that Puerto Rico and other territories “belong to, but are not part of” the U.S. and accorded its citizens limited constitutional rights because the islands were “inhabited by alien races.” Governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible,” the U.S. Supreme Court argued. The cases have yet to be overturned.

The island’s two main parties, the pro-statehood PNP and the pro-commonwealth PPD, have attempted to ram through a fix to the colonial status through six nonbinding status plebiscites in the last 50 years. Three of the votes have happened since 2012. But the 2012 and 2017 votes, where statehood seemed to win, were deemed faulty due to issues with voter turnout, boycotts, and incomplete ballots.

Only the most recent referendum has led to massive support for change in Congress. The consensus on the island is that the current political arrangement benefits the U.S., even if it has harmed generations of Puerto Ricans. But the 2020 results might prove sixth time’s the charm.

It will not be easy. There are fears the infighting among boricuas and their allies won’t be solved before this critical window of opportunity closes. “We’re stuck in this push and pull between two camps of people,” said Gabriela Medina, president of the Young Democrats’ Puerto Rico chapter and supporter of the statehood bill. “Unless one side gives, we might not get anywhere.”

That statehood gained ground in recent years is rooted in the never-ending state of crisis in which the island has found itself. Puerto Rico has experienced a 15-year-long recession and a $72 billion debt the local government can’t pay, which led to the creation of a financial control board under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). “It’s a kind of double democratic deficit. We didn’t participate in the congressional decision of approving PROMESA,” Colón said. “Now we elect the legislature and the governor, but the decisions that they take are ultimately conditioned to what the board decides.”

The board has pushed drastic austerity measures, worsening conditions for a place where nearly half of the population lives in poverty, and forcing a mass exodus that continues to this day. About a million Puerto Ricans have left in the last 15 years. Today, around 3.2 million boricuas live on the island — versus more than five million who are stateside.

When Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, it was the worst natural disaster Puerto Rico had faced in nearly a century, bringing with it a level of unprecedented devastation from which the archipelago hasn’t fully recovered. Even now, when you fly over Puerto Rico, you still see blue tarps in place of where hundreds of roofs should be. The island town of Vieques — where the U.S. Navy conducted military exercises for 60 years, leading to a health and environmental crisis that persists today — has not seen its hospital rebuilt three years after Maria destroyed it. The Trump administration and allies resisted and slow-walked the release of federal recovery funds earmarked for Puerto Ricans. The local government’s response was not any better, with its hands tied by the federal government while also plagued with accusations of corruption. Puerto Ricans’ anger at then-Gov. Rosselló and his cronies would eventually be the catalyst for his ouster. But President Trump’s lackluster, and even racist, response to the storm pulled the wool off of many people’s eyes: Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony.

Though some see independence as the answer to these injustices, the movement is barely a blip in local politics after being violently squashed through legislation that criminalized Puerto Rican nationalism, dossiers known as las carpetas kept by a secret island police with aid from the federal government, and even the killings of political leaders and supporters, among other horrors throughout the 20th century. On the other hand, statehood is seen by many as the practical solution.

But why would Puerto Ricans, as colonized people, want equal footing with a country that presumably does not want them back? Colón, the political scientist, said that while many pro-statehood boricuas see themselves as Americans, there’s an entire section of voters who weigh how tightly the island and the U.S. are intertwined. “There’s a great deal of pragmatism in terms of, ‘You probably don’t want to accept me as a state, but you have been considering what to do with this territory too long, and now your time is up,’” he said.

As the leader of the PNP, Gov. Pierluisi has already endorsed the statehood legislation and criticized the idea of a status convention. In his view, November’s referendum was an act of self-determination. There is also a feeling that Reps. Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez are against Puerto Rican statehood because they are pushing for a different process, but Velázquez rejected the idea.

“I think that our bill is not against statehood. If statehood wins, believe me, I will be the first one to tell Congress, ‘Now, what are you going to do?’” she said, adding that as someone born in Yabucoa and with family on the island, it’s her responsibility to fight for Puerto Rico. “This is not something esoteric for me, this is real,” she said. “It’s my blood, it’s my family.”

One of the features of the self-determination legislation is ranked-choice voting, which could potentially guarantee a victory for statehood. A report by the progressive think tank Data for Progress found that a plurality of boricuas would vote for statehood in this scenario, particularly if no option breaks 50% and there’s a runoff. “We found 83% of people want a status option that is outside of the current status quo,” said Giovanni Pagán Vélez, one of the researchers. “In the experiments that we ran there was an instant runoff, and we kept narrowing it down until you had two final options. In all of them, statehood has a plurality.”

Changes in the Puerto Rican political landscape, combined with boricuas’ recent grassroots awakenings, give us a glimpse of what could be. But the most likely scenario remains that the status crisis won’t be solved any time soon.

As a political scientist, Colón has spent his life researching U.S.-Puerto Rico relations. It’s the type of work that would make anyone deeply cynical, but the professor is looking toward younger boricuas as the ones who might break the curse of the oldest colony of the world.

“There’s grassroots mobilization and community organizing taking place that will never stop, even if the status discussions falter. These are efforts to move beyond what we know and, and to start moving the island in a new direction,” Colón said. “At some point, this mobilization will correspond with the political reality of Puerto Rico and its status. Then, maybe, that will be the real aligning of the planets.”

Journalist covering politics, elections, immigration, feminism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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