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Puerto Ricans Debate Whether to Become the 51st State

By Wayne Jebian

December 31, 2012

The news from Puerto Rico after last November's elections could not have been more clear: "Puerto Rico Approves Statehood," crowed the Washington Post. "Puerto Ricans favor statehood for the first time," read the headline on CNN.com. So nothing seemed amiss when students entering a classroom at Capital Community College in Hartford were greeted with a prompt on the blackboard: "In a recent vote, Puerto Ricans favored U.S. statehood. Please write down your opinion: Should Puerto Rico be a state, an independent country, or stay as is?"

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, over a quarter of a million Puerto Rican-Americans live in Connecticut. As Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, its residents can travel freely to the mainland. However, as Puerto Rico is not a state, its people do not have representation in the U.S. Senate or proportional representation in the House of Representatives. Like many residents of Hartford, the Capital Community College students in the mock vote were mostly either born in Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent. However, their opinions were strikingly different from the results of the Puerto Rican referendum reported in the news. Very few expressed the opinion that Puerto Rico should be a state, and by far the most popular opinion was that "Puerto Rico should stay exactly as it is."

"Stay exactly as it is," was not a direct alternative to statehood on the Puerto Rican ballot, partly because the United Nations does not recognize Puerto Rico's commonwealth status as legitimate. However, the status quo remains a popular option, the favorite of a sizeable chunk of Puerto Ricans who went to the polls. About 472,000 cast blank ballots to protest not having that position fairly represented. Factoring in those blank ballots, the pro-statehood numbers slip from 61 percent to 45 percent, according to Juan Gonzalez, the highest profile journalist to contradict the victory-for-statehood gospel. Gonzalez is a reporter for the New York Daily News, a Pacifica Radio host and author of a history of Latin America, Harvest of Empire.

However, the 51st-state story has stuck, thanks to Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's representative to the U.S. congress. "I strongly support statehood for Puerto Rico," he wrote the Advocate in an e-mail, "but I also believe that free association and independence are dignified status options that would provide Island residents with full democratic rights."

Pierluisi has been promoting statehood in the U.S. media almost nonstop since the referendum. After a "long conversation", he persuaded New York Times opinion writer David Royston Patterson that action on the status of Puerto Rico is urgently needed. Readers might wonder why, after languishing for 112 years, has this question suddenly become so pressing?

Quite simply, if Puerto Rico's pro-statehood party can't capitalize on this latest vote to stir up irresistible momentum in the U.S. for a 51st state, the chance may be lost forever. Charles Venator Santiago, of UConn's El Instituto: Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, explained, "There is something called the Tennessee plan, a precedent taken from the admission of the state of Tennessee into the Union, wherein the U.S. admits a territory whose population supports statehood by a two-thirds majority, and that's what the statehood party is banking on," he said.

This most recent vote in Puerto Rico, drawn up by the pro-statehood party and structured to allow a 45 percent vote for statehood to look like 61 percent, may be the closest statehood will ever come to a two-thirds majority. "It used to be that [the popularity of the idea of] statehood was growing," said Juan Gonzalez. "Now it's not growing. It has stagnated at about 45 or 46 percent." The pro-statehood governor was just voted out of office, and by the time his party regains control, viable alternatives to statehood may have gained in popularity.

One option that has caught fire in the past decade is "Free Association," whose support has increased over 10,000 percent since 1998, the last time a status vote was held. "Back in '98 when the option of 'Free Association' was first introduced on the ballot, it only got 4,000 votes. This time, 'Free Association' got 441,000 votes," Gonzales told the Advocate. "Free Association is where the 'colonizer' nation, in this case, the U.S., recognizes the territory as a sovereign nation, and the two nations agree to enter into an association."

Pierluisi argued that any option other than statehood jeopardizes the privileges that Puerto Ricans currently enjoy. "Statehood guarantees U.S. citizenship for future generations of Puerto Rico residents, while free association and independence do not." However, nothing prevents island and mainland from preserving individual privileges by treaty.

Back in the classroom at Capital Community College, students had their own reasons for opposing statehood, ranging from the frivolous, such as the inconvenience of adding an extra star to the flag, to the more substantial, such as having the U.S. tax structure imposed on Puerto Rico. There were other reasons as well. "Why would Puerto Rico want to become the new Mississippi?" asked Xavier Arroyo, who explained that just as Arkansans now get to point to Mississippi as the state with the lowest per-capita earnings, Mississippi would be out of the hot seat if Puerto Rico became a state. By the same token, Puerto Rican statehood would mean a windfall in federal anti-poverty money.

Pierluisi makes no bones about it: "Statehood will ensure that Puerto Rico is treated equally under all federal programs and initiatives, including those in the areas of economic development and job creation, public safety, education, environmental protection, and health." Under its current territorial status, federal benefits are capped. Under statehood, these would be un-capped.

"About 80 percent of the population of Puerto Rico would be eligible for benefits and subsidies" from the U.S. federal government, said UConn's Venator-Santiago. "That would mean an influx of about $20 billion for the island, which would improve the economy."

The U.S. government, of course, has the final say in whether or not statehood will happen, and would have to oversee another vote that would be taken as binding. In all likelihood, at some point in the process, Americans are bound to balk at the cost of Puerto Rican statehood. Venator-Santiago said that the Republican party may also stand in the way, as there is a widely held belief that new congressional seats for this 51st state could be expected to go to Democrats. On top of all this, Puerto Ricans are far from speaking with one voice on statehood, and without unity of purpose, it would be hard to win such an uphill battle.

The statehood position has a $20 billion incentive to advance its agenda, yet the number of Puerto Ricans favoring a greater degree of independence is growing. Therein lies the urgency to spin this latest non-binding referendum into a media mandate: it may be the last gasp for Puerto Rican statehood before all those dollars slip away.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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