Whither Puerto Rico?

With its own national anthem, cultural traditions, and Miss Universe contestants, one would think that Puerto Rico was already its own independent country. Some within Puerto Rico’s four million Spanish-speaking inhabitants would like to see that dream become reality. Others, however, enjoy the political status that Puerto Rico currently shares as an unincorporated territory or ‘Commonwealth’ of the United States. Then there are those who wish Puerto Rico would become the 51st state.

Image courtesy of Kevin Baird, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Kevin Baird, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Since the islands’ current political status was established in 1952, Puerto Rico has seen four plebiscites that have sought to put the question over Puerto Rico’s future status to its people. The most recent plebiscite in the November 2012 election, however, caught many by surprise when, for the first time, a majority of voters decided that they favoured Puerto Rican statehood.

That result, however, has only raised further questions- where does Puerto Rico go from here? In order to answer the islands’ future political status, one needs to understand Puerto Rico’s political history.

“Discovered” by Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus in 1493, Puerto Rico was soon established as a gateway colony for the Spanish Empire in the Americas. Over its tumultuous five hundred-year history, Puerto Rico has seen invasions by the Dutch, the English, and the ubiquitous pirates who terrorized the Caribbean waters. In 1898, the US acquired the islands from the Spanish as a result of Spain’s loss in the Spanish-American War.

The citizens of Puerto Rico gained full US citizenship with the passage of the 1917 Jones Act. In 1952, the Puerto Rican people ratified a constitution that garnered greater administrative autonomy over local matters.  Puerto Rico is still subject to all federal laws passed by Congress despite its own lack of voting representation (the islands have one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives formally called a Resident Commissioner). Puerto Ricans similarly cannot vote for President, but can vote in the Democratic and Republican parties’ primaries.

Additionally, Puerto Rico’s three main political parties are split based on which future political scenario they envision for the islands. First, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) wishes to maintain the islands’ current status as a free association with the US, but would like the Puerto Rican people to garner greater sovereignty rights within its current commonwealth framework. Second, the New Progressive Party (PNP) would like to see Puerto Rico gain full statehood status, while the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) aims to achieve full national independence.

Before the recent 2012 election outcomes, three plebiscites in 1967, 1993, and 1998 had results that either favoured the islands’ commonwealth status or were not satisfied with any of the options that were provided on the ballot. While the results of the plebiscites reflect the public sentiment over the islands’ future, they can be ignored by the US Congress which is not bound by them.

The latest non-binding plebiscite asked the Puerto Rican people two questions: whether they wanted to maintain the islands’ current commonwealth status and if not, which alternative option they preferred between statehood, free association, or independence. Of the 79% electoral turnout, 54% voted “no” on maintaining Puerto Rico’s current territorial status in the first ballot question. On the second question, 61.2% chose statehood, 33.3% voted for free association, and 5.5% voted for independence.

Some of the underlying causes for the high voter turnout for statehood status is said to be attributed to the islands’ stagnant economy that had continued to lag behind in real terms, long before the Great Recession began. With a greater influx of government spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, many Puerto Ricans have seen continued federal assistance from Washington as a necessity. It is estimated that 20% of Puerto Rico’s total budget can be traced to federal transfers. Others argue that it is precisely because of the reliance on federal assistance that Puerto Rico is not able to become economically self-sufficient and truly grow its economy.

Some evidence that illustrates the struggles of the Puerto Rican economy can be seen in the fact that 58% of Puerto Ricans live in the continental United States.  Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock described the staggering statistic by stating that, “when you have a political status that scares away half of your population, it is time to reject that political status…I think people just came to realize that the current relationship simply does not create the number of jobs that we need.”

As the plebiscite is non-binding, the vote is merely seen as an attempt to gauge the public’s opinion on the matter. Many who opposed the statehood results and the plebiscite itself point to the fact that 26% of the voters left the second question blank. Therefore, when the number of blank and protest votes are added together, the absolute majority is actually against the statehood status.

Whatever the contention over the results may be, Puerto Rico’s future as a state now lies with Congress. It must now decide whether to even take up the issue of Puerto Rican statehood. With congressional gridlock at an all-time high, it looks unlikely that congressional action will come anytime soon.

 Both Democrats and Republicans have historically been in favour of admitting Puerto Rico into the American Union and the Obama administration has stated that “the people of Puerto Rico want the issue of status resolved, and a majority chose statehood. Now is the time for Congress to act and the administration will work with them [the US Congress] on that effort so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future.”

Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, has subsequently begun pushing congressional members to take up the issue of Puerto Rican statehood, calling the islands’ current political status “colonial in nature.” Pierluisi has additionally suggested the creation of another plebiscite that would include both a clearer understanding of the statehood status and a stronger explanation of the alternatives. Hoping to tap into the burgeoning clout of the Hispanic community in recent elections, Pierluisi is pushing Congress and the White House to act on public pressure before possibly sidestepping Congress altogether and bringing the issue to either the Organization of American States or the United Nations.

In stark contrast to the clear Caribbean waters that lap its shores, Puerto Rico’s political status remains murky and the dream of a 51st state looks far from certain.

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