Divisions over Puerto Rico’s future

Rep. Nydia Velazquez
Rep. Nydia Velazquez
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Shutterstock
Rep. Nydia Velazquez

Divisions over Puerto Rico’s future

Some Democrats push for statehood, others are only concerned with the self-determination process.
September 24, 2020

Calls for statehood for Puerto Rico have grown louder in the years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, with more than 3,000 dead. Residents said President Donald Trump’s administration, along with municipal governments, failed to respond to power outages that lasted for months. Nine days after the storm, the island had 10,000 federal government personnel on the ground, compared to the 30,000 in Houston, Texas nine days after Hurricane Harvey. 

Recently, two Puerto Rican members of Congress from New York City, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Nydia Velazquez introduced the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act in August. In an article on NBCNews.com, they argued that the island’s lack of federal support, rampant poverty and debt crisis could only be solved if Puerto Ricans had a say in determining their status, whether that be through “statehood, independence, free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.”

The island has been a U.S. territory since it was acquired from Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Soon after, residents called for independence or statehood, since they were not considered citizens of the United States. By 1940, all Puerto Ricans were considered U.S. citizens, but Puerto Rico does not have an Electoral College or Senate delegation, nor does its sole member of Congress vote, and residents of the island do not pay federal taxes. Limitations in eligibility for nutritional assistance programs and funding for Medicaid in Puerto Rico result in fewer Puerto Ricans getting federal resources. The island remains less economically developed than the mainland U.S., with a GDP per capita of almost $33,000 as opposed to more than $65,000 nationally.

The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act lays out funding for a convention in which delegates, who would be elected by the voters of Puerto Rico, decide the fate of their island – whether that is statehood, independence or other options. The convention then will work in collaboration with Congress to achieve a resolution. 

Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverto, argues that island voters have rejected statehood for Puerto Rico in the past. In 2018, after Hurricane Maria, her op-ed in The Hill stated that past referendums have been rigged by statehood advocates. “If you have a particular party, for instance, PNP (New Progressive Party), that favors statehood, controlling the process by which a referendum is being held on the island, they want to make sure that they get the outcome that they want,” Mark-Viverto said to City & State that she supports the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, as opposed to referendums. “It is not a fair and inclusive process. We need an independent process where all voices will be heard. The bill that Nydia and AOC are presenting allows for the delegates to be democratically elected in the island, then those delegates will engage in a status conversation, a status assembly, a status convention, where they will debate on all the different issues.”

This puts them at odds with fellow Puerto Rican Rep. Jose Serrano, from the South Bronx. Serrano has a competing bill, introduced in 2019, which would have a plebiscite to ask Puerto Ricans if they would like to be a state during the November 2020 general elections. If a majority chooses yes, there will be a “content of declaration” to be made by Puerto Rico’s governor and presented to the president of the United States. Serrano has been in Congress for 30 years and is retiring at the end of this term. His likely replacement, Bronx Councilmember Richie Torres, is also Puerto Rican.Torres is a supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico, saying it is the only way for the island to achieve equality with the rest of the country, according to his Daily News op-ed

Statehood has grown increasingly popular among Democrats who believe they could benefit from two new senators coming from the territory, since most Puerto Rican voters in states such as New York lean left. Democrats are similarly embracing calls for statehood for Washington, D.C., as a way to ensure equal political representation for communities of color and to help correct the rural, white bias of Senate apportionment. In the past, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg have supported Puerto Rican statehood.

Republicans and conservatives are largely opposed to Puerto Rican statehood. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had called statehood “radical.” The notable exception is Republicans from Florida, which has a large Puerto Rican population, such as former Gov. Rick Scott, and Sen. Marco Rubio. 

Puerto Rican Republican Rep. Jenniffer González Colón, resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, the island’s non-voting congressional representative, does not think the island would necessarily elect two Democratic senators. As she noted in The Hill, there are a substantial number of conservatives in Puerto Rico. The sitting Governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced, is a Republican and a member of the New Progressive Party which advocates for statehood, along with Gonzalez-Colon. Seven of the last eight governors are Republicans. As Politico recently noted, “Puerto Rico’s Legislature, which has made a mark in recent years by enacting conservative laws including restrictions on abortion and expressions of gender identity, is led by registered Republicans in both its House and Senate.” 

Regardless, Ocasio-Cortez and Velazquez say they did not introduce the bill to achieve statehood, but for Puerto Ricans to determine their own future – whatever it may be. 

Residents of Puerto Rico are divided on what its future status should be. In 2017, there was a referendum in which 97 percent of voters supported statehood, but only 23 percent of citizens voted because pro-independence opposition parties boycotted the vote. 

In 2018, former Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo A. Rossellóurged President Donald Trump to consider Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state in consideration of Puerto Rico’s dilapidated infrastructure and financial insecurity after Hurricane Maria. Also in 2018, Gonzalez-Colon introduced a bill for Puerto Rican statehood. 

The National Puerto Rican Agenda, a nonpartisan organization seeking to better Puerto Rican’s civic participation and economic-well-being, promotes a campaign “to mobilize congressional and presidential action for decolonization or ending the territorial status of Puerto Rico.” Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, communications director for the group, said it does not favor any specific status option, but supports the application of federal benefits, like food stamps and Medicaid, for Puerto Rico. “These are all federal programs that either are not provided, are provided in part, or capped in Puerto Rico,” Sierra-Zorita wrote. “These programs, amounting to billions of dollars, would reduce the strain on Puerto Rico's government budget – particularly in the area of health, put money directly in the pockets of hard working Puerto Ricans and stimulate the economy. Just as important, changes in these programs would guarantee the equitable treatment of Puerto Ricans in key areas and send the message that they are not second class citizens.”

New York has the largest Puerto Rican population, approximately 1.1 million people, of any state. As Sierra-Zorita wrote in anopinion piece in2017, the Puerto Rican diaspora of the 1900s allowed Puerto Ricans to take political power in the U.S., especially in New York. 

Not all Puerto Rican politicians on the mainland support statehood. Mark-Viverto went on to say that Puerto Ricans have largely rejected statehood. “What Puerto Rico deserves is a fair and inclusive self-determination process to end more than 100 years of U.S. colonialism in the island,” Mark-Viverto wrote in her Hill oped. “What it does not need is stateside politicians fishing for campaign contributions by twisting the truth about this critical matter.”

Mark-Viverto believes in self-determination, as outlined in a recent Daily News op-ed in which she urged former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to support the bill introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Velazquez. Mark-Viverto told City & State that Puerto Ricans should not be treated as pawns by politicians.“You know, Puerto Ricans are not a political football and are not part of somebody’s strategy playbook,” Mark-Viverto said to City & State. “We’re not being asked in a serious conversation, ‘what do we want for our future?’ It’s not for some white pundit in a chair in a fucking studio telling us what is in our best interest. This is about supporting a process that is inclusive and will allow all voices to be heard and that will be genuine and will be binding. So, I am extremely offended when I hear pundits on TV here talking about Puerto Rico as if we are in an abstract and we are pawns to be manipulated on a chess board. It’s pathetic, it’s ridiculous, it’s offensive. And so, that’s not the approach, that’s not the right way to do this.”

Most Puerto Rican politicians agree that Puerto Ricans themselves should have a say in their own destiny. A spokesperson for the League of United Latin American Citizens, a nonprofit organization seeking to advance the well-being of Latinos, said the organization believes Puerto Ricans should decide on their own destiny. “As with all U.S. citizens living in any of the 50 states, the Puerto Rican people should have their voices heard by voting as the means to express their wishes,” the spokesperson said in a statement provided on behalf of the organization. “A voter in Virginia would not vote for an issue in Texas or visa versa. Congress should listen to the will of the people. If they choose statehood, they should be admitted. Conversely, if they do not seek statehood, then they remain the same or come up with something new.”

It’s difficult to gauge what residents of Puerto Rico want without actual representation in the government. The question remains how to accurately represent the island of 3.4 million people. New York Puerto Rican representatives are all committed to finding a solution, but it is still unknown whose plan will prevail. 

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed a statement to the leader of the League of United Latin American Citizens. The statement was from the organization, not its leader. 

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Kimberly Gonzalez
is an editorial intern at City & State.
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