Puerto Rico’s Status: Time For Statehood?

Although it has been American territory for 122 years, Puerto Rico has still not achieved statehood, despite its rather large population, bigger than that of many states and all other non-state American territories. Why is this, and will it change soon?

Puerto Rico, originally, was a part of the Spanish Empire. It would remain a Spanish colony for centuries, until the end of the 19th century. However, in the closing years of the 19th century, a war began between the faltering Spanish Empire and the ascendant United States of America over conflicts in Cuba and the Phillippines. The United States would win this war, causing several former Spanish colonies to become American territories. Over time, these colonies would either become independent nations or remain a non-state American territory. Puerto Rico would become a commonwealth in 1952 but has not changed status since.

One debate that has dominated Puerto Rican politics is the debate about whether or not to become the next state, unlike with the much less populous Guam. This has resulted in a series of referendums being conducted in the territory, to gauge the support for statehood in the population. Based on these referendums, support has slowly grown and appears to be approaching a majority of people who vote in these referendums. Support in the general populace outside of Puerto Rico has increased, as well. One example of this shift of public opinion was during the 2012 presidential election, where both candidates were open to statehood in the wake of a referendum favorable for the cause.

In my opinion, Puerto Rico finally becoming the 51st state would end up being a good thing for the island territory. Some long-standing problems, as well as more recent crises, have been making the case for Purto Rican statehood. Statehood would lessen or eliminate these issues, and also result in some newfound benefits.

The first of these issues has existed ever since Puerto Rico has become an American territory. Despite its large population, the lack of statehood means the territory has no real representation in the federal government. Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential primaries, but do not vote in presidential elections. Thus, candidates can ignore issues that are going on in Puerto Rico, as it generally doesn’t affect how people would vote in a general election. In addition, Puerto Rico does not have senators in the U.S. Senate and has a single representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, who does not vote. This means Puerto Rico has no real representation in Congress either, which allows it and its issues to be of a lower priority than issues affecting one of the 50 states.

Another long-standing downside to not being a state is a lack of recognization from the American people. Polls have shown that until recently, a worryingly small amount of people knew that Puerto Rican people had the same birthright citizenship as the rest of the country, which likely contributed to the lackluster reaction from the federal government after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Becoming another U.S. state would help immensely to get people to recognize that Puerto Ricans are Americans.

Credit: PR51st

Another reason for the support of statehood is the lagging economy. This has been an increasing problem ever since former President Clinton repealed Internal Revenue Code Section 936 in 1996, which had allowed businesses to have tax-free operations in Puerto Rico, which helped power its manufacturing sector. After it was phased out, Puerto Rico’s manufacturing sector took a hit, which was followed by the 2008 financial crisis. Puerto Rico fell into debt, and unemployment surged.

Credit: Council on Foreign Relations.

These economic troubles have led to an exodus away from the island, which has hurt the economy further. However, becoming a state would help slow this downward spiral. Becoming a state means Puerto Rico will have representation in Congress at last, which would allow for this issue to be addressed by the nation. In addition, being a state could allow it to receive billions in federal aid, which would help its crisis with debt.

One major event occurred in 2017 that showed an even direr vulnerability with Puerto Rico’s situation, which also accelerated the exodus from the island, and also gave the statehood movement steam. After a near-miss from Hurricane Irma just weeks before, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico directly at near Category 5 strength. This was the 3rd hurricane in less than a month to affect American soil, yet the response to the storm from the federal government seemed underwhelming compared to the other affected areas, given how strong Hurricane Maria was. This late, underwhelming response coupled with corruption in the beleaguered Puerto Rican government led to a lack of recovery resources getting to the rest of the island. This, coupled with the struggling economy, ended up ballooning into a major humanitarian crisis as people had trouble meeting needs, which caused nearly 3000 deaths to occur as a result of the storm. While Puerto Rico’s distance from the continental U.S. can be blamed for some of the delays, this crisis was a near worst-case scenario dating back to when the economy began to struggle. To top it off, underwhelming amounts of aid were sent to Puerto Rico in the wake of the storm. Becoming a state would have prevented some of the events that contributed to the crisis, and likely would have avoided the problem with the amount of aid given, since Puerto Rico would hold more power in this scenario. Therefore, to prevent another crisis in case of a natural disaster like what happened with Hurricane Maria, it is in Puerto Rico’s best interest to become a state.

Another reason the federal government should strongly consider making Puerto Rico the next state is the trends shown in the series of referendums conducted. These suggest a slow growth of support for statehood and given recent events, these numbers have likely grown even further.

Credit: LSE Latin America and Caribbean.

In 2012, the majority of Puerto Ricans voting in the status referendum of that year voted to change the territorial status. In the next question, of the non-blank votes, statehood was the majority, after growing from increasingly close minorities in past referendums. The latest one, in 2017, had an overwhelming result in favor of statehood but was boycotted by anti-statehood groups leading to very low turnout.

While some people argue that becoming a state would further erode the unique Puerto Rican culture and further Americanize it, the mounting negative effects of resisting statehood are starting to outweigh these arguments. From the economy to a lack of representation, to vulnerability to natural disasters, it is in Puerto Rico’s best interest to seek out becoming a state. This will allow it and its modestly large population to have representative power in Congress as well as in presidential elections, allow the territory to try to fix its struggling economy, and puts some safeguards up against the humanitarian crisis that was the conditions post-Hurricane Maria.

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