A debate on Puerto Rican statehood

Opinion by Matthew Cohen
March 2, 2015, 9:03 p.m.

For decades, people have debated whether Puerto Rico should remain a territory of the United States or become a state. Although the statehood argument has some merits, it is not the time for Puerto Rico to become a state for two reasons. First, as seen through four statehood referendum results, there has never been a majority of Puerto Ricans who expressed the desire to become a state in the United States. The U.S. government should respect the will of the Puerto Ricans and not impose statehood upon them. Second, given Puerto Rico’s weak economy, America is not in the position to spend billions of dollars on fixing the mess. Without a mandate or the resources, the United States cannot grant statehood to Puerto Rico.

The American government has affirmed the right of the Puerto Ricans to choose their own destiny. In 2010, Congress expressed support for the idea of Puerto Rican self-determination by voting for the Puerto Rico Democracy Act. Given the results of the 1967, 1993 and 1998 referendums, people should respect Puerto Rican wishes to be a territory of the United States.

It is imperative that the United States respects the will of the Puerto Ricans. Failure to do so could diminish the strength of their cultural heritage. For example, of the people who speak a language besides English in their home, which is 85 percent of the Puerto Rican population, less than 30 percent of those Puerto Ricans speak English very well. California is the next lowest state, with 30 percent of households not speaking English at home and, of those households, more than 80 percent speaking English very well. Moreover, Puerto Rican teachers have resisted teaching English at school. While former Governor Fortuño proposed making Puerto Rico fully bilingual, he lost reelection in 2012, so it is uncertain whether his plan will be continued.

Language is key component of culture. The stark language contrast indicates that there are strong cultural differences between Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States. If the people of Puerto Rico want to join the United States as a state and potentially give up part of this cultural heritage as they assimilate into the U.S., then they are entitled to do so. However, they have not indicated that they want to pursue statehood.

Advocates for statehood will point to the results of the 2012 Puerto Rican referendum as evidence that Puerto Ricans want statehood. In that referendum, by a vote of 54 to 46, the people of Puerto Rico expressed their disapproval in Puerto Rico’s current status as a territory. However, on the second component of the ballot question, which people were eligible to vote for regardless of how they voted on the first question, they were divided on the alternatives. Only 60 percent supported statehood; 33 percent supported free association and the rest voted for independence. Until there is a majority that supports one option  – statehood, territorial status, independence – the status quo should remain in place.

Additionally, there are some structural changes that Puerto Rico should undergo before it becomes a state. With Puerto Rico’s abysmal economic conditions, the territory would be a drain on the U.S. treasury. Even though budget deficits have plummeted under President Obama, there are still concerns that the U.S. has an unsustainable budget problem and Puerto Rican statehood would only make that problem worse.

If Puerto Rico became the 51st state, it would be the poorest in the nation with $24,000 per capita income. People are leaving the territory to escape the economic disaster. As a state with 3.5 million people, Puerto Rico would be given billions of dollars through social welfare programs. These programs – such as unemployment insurance and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – are an important safety net for society. However, with unemployment at 14 percent in this territory, compared to the national rate of 5.6 percent, the U.S. government would end up spending an astronomical amount of money supporting Puerto Rico. Over $70 billion in debt, Puerto Rico would only add to the $18 trillion budget problem that the United States faces. Puerto Rico needs to improve its economic outlook before the U.S. considers adding it as a state.

The people of Puerto Rico do not want statehood right now. It would be unwise to ram statehood down the throats of Puerto Ricans, for it could potentially devalue their culture. Moreover, given the outlook of the U.S. budget, we should hold off all consideration of admitting Puerto Rico to the Union until their economic outlook improves. There are simply no options on the table right now, except for the United States maintain Puerto Rico as a territory.

Contact Matthew Cohen mcohen18 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

In November of 2012, as votes for Obama and Romney went into ballot boxes around the States, voters in Puerto Rico had a different question before them: What will the future of the island look like? More specifically, the plebiscite asked voters in Borikén to choose between remaining a territory, declaring independence, and (the most popular option) statehood.

The people of Puerto Rico have faced this question on the ballot only a few times before. Back in 1967, the only time the US Congress authorized a referendum on the status of the island, statehood only won the support of 39 percent of those voting. During the two plebiscites in the 90s, one in 1993 and the other in 1998, around 46 percent of voters wanted to see the island as el estado 51.

2012 proved different. Despite the campaigning of the Popular Democratic Party (or Partido Popular Democrático, PPD) to protest the plebiscite by submitting blank ballots on the question of statehood, nearly two times as many people voted in favor of joining the Union as left their votes blank — constituting a plurality close to a simple majority if the blank votes are counted. (If those votes do not count, then the number in favor of estadidad rises to 61 percent.) Adding further insult to injury, 54 percent of voters rejected continuing the estado libre asociado (loosely, the Commonwealth) that the PPD exists only to defend.

The pro-statehood New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista, or PNP) may have lost political control of the island in 2012, but nonetheless, the trend of history is clear: Slowly but surely, the people of Puerto Rico are realizing that the colonial Commonwealth cannot continue, and statehood must replace it as soon as possible.

The island has been awakening to this reality for years, thanks in no small part to the state of the economy. Since the years following the Spanish-American war in 1898, and particularly during the two decades following World War II, Puerto Ricans fled the island for other parts of the US — notably Hawaii, as my family did, and, of course, New York. But with an unemployment rate of 15 percent on the island (exacerbated further by current Governor Alejandro García Padilla’s proposed tax hikes), the Diaspora has only hit Borikén harder. Now, more boricuas (Puerto Ricans) live in other parts of the US than live on the island.

This economic situation has its origins in the fact that, in all but name, Puerto Rico still exists as a colony of the United States — just as it has since the Treaty of Paris in 1898 and the Insular Cases in 1900. More than any singular politician or administration, that colonial status quo has forced my ancestral homeland down the path to ruin.

But fortunately, rejecting the colonial Commonwealth status and becoming the 51st state in the Union could help in putting Borikén on the right path. Just like happened with Alaska and Hawaii back in 1959, statehood seems likely to cause a general improvement in the economic situation of Puerto Rico that is hard to quantify. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has quantified the specific impact on federal programs and federal taxes that statehood would have on the island and on the rest of the US in general. The GAO found last year that the admission of Puerto Rico as a state would likely cause federal tax revenues to increase by $7 billion; in the same report, the GAO predicted that estadidad would cause $10 billion to find its way into the island’s economy.

Of course, Puerto Rican statehood is not just an economic issue. For the major political parties, it could become an electoral issue. Puerto Rico would become entitled to eight votes in the Electoral College on the one hand, but more important would be the post-statehood political landscape of the island. Once the PNP and PPD don’t have to advocate for specific territorial statuses, the parties would likely start reorganizing in ways that align themselves more closely to the nationally prominent parties.

But more than anything else, the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico is an issue of spirit. The issue hits at the heart of how we as a country see ourselves.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the US saw itself as a power on the rise in the traditional, European sense — and that meant taking (and holding) colonies of our own. That idea sits at the heart of the Insular Cases, in which SCOTUS held that the Constitution did not protect the rights of people in Puerto Rico, the Philippines and other territories taken from Spain as the spoils of war. Among other things, those cases kept Puerto Ricans from having citizenship for nearly two decades, until World War I made drafting boricuas (and thus extending the definition of citizenship to include boricuas) politically expedient. Since then, Puerto Ricans have fought and died under the orders of a President they cannot help choose.

But if the imperialism that enabled the US colonization of Puerto Rico ever had a valid justification, that justification no longer makes sense in today’s world. We as a nation must return to the values of freedom and republican rule that first compelled our Founders to throw off our own colonization as a nation. Doing so means rejecting our own experiment as colonial masters. And unless we’re willing to completely sever the bonds between Puerto Rico and the rest of the US, that means that we — the people of both — must get ready to add another star to our national constellation.

Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Matthew Cohen is an opinions fellow for The Stanford Daily. Originally from Orange County, Matthew is interested in politics and plans to declare a major in political science. In his leisure time, he enjoys playing piano, running, and watching Netflix. Contact him at mcohen18 'at' stanford.edu

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