In negotiations on measures that will constitute a federal response to Puerto Rico’s fiscal meltdown, U.S. Senate and House committee leaders and staff insist the territory’s political status is “virtually irrelevant” to the task at hand. Meanwhile elected leaders and government financial advisers from the territory insist federal measures to restore stability in the local economy must respect the political dignity of Puerto Rico’s citizens and the territorial government.
Both Congress and Puerto Rico’s leaders are working hard to produce effective short term measures to jump start recovery from the financial crisis. Of course, long term solutions may include transition from unsustainable public sector ownership of major economic enterprises to private sector ownership, impacting the political as well as fiscal balance that exists in the current organic structure of federal-territorial relations.
That will affect progress on political status outcomes for Puerto Rico as the last large and populous U.S. territory within the U.S. system of constitutional federalism. Even in the short term, however, everyone knows that ultimately the crisis afflicting the island’s economic order is a subset of the territory’s larger and enduring political status dilemma.
Even those in denial admit in moments of candor that the 78% voter turnout for the 2012 referendum in which 54% voted to end the current status and 61% voted for statehood was a game changer. Anti-statehood leaders of the status-quo party lamely touted blank ballots on the a second question choice between statehood versus nationhood, but even with blank ballots on that question more voters cast ballot for statehood than those who voted for the current status in and up or down option on the first ballot question.
Washington was not ready to recognize the full meaning of the 2012 vote for statehood, at least not officially. Still, the real barometer and measure of Congressional thinking about the 2012 vote is the 2014 bipartisan vote that had White House support for legislation authorizing and funding a federally sponsored referendum to confirm the results of that 2012 vote for statehood. That meant Washington recognized it needed to know if the 2012 vote was for real, because that would mean decades of platitudes about respecting the will of the people for change must come to an end.
Then came the Puerto Rico financial crash, and suddenly there was a bipartisan chorus in Congress expressing resignation that was really thinly veiled relief that the status issue was dead until the economic picture turned around. Yet, despite a tacit agreement not to talk about status, even those in Congress adamant that the fiscal crisis must be addressed in 2016 without linkage to status are keenly aware of the scenario that is likely to unfold for Puerto Rico in 2017 and beyond.
The current Governor of Puerto Rico blocked the referendum authorized by Congress in 2014. If a pro-statehood government is elected in 2016, some version of the scenario that played out in 32 territories that became states of the union will ensue for Puerto Rico.
It will begin with the federally sponsored referendum, which could be an up or down vote on statehood, or include a choice of nationhood. If majority support for statehood is confirmed Congress will be forced to follow historical precedent and define specific terms for admission to the union. If it so chooses, Congress can also prescribe the terms for continuation of the status quo or transition to sovereign independent nationhood.
Regardless of what has come of federal measures to address the fiscal crisis, what those in Washington who understand history know is that a federally recognized vote for statehood will instigate the same struggle between supporters and opponents of admission that took place in each of the thirty-two territories that became states. That history includes admission to the union for territories political and economic circumstances that make Puerto Rico’s current fiscal crisis seem utterly benign.
Indeed, history teaches us that even at a time when all the existing states were controlled by English speaking Protestants, Louisiana was inhabited by Spanish and French speaking Catholics. Yet, that new state was admitted to the union in the midst of the War of 1812. Imagine, as well, adding to the admission debate a question so vexatious as whether the new state would be free or slave, with a powerful militant opposition poised to strike either way.
Of course, even those focused on short term fiscal fixes know that investment in Puerto Rico will break records when statehood becomes a realistic prospect. Thus, even if the next Governor of Puerto Rico is from the status-quo party, the pressure to hold a federally sponsored vote in 2017 will mount and make a referendum obligatory. Since any option on the ballot must be certified by the U.S. Attorney General, even if the current status is on the ballot a statehood majority is a realistic expectation.
In anticipation of that scenario, the newly published book “Citizens Without A State” presents case studies distilling the essential question driving support and opposition to statehood for thirty-two territories that became states. This study, with a foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, examines the history of Puerto Rico’s political status under U.S. rule. The book also challenges the orthodoxy of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that enabled Congress to abdicate its duty to address the status issue, before being forced to do so by the current crisis, which is driving tens of thousands from Puerto Rico to vote for statehood by moving to a state each year.
Denial that status is and will continue to be the elephant in the room until the question is resolved will soon be impossible, as short terms fiscal fixes make the need for a status solution undeniable. Be prepared, get your copy of “Citizens Without A State” now.
The 2016 Presidential Election is fast approaching, and with Ben Carson and Marco Rubio already out of the race, only 5 candidates in total are continuing their journey for the upcoming conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland.
Puerto Rico has already voted in the Republican primary: Rubio got 74% of the votes, followed by Trump with 14% and Cruz with 9% of the total votes. The Democratic primaries will be held on June 5 in a closed Caucus. These primaries happen to be the better part of the election process for Puerto Ricans. It is the only opportunity given to them to get their voices heard nationally. Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution clearly states that only states can participate in the electoral process. Even though Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands are territories of the United States, they are not recognized as states. This means that the citizens of these jurisdictions cannot participate in the federal elections.
The question of whether Puerto Rico should be able to vote in the federal elections relates to a broader question; should Puerto Rico become the 51st state?
There are many reasons that can be talked about why Puerto Rico should become a US state. The following examples are one of the most important ones (if you would like to learn more you can look here).
First off, Puerto Ricans themselves want to become a state. A status referendum was done in Puerto Rico regarding the statehood question. For the first time, there were more Puerto Ricans that were in favor of statehood in the US than people who wanted independence. There were two more status referendums, one in 1967 and another one in 1998, when there were significantly more people who were not in favor of statehood. The most recent one has shown us that the number of Puerto Ricans who wanted statehood has increased in the past 40 years and is probably continuing to increase as the crisis in Puerto Rico continues.
Secondly, Puerto Rico is missing many of the privileges that it would get if it were a state, which has also led up to the ongoing severe crisis. A big part of this is caused by many young Puerto Ricans leaving Puerto Rico for a better life in the mainland of the United States. This event, also known as the “brain drain”, decreases the number of skilled workers. This brain drain does not really include the aging population. The poor Medicare treatment provided to Puerto Rico worsens the situation with older people and it is clearly unfair because Puerto Ricans only get half of the Medicare funding a US state gets but Puerto Ricans pay the same tax rates as mainland residents.
Statehood would mean that not only could we expect improvement in the healthcare sector, but the economy would surely improve as well. Before Hawaii and Alaska became states in 1959, they had a vast segment of their populations living in poverty and another huge segment that was unemployed. After they became full states, they had rapid improvement in every field. Now, their poverty and unemployment rates are below the average of the nation as a whole. This is a sign which indicates that Puerto Rico would see a positive change.
The United States as a whole, in addition to Puerto Rico, will also benefit from granting statehood to Puerto Rico. The US is paying approximately $22 billion for Puerto Rico in its Commonwealth status. If Puerto Rico was a state, then the US might have to pay a few million dollars more in disbursements, but the money will be more efficiently spent than it is now. Furthermore, the US Federal Government would also earn a significant amount from the income tax. This would also be beneficial to the economic situation as the Federal Government would be a better spender than the local governments.
Putting all these reasons aside, people are still wondering if Puerto Ricans will be able to vote in the upcoming 2016 elections. The short answer is no. There will not be enough time for Puerto Rico to become a state in just a few months. It took Alaska around 92 years to become a state and 104 years for Oklahoma. Looking at these numbers, it would be reasonable to say that Puerto Ricans will not be able to vote this year, and most probably for another decade as well.
Taking into account all of the previous reasons, I firmly believe that Puerto Rico should become a state, especially before 2020. Adding up another 5 to 10 years for the economy to stabilize,if events occur as stated above, Puerto Rico should become a totally changed place by 2030, which is also the year by which the United Nations wants to end world poverty and hunger.
And we should not forget that Puerto Rico’s statehood process can also play a leading role in the statehood process of the other struggling US territories: Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands.
Kerem Tuncer is a high school sophomore currently residing in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and is a dual citizen of Turkey and USA. He has lived in 4 different countries: Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Kerem is fluent in Spanish, Russian, Turkish and English. His main goal is to study Political Science in college. Kerem has a deep interest in politics of Turkey and USA. He is planning to attend the summer credit program at Georgetown College. Kerem holds executive roles in his school’s Yearbook, Student Council and Model United Nations. He is an intern at Pasquines.
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