By Andrea Ortiz Ortega
Image via María M. Ortega Cosme
At the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, along with Guam, was ceded by Spain to the United States through the Treaty of Paris. The US was interested in the island because of its developing sugarcane market and its location in the Caribbean. Taking control of the sugarcane market on the island would help boost the US economy and allow the US to have a sort of monopoly over the industry. Additionally, its location provided the US with a vantage point for the military in the Caribbean which they didn’t have before and it was very convenient for trading.
Both of these reasons seemed to check all of the US’s boxes on its “Let’s Make This Island in the Middle of the Caribbean a Territory of the US While Ignoring the Input of the People Living on the Island” checklist. Thus, in 1917, Puerto Rico officially became a US territory and its citizens became US citizens. You may be thinking, “Why did Puerto Rico not become a state like other territories that were being recognized as states at around the same time?” and I have the perfect answer for you. A series of legal opinions from the Supreme Court in 1901 called the Insular Cases stated that the citizens of the newly acquired territories were “alien races'' and therefore, they might have not been able to adapt and understand the Anglo-Saxon principles that were the norm in mainland US. To put it bluntly, the high and mighty people of the US thought that the “savages” inhabiting the territories would not be able to comprehend the oh-so complex ideas and processes of democracy used in the US such as voting. While the legal opinions stated in the Insular Cases were supposed to be temporary, more than 100 years (104 to be exact) have passed since Puerto Rico and other islands became territories of the US. Yet, no further strides have been made to change their situation. Not only were the people of the territories determined to be less than compared to the US citizens living on the mainland, they were stripped, and still are stripped, of the right to vote for President of the United States along with other constitutional rights they were not deemed fit to have. To this day, they remain in the same state of fiscal limbo.
Over the past elections, Puerto Ricans have gotten the chance to vote between independence and statehood. In a referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico held on June 11, 2017, an overwhelming 97.7% of voters chose statehood, although there was only a 23% turnout. In the most recent elections, the Puerto Rican people voted for statehood once again with a majority of 52.52%. There have been a total of six times that the citizens of the island have voted for statehood since Puerto Rico ratified its Constitution in 1952. Voters only rejected a change to their territory status in 1967, 1993 and 1998. These percentages do not reflect the entirety of the population given that not everyone that is eligible to vote does so, but it does give you a good idea of what the people of Puerto Rico want—they, for the most part, want to become a US state. This is for good reason since becoming a state would allow Puerto Rican citizens to have all the constitutional rights and other benefits that mainland US citizens have. The dilemma now is: why haven’t they become one yet? The citizens of the island have voted multiple times to become one, so why has the US government not done something about it? Is it because they are still being thought of as inferior? Or because the US simply doesn’t need the island anymore and is just keeping them around out of pity? These are all great questions, but they don’t have straightforward answers. Congress is the one that ultimately makes the decision on whether or not Puerto Rico becomes a state through the use of the Admission Act or House Resolution, which requires approval by a simple majority in both the House and Senate. There would be a lot of logistical issues to overcome in terms of electoral college votes, House representatives, and senators, but those problems only come after becoming a state in the first place. According to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, “It’s very unlikely that statehood will ever happen, at least not in our lifetimes, unless something in the political
culture of the U.S. Congress shifts radically to suddenly embrace Latin Americans, Latinos, and Puerto Ricans.”
Now let’s say that Puerto Ricans wanted independence, and a lot do. What would happen then? Independence movements have happened throughout Puerto Rico’s history, one of the most notable being one led by Pedro Albizu Campos, who was jailed in 1936 after helping organize Puerto Rican workers to protest and work towards the goal of independence. All attempts at revolution or work towards independence have been met with censorship, scrutinization, arrests, and have overall been overshadowed by powerful mainland US citizens and corrupt government officials who would suffer from Puerto Rican independence. Supporters of independence argue that helping Puerto Rico become its own nation would allow it to raise its GDP (gross domestic product). The island would be able to start exporting more products than it is importing, which bolsters the GDP. Raising the national GDP would help boost Puerto Rico’s economy and ultimately help the government pay off its $74 billion debt. This debt keeps growing because the territory cannot file for bankruptcy, which is a protection that mainland municipalities have under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. In addition to the island’s national debt, independence would come with a lot of other logistical issues. Will citizens living in Puerto Rico that are US citizens still be US citizens? Will the two countries still be allies? Will the US still be able to provide the citizens of Puerto Rico with financial aid? How will the citizens of Puerto Rico deal with their overly corrupt government all by themselves? These are questions that would have to be brought up and answered before the process of becoming independent even begins. If independence ever becomes a plausible option for Puerto Ricans, it would be in the future after years of deliberation with the US government.
So, what is my stance on the situation? I am honestly not 100% sure. I am a citizen of Puerto Rico myself and the debate between statehood and independence is one I have been listening to my entire life. Despite my firsthand experience, I am still nowhere near coming to a concrete stance. I will give you my insight regardless. The citizens of Puerto Rico have voted many times for statehood and if it were as easy as that I would be all for that option. It provides the island with the benefits and protections that normal US states have which seems like the only plausible solution, right? But, as you may have gathered, it is nowhere near that simple and, similarly to Justice Sotomayor, I do not think that this option will be one that gives any results for a very long time. I may be pretty young, but just thinking about how easy it really is for Congress to vote for statehood, along with the majority of the Puerto Rican people, and work with the logistical aspects a little after. The foundation is all there, but it seems as though the US simply does not want us to be part of their group. I see it as the US being the popular group of kids that always has the smaller, shy kid at arms length for their own benefit, but never recognizes them as an actual friend. That shy kid is growing more and more tired of its mistreatment and just wants some recognition. If I were that small kid, I would recognize my worth in that situation and up and leave. Of course, is it not as simple as it seems in my analogy, but the more I read and find out more about Puerto Rico’s situation, the more I think back to that small, shy kid that deserves better than what the big group of popular kids has been offering them. If the popular group would accept the shy kid, everything would be happy and dandy, but what makes it painful is that nothing has changed after so much time. Congress is still ignoring the issue until they no longer can’t. The last presidents have not had our well being in their agendas, much less as a priority. Even those who want statehood are growing tired of waiting. This issue deserves to be in the spotlight after so much time. We want change.
Written by writer Andrea Ortiz Ortega