Puerto Rico Self-Determination Bill Reignites Long Debate over Island’s Status

By Abby Neiser

On August 25, 2020, Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Nydia Velázquez (NY-7) introduced a bill to create a “status convention” to come up with a course of action for Puerto Rico’s future (Acevedo, 2020).  A similar version was reintroduced in March 2021, with Ocasio-Cortez bringing it forward in the House and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) proposing it in the Senate (Acevedo, 2021).  The bill presents a plan in which Puerto Rican voters would choose delegates to the convention (Acevedo, 2020).  This convention would then draw up a proposal to be voted on first in an island-wide referendum, and then by the United States Congress, which ultimately has the last say in any changes to Puerto Rico’s status (Acevedo, 2020).  The bill proposes a unique course of action from past referendums that have largely faltered but is meeting mixed reaction from fellow lawmakers both in the mainland and on the island.

Most criticism of the bill come from those who favor statehood, which many of its proponents claim is already a settled issue because of the previous referendums.  Rep. Jenniffer González, the nonvoting delegate to Congress from Puerto Rico, for example, argues that the bill undermines the will of the Puerto Rican people and their “desire to become a state” (Acevedo, 2020).  Rep. José Serrano of New York, for whom Puerto Rican statehood has been a cornerstone of his political career, has also attacked the bill for what he perceives as a lack of transparency in the status convention, which he describes as a “closed doors” approach (Acevedo, 2020).  Further, Rep. Darren Soto of Florida believes that the bill is redundant because a referendum on statehood was set to take place just a few months after the bill was introduced (Acevedo, 2020).  The nonbinding referendum, which emerged in the face of crises such as Hurricane Maria and earthquakes, was much more direct than previous referendums, asking the simple question of whether or not Puerto Rico should be admitted as a state (Coto, 2020a).  The people of Puerto Rico voted in favor of statehood by a margin of 52-47, though no action has been taken by Washington thus far (Corujo, 2020).

Ocasio-Cortez, Velázquez, and other proponents have countered these criticisms by pointing out the flaws in the previous referendums upon which many of the objections rely.  Erin Cohan of the Center for American Progress, a progressive organization which supports the proposal, maintains that the referendums have failed to capture the true public opinion on the issue and that lawmakers need a different strategy, which is provided by the bill (Acevedo, 2020).  Indeed, the most recent referendum in 2017 only had a 23 percent turnout due to boycotts, and the referendum in 2012 was plagued by inconsistency and controversy about the validity of the results (Acevedo, 2020).  Moreover, according to Georgetown University political scientist Katy Collin, past referendums have had too many choices for voters and should instead offer a binary choice in simple language (Collin, 2017).  Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez add that while for many of their well-meaning colleagues, statehood might seem like justice for centuries of colonization, for some on the island, statehood is the “culmination” of colonization (Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez, 2020).  Rather than yet another decision about the island’s fate be made in Washington, they believe that the Puerto Rican people should be empowered and have agency over their own destiny (Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez, 2020).

The issue of Puerto Rico’s status has been a chip on the shoulders of politicians in both Washington and San Juan for the over a century since the United States obtained the island as a result of the Spanish-American War.  However, the current state of affairs has made finding a solution more pressing.  In the past few years, Hurricane Maria and COVID-19 have both ravaged Puerto Rico, and the people have not received much assistance from the federal government to deal with these issues.  The true death toll of Hurricane Maria is still unknown due to irregularities and a lack of reporting, likely in an attempt to save the political careers of former Governor Ricardo Rosselló and former President Donald Trump.  However, experts at Harvard University estimate that approximately 4600 people died, both as a direct result of the storm and as a result of the failing infrastructure that followed (Maqbool, 2018).  Electricity took nearly a year to be restored to most citizens, and even then, the new power infrastructure was carelessly installed and will likely have to be replaced sooner than later (Robels, 2018).

Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico has been forced to shut down in the face of COVID-19, but its economy’s reliance on tourism is likely to produce even more devastating economic consequences than elsewhere.  Governor at the time Wanda Vázquez even noted that although COVID-19 is still a threat, Puerto Ricans need to “learn how to deal” with it (Coto, 2020b).  Even before these crises, in 2006, Puerto Rico struggled greatly after a provision giving tax incentives for businesses was removed, causing much of the tax base to flee the island (Collin, 2017).  Puerto Rico is buried in about $100 billion of debt as a result but cannot file for bankruptcy because it is not a state nor request foreign aid because it is an entity of the United States (Collin, 2017; Williams Walsh, 2020).  In contrast, statehood would allow $10 billion from the federal government to flow into Puerto Rico, which would greatly reduce this debt burden (Coto, 2017). 

Beyond the ethical and financial incentives to change Puerto Rico’s status, the philosophical question about democracy also looms large.  All of the over three million residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, yet none of them have any say in what goes on in Washington beyond voting in presidential primaries and sending non-voting representatives to Congress.  Meanwhile, Washington has veto power over virtually everything that happens in Puerto Rico, raising the question of how fair or democratic the current arrangement is.  Such an arrangement is ironic given the principles on which the United States was supposedly founded, such as self-determination, freedom, and representative government.  If Americans are to stand by James Otis’s famous quote, “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” and tyranny is antithetical to American values, the lack of outrage about Washington’s hegemony over Puerto Rico is hypocrisy at its finest.

These problems with Puerto Rico’s status and others play directly into partisan politics on the mainland.  Recently, then-Republican Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona came under attack for the reasoning behind her opposition to Puerto Rico and D.C. statehood being that they would likely prevent the Republican Party from controlling the House or the Senate (Derysh, 2020).  Former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described the push for statehood in these two areas as “full-bore socialism” (Derysh, 2020).  The Democratic Party has not taken a strong stance on the issue, which Columbia University research scholar Nicole Hemmer writes is inconsistent with the party supposedly wanting to defend democracy in the age of President Trump (Hemmer, 2020).  As highlighted by President Barack Obama’s remarks on Puerto Rico in his eulogy to the late Congressman John Lewis, the Democrats have long used the term “self-determination” to avoid committing a hard stance on the issue and risk the loss of power or political capital (Córdova, 2020).  Both sides of the aisle clearly prioritize what is best for their party over what is best for the people on this issue.  Meanwhile, the average Puerto Rican must face very real problems on a daily basis as a result of the island’s status.  The disconnect is reminiscent of the struggles that the predecessors of Washington politicians faced in the eighteenth century while the British crown was considering what arrangement for the American colonies best suited royal interests.

Whether or not it so much as leaves committee, the bills proposed by Ocasio-Cortez, Velázquez, and Menendez offers a shift in the paradigm and new food for thought about Puerto Rico’s future.  At the end of the day, as a democratic society, the will of the people should reign supreme.  Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to do this is by asking the people directly what they want through a referendum, and past politicians may have been right to suggest this.  However, the seemingly omnipresent challenges that have blocked previous referendums from being valid and the lack of action thus far on the most recent referendum beg the question of whether a better solution exists.  Republican control of the Senate up until January and the mix of pro-statehood and noncommittal stances by the Democrats have stalled the bill so far.  While pro-statehood critics have brought up legitimate concerns, three key sentiments that underscore the bill are important to keep in mind in shaping future policy on Puerto Rico.  First, the current situation is unsustainable.  Second, Puerto Ricans have unduly suffered from their delegation as second-class citizens.  Finally, the fate of Puerto Rico must be determined by Puerto Ricans.  The merits of this bill and any other bill should be weighed, but any policy that is not guided by these three principles is unlikely to produce a just solution for the Puerto Rican people.  After all, as founding father James Madison writes in Federalist No. 10, a government with representation “opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking” (Madison, 1787).

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.


References

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