Puerto Rico: State or Territory?

Puerto Rico: State or Territory?

Jacob Almodovar, Fall 2020

Puerto Rico has been in a bizarre position with the United States for some time now, being considered United States citizens but not having all the rights that becoming a U.S state would entail, such as voting. This is partly due to what the citizens in Puerto Rico want to do, whether they genuinely want to become an official state and gain all the rights and powers it entails or if they would instead remain in their current position. With the upcoming statehood vote, citizens of the island will take part in the question that has come to rise again whether Puerto Rico should finally become an official U.S state. The results have allowed us to understand what the island hopes to become in the future. In recent years we’ve seen the kinds of trouble the island has had to face, such as the current economic crisis and the recent devastation of Hurricane Maria has left the island in a very troubling situation. So the question becomes, how would statehood affect the island, and should Puerto Rico become a U.S state or remain a territory.

What are the pros that come with Puerto Rico becoming a state? One of the most significant abilities that citizens will gain will be voting in presidential elections. This is a fundamental right that would help citizens have a say in what happens in the federal government, especially since even though Puerto Rico isn’t a state, it still has to be obliged to all national laws passed in the U.S. This puts them in a position as second-class citizens, whereas even though they are still a part of the U.S, they don’t have the right to a say on the people or the systems that may impact the way the island operates. But if Puerto Rico became a state, it would have full representation in the U.S. legislature, with the ability to vote on laws that affect the island. And one of the most massive issues currently hurting the island is the economic crisis it’s now facing. Becoming a state would automatically integrate them into the economy as the U.S would not merely treat the island as property. However, as a part of it with all the rights and privileges, it would provide. Currently, Puerto Rico isn’t recognized as an official U.S state, so many of the benefits that states have Puerto Rico lack due to this. The current crisis has made it difficult for the island to fund standard public services such as electricity and health care, which has left the island in billions of dollars in debt. These issues have forced the government to keep borrowing to keep public utilities and the local government running.

The island has become desperate and faces numerous financial troubles, so would Puerto Rico becoming a state, help solve some of these issues.[1] The answer is yes; becoming a state would entitle them to numerous financial benefits such as D-SNAP, a particular food stamp program that helps disaster victims.[2] The stamp would have been a great help when hurricane Maria hit, and it would still be a great help to current citizens as many are still recovering from the disaster. Numerous homes were damaged in the hurricane, and many people lost valuables and were hurt. The D-SNAP would help them get back on their feet and provide opportunities to reclaim what they lost. Also, becoming a state would immediately allow them to become part of the broader U.S economy, allowing more business and investments to grow in Puerto Rico. It will help the island’s economy to rebuild itself. The island will grow, and slowly the economy will blossom, and many of its current issues will be resolved. The government still struggles to maintain the island and provide the people with all the services they require; statehood provides many benefits allowing them to support the island’s people more effectively without relying on loans and further increasing its debt.

With the recent Puerto Rican vote on statehood, it has revealed that citizens favored statehood with 52% of the vote while about 47% of voters were against it.[3] This vote is crucial as it allows for an insight into what the residents want the island to become moving into the future. Although the vote for statehood was only slightly over the vote against it, we can see that a little over half the citizens want to become a state and that this has been a recurring want of the people. The 2017 plebiscite showed that 97.13% of the Puerto Rican residents wanted to reach statehood, almost the entire island.[4] Even so, the island has yet to be granted statehood; the island’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González said it best, “Sometimes it’s a little bit ironic that the beacon of democracy in the world, which is the United States, is fighting for equality and fighting for democracy and yet you get it in your backyard — the oldest colony, with more than 120 years without allowing Puerto Ricans to vote for president, to vote in Congress or even to have federal laws apply equally to American citizens on the island,” [ABC News,2020]. It’s very ironic how the U.S has yet to make Puerto Rico a state with the apparent demand for it. The island, in its current form, suffers from many issues and needs help re-establishing itself.

I luckily am from the island and had the opportunity to talk with some friends and family members about what they’d like for the island to become. For the most part, most people I spoke to expressed more interest in becoming a state than anything else, while a smaller portion would like the island to remain as it is. The main argument for wanting the island to stay as-is is that the island citizens wish to stay as independent from the island as possible. As stated, they want to keep their identity and are afraid of what becoming a state might affect the island or having it become “Americanized.” I believe this is an ideal that much older folk of the aisle agree with, which may be due to the island’s history with the U.S not being the most amicable. In 1898, when the Spanish-American war had ended and Puerto Rico became a U.S territory, the territories were not considered U.S citizens. Therefore, they lacked many fundamental rights, such as voting; even so, Puerto Rico still required them to abide by the federal law. These laws were known as the Insular Cases, which made unincorporated territory status indefinite until U.S. citizenship was bestowed on the territory in question.[5] I believe these kinds of conflicts created disdain within the island and may have been passed down through the generations.

Although it is clear why the conflict may have sprouted, I don’t believe it should continue to control people’s opinion on statehood. The island is currently in desperate need of it, and times have definitely, and the U.S has become much more inviting. On the other hand, the people I talked to who were for statehood explained how the island has been struggling during these past few years and how they believe statehood may help the island get back on its feet. The main issue that I heard was the lack of jobs and the financial problems it’s been facing. Jobs have been lacking as the economy dwindles and businesses struggle to flourish, leading many companies to seek stability in the U.S and other countries. Overall, the poles and what I gathered from the people I spoke to was that statehood seems to be a lifeline to Puerto Rico as its current condition continues to worsen over time.

With the current pandemic, the situation in Puerto Rico has only worsened with many businesses closing, and cases have been exponentially rising since April. The island is faced with even more issues. The state has issued a curfew from 10 pm to 5 am, but it seems even that hasn’t helped cases decrease as they continue to grow. On top of that, the island deals with other issues, so the pandemic had made it harder for them to provide the necessary resources to protect its citizens. Testing sites are minimal over there, with some of the island’s cities not having any at all, making it even more challenging to determine what areas are heavily impacted and if the number of cases provided is accurate. There has tragically already been over 1,000 deaths in Puerto Rico, and with the smaller population, the number is vast considering the size of the island. The island is in desperate need during this time. They don’t have access to the resources they need to open up more testing sites around the island and are in a situation where closing everything would destroy the island’s economy. Covid-19 has put the island in a dangerous situation. During this time, becoming a state would provide the island with the necessary resources to help protect its citizens while also allowing it to rebuild its current economic crisis.

Overall, the island is in bad condition and desperately needs help. We can see the citizens asking for statehood, and we can see the island’s officials also desire statehood. It faces many issues such as the low economy, lack of jobs and business, and the fund to keep essential social services still running. The future for Puerto Rico remains uncertain as in the past, their voices demonstrated their want for statehood, but it remained unanswered, but with the new democratic party, that may not be the case this time. The island needs statehood right now, and as time goes on, the people will continue to face the issue they face and more in the future. The people are at risk, and I believe it’s time for the island to finally become a part of the U.S to thrive and rebuild itself even stronger than before.

Notes

[1] Hispanic Federation. “Puerto Rico’s Economic Crisis: OVERVIEW AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ACTION.” Finance.senate.gov, Oct. 2015, https://www.finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Hispanic%20Federation.pdf.

[2] No May 28th, et al. “Puerto Rico Statehood: Pros and Cons.” Puerto Rico 51st, 2 Nov. 2020, http://www.pr51st.com/puerto-rico-statehood-pros-and-cons/.

[3] ABC News, ABC News Network, https://abcnews.go.com/US/puerto-rico-votes-favor-statehood-island/story?id=74055630

[4] Posted August 21, 2017. “Official Results of 2017 Plebiscite.” Puerto Rico Report, 22 Aug. 2017, https://www.puertoricoreport.com/official-results-2017-plebiscite/#.X8laUpNKiqA

[5] PUERTO RICAN STATEHOOD, Tim Schroeder, December 2016 http://wsu.tonahangen.com/citizen/?page_id=138

Further Reading

Patrick Moseley, Torres v. Puerto Rico (WSU,2016).

Tim Schroeder, PUERTO RICAN STATEHOOD (WSU,2016).

R. Sam Garrett. Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress(Congressional Research Center, 2017)

Worcester State University Fall 2020