Puerto Rico changes its status … to “It’s Complicated”

Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. Its islands (Borinquen, Vieques, Culebra, Mona and several others) sit at the very heart of the Caribbean, adjacent to another American territory: the US Virgin Islands.

Slowly, over the generations, the territory has inched closer to the US: in 1917 the residents were made US citizens in order to fulfill the demand for soldiers, in the 1950’s the commonwealth status was created in order to allow Puerto Rico to have a constitution and a government system based on the American one and to vote for its governor, and in recent decades as the Puerto Rican population in the continental US has increased to numbers greater than that of the islands, the islands themselves have nurtured a robust pro-statehood movement.

Several referendums have been held, but on the historical elections of November 6, 2012, just as Obama was reelected, the territory citizens for the first time voted in favor of statehood. Immediately, imagery of the American flag with 51 stars went viral on the internet … but as I hope to argue in this piece, people should not rush to welcome the State of Puerto Rico just yet.

The referendum included two questions. First, citizens were asked whether they agreed to continue with Puerto Rico’s territorial status and, secondly, asked to indicate the political status they preferred from three possibilities: statehood, independence, and a sovereign country in close association with the US (so-called ‘Free Association’).

A total of 943,094 (54%) voted “No” on the first question, indicating that the people no longer support the colonial status of the island.

Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock-Hernandez (D-PR) interpreted the vote as a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the commonwealth which expedites the moral and political imperative to decolonize Puerto Rico. The Declaration of Independence states that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and the people of Puerto Rico no longer consent to be governed as a colony. Ergo, the commonwealth status now is illegitimate as per America’s founding documents. What now?

As for the second question, statehood won 809,652 (61.13%) of the votes while Free Association got 441,505 (33.33%) of the votes, and full independence only got 73,362 (5.54%).

The commonwealth status evolved organically as a happy medium after half a century of American hegemony. It was the result of the labor struggles in the sugarcane plantations in the mid-20th century and was, for the most part, great for the people of the islands. A new deal was brokered where the economy would exhibit the progressive ideals of the American dream and where the local culture would be respected. Prior to that, Puerto Rico’s school system was entirely American and only English was spoken in the classrooms: now, English would be taught as a second language and Spanish would be the language in which all other subjects would be taught.

Puerto Rico in the 60’s and 70’s became “a reluctant part of America” and “a capitalist paradise”, to cite from the movie The Rum Diary which is set in the Puerto Rico of the early period of the Commonwealth. It provided tax loopholes for pharmaceutical corporations which created thousands of jobs and led to Puerto Rico becoming the largest producer and exporter of drugs in the world.

Today, Big Pharma is still a major employer. These loopholes (known as the 936 Section of the Tax Code), however, expired. As a result, the islands entered the recent recession a couple of years prior to the rest of the United States.

The pro-statehood establishment, which has on-and-off governed the island in recent decades, has been relentless in moving the island toward statehood. Residents used to not have to pay a sales tax before, but in recent years the sales tax was introduced and some pro-statehood mayors have changed street signs to English or bilingual. Critics of the statehood movement argue that the statehooders have been trying to make the islands so much like a federated state that, when status is up for vote, people will see no benefit with continuing as a commonwealth.

But with the expiration of Section 936 and the undeniable fiscal crisis, in the midst of which hundreds of thousands of island residents have moved to Florida and elsewhere in recent years, it does seem that the days of the commonwealth are coming to an end and that the status that helped turn the islands into a capitalist paradise in the latter 20th century has very little to offer residents.

The next step now is for Congress to enact a Puerto Rico Enabling Act, which would provide the guidelines and requirements for the island to transition into statehood. This may or may not happen. A new constitution, probably based on the Commonwealth one, will then have to be drafted and most likely voted on by the people … but this would require a pro-statehood administration in Puerto Rico. And so it also may or may not happen.

And now we must add to the complicated status equation the fact that a new pro-commonwealth governor was voted into office and the current pro-statehood governor, Fortuño, voted out of office in 2012. Many Puerto Ricans wanted statehood, but not with a Republican anti-labor governor that destroyed thousands of jobs. Private sector growth has not come even close to fulfilling the workers’ needs.

On the other hand Resident Commissioner Pierluisi (D-PR), who is the islands’ only vote and voice in Congress, is pro-statehood. The statehood movement now contends with its state government being a monster with two heads, with two ideologies that can not be reconciled at the top tiers. We are left with a scenario where it’s unlikely that there will be any comprehensive follow-up to the statehood vote in the next four years, even if Congress attends to the issue and even if the United Nations exerts pressure to decolonize Puerto Rico. It’s likely that statehood will not materialize unless and until the next pro-statehood governor is voted into office.

For instance, if Congress requires from Puerto Rico a public school system that operates mainly in English and treats Spanish as a second language (which it can do), the pro-commonwealth governor is almost certainly not likely to support such efforts, regardless of the pro-statehood referendum vote. The language issue is the main source of controversy between statehooders and the rest both in the island and in the continent, with statehood dissidents raising cynical doubts as to whether America can really culturally and socially swallow a tiny Caribbean and Latin American country whole. Not that it hasn’t happened before … there is still some pro-independence fervor in some states: Hawaii still has a tiny independence movement, and so do Texas, Vermont, and Alaska.

Statehooders are hopeful, however. It’s unlikely that the commonwealth ideologues will regain the populist support they once enjoyed and now that the ball is rolling, pro-statehood leaders understand that the process of becoming a state can take decades. After waiting for 114 years, what’s another decade or two?

One final note, however, on how the current PR political parties might align with US parties after statehood. Three small parties have recently come into being as a result of dissatisfaction with the three established parties which had been formed along ideological lines. The old parties are the New Progressive Party (PNP) which is pro-statehood, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) which is pro-commonwealth and the PR Independence Party (PIP). The new parties are the PR Workers’ Party (PPT), the MUS (Movement Towards Sovereignty) and the PPR (Puerto Ricans for PR).

The old Republican establishment finds itself, invariably, in the ranks of the PNP. The Democrats will take in the entire pro-commonwealth party as well as many politicians within the PNP. It’s likely that some independentistas will probably resonate with libertarian ideals, focused as they are on the rights of states and in gaining as much autonomy for the states of the union as is possible. The platform for the American Green Party is almost identical to the platform of the Puerto Rican Workers’ Party, and it will also attract some of the voters who are now pro-independence.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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2 Responses to Puerto Rico changes its status … to “It’s Complicated”

  1. Thanks for writing such a clear, unbiased, and respectful post about my island (is it yours too?). I proudly belong to the 5.54% 😉


  2. hiramcrespo says:

    I wasn’t born there but grew up there. I like the PR Workers’ Party so I guess I’m a Green.


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