Crisis in Puerto Rico: Why Statehood Matters

By Emma Lehtonen ’19,

Political Science Club

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans continue to suffer from a lack of basic necessities.  The primary focus of the media has been on how to get basic necessities to the people of Puerto Rico, and why the federal government’s response has been so lackluster.  However, the crisis has also highlighted other issues, particularly concerning the status of Puerto Rico and its residents, which is what the Immaculate Heart Political Science Club addressed during our last activity period.

In March, a staggering Suffolk poll came out,  stating that only 47 percent of Americans were aware that Puerto Ricans were also U.S. citizens.  A couple of our own peers even admitted to not knowing this fact.  However, seeing as how we treat the people of Puerto Rico, it is understandable.  The unequal treatment of Puerto Rico, as an unincorporated territory, and its people, despite being American citizens, makes it difficult to understand the island’s standing.  This, as well as a cultural/language barrier and lack of representation in the government, often harms the ability for Puerto Ricans and mainland Americans to relate to one another.  But in order to address both disaster relief and long-term issues facing Puerto Rico, mainland Americans must first understand that Puerto Ricans are also Americans, and then understand how living in Puerto Rico differs from living on the mainland.

Puerto Ricans never got to choose their own path.  It was a Spanish colony until 1898, when it was annexed by the United States. In the Supreme Court case Balzac v. Porto Rico, it was ruled that Puerto Ricans were not protected by the 6th amendment, and therefore, were not entitled to trial by jury, something that is considered a fundamental American right. But at this point Puerto Ricans were not American citizens, and were therefore not entitled to the same rights.  In 1917, when the U.S. was just entering the First World War, the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship. It would be safe to assume that as citizens, they were finally entitled to their fundamental American rights. But cases like Balzac v. Puerto Rico still stand.  These laws also apply to other unincorporated territories of the United States. Puerto Rico is treated as a foreign colony, and isolating Puerto Ricans from other Americans contributes to this confusion about their status.

A lack of government representation undermines the issues and voices of Puerto Ricans.  While they are allowed to vote in the presidential party nominations, they cannot vote in the general election. Their governor is appointed by Congress, a Congress in which they have almost no representation. Their only congressperson, also known as the Resident Commissioner, is Jennifer González, who does not get a vote in the House. Ironically, the U.S. is subjecting Puerto Ricans to treatment similar to what we complained about when we were a British colony.  

Puerto Rico is also suffering an ongoing debt crisis. Before the hurricane, the debt was estimated to be around $70 billion, or even up to $123 billion.  This has taken a huge toll on institutions such as schools and hospitals. A large portion of the population lives under the poverty line, and unemployment is high. While it’s hard to estimate the impact Hurricane Maria will have on the debt, the enormous destruction implies that it will be huge. Because Puerto Rico is not a municipality, it cannot file for chapter 9 bankruptcy, and because it isn’t independent, it cannot seek foreign aid. President Donald Trump temporarily suspended the Jones Act, which only lets American ships carry goods between United States ports. This has allowed for some more supplies and aid to flow into Puerto Rico, but it will not fix the crisis. This, along with the hurricanes, has revitalized the push for Puerto Rican statehood.

In June, Puerto Rico held a non-binding referendum to admit the island as the 51st state.  Ninety-seven percent of voters supported Puerto Rican statehood, suggesting a strong sense of American identity among the Puerto Rican people. Additionally, Puerto Rico has a large diaspora on the mainland, exceeding the population of the island itself. With relatives living in the States, Puerto Ricans have a close connection, despite feeling and being treated as a colony. The fact that Puerto Ricans identify with Latin American culture and speak mostly Spanish has led many to think Puerto Rican statehood to be infeasible. But it is clear that Puerto Ricans can balance their local culture with their American identity, without sacrificing one for the other. Many Americans, including Puerto Rico, do not agree or do not know what to do about these great crises. However, there is general agreement that the status quo is not working, that something must be done.




photo from politic365.com












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