Commonwealth, Independence or Statehood: Potential Outcomes for Puerto Rico
On November 3, 2020, Puerto Rico will hold their sixth referendum regarding whether or not the island should be granted immediate statehood within the United States. Since 1967, both voters’ turnout and opinions have varied throughout the polls. This variation has been severely coupled by international inaction, which precipitates this topic to be exceedingly neglected and overlooked. Part of this responsibility lies in the hands of the political entities on the island, such as the underlying desires of the New Progressive Party and Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced.
Undoubtedly, politicians and political parties tend to be filled with controversy and deception. Thus, the island’s political climate faces immense instability with regards to the functionality of its diverse parties, including the New Progressive Party (typically associated with a pro-statehood position), the Popular Democratic Party (typically associated with a pro-commonwealth position), the Puerto Rican Independence Party (typically associated with a pro-independence position) and other movements that have solidified their political standings, such as the Dignity Project and the Citizens’ Victory Movement.
The United States has tremendously impacted the outcomes of past plebiscites for Puerto Rico. President Donald Trump has been criticized for his negligence of Puerto Rico as well as his several offensive remarks concerning extreme antagonism towards Puerto Ricans.
In terms of his responses and actions to the devastating trauma created by Hurricane Maria, Trump has “proclaimed that he had treated Puerto Ricans better than not just any U.S. politician but any “human being” (The Washington Post). Nevertheless, both Biden and Trump seemingly support the island’s self-determination. However, the continual lack of recognition for Puerto Rico impedes forming concrete solutions to the debates and conversations about the island’s potential status.
Puerto Rico has been deemed by the United States as an “unincorporated territory” known as a Commonwealth. As long as Puerto Rico remains classified as a territory controlled by U.S. mandates, the injustices and dangers of colonialism persist. Allowing Puerto Rico to become its own country would be the most non-hegemonic response.
Accepting Puerto Rico’s independence could alleviate vast amounts of the countries’ economic and political calamities. Although we knowingly condemn colonialism and have established it as abusive, this power imbalance perseveres contemporarily through the U.S. and Puerto Rico’s relationship.
With reference to the referendum in 2012, 61% of voters supported statehood. Consequently, Puerto Rico’s legislature filed a request for the President and U.S. Congress to act upon the results, eradicate the current classification of “territorial status” and inaugurate the process of admitting Puerto Rico to the Union as a state.
Flashing forward 5 more years to June of 2017, another referendum was held where 97.7% of voters selected the statehood option, again. This most recent poll possessed extremely low voter turnout, which was only about 23% of Puerto Ricans. Therefore, the scant numbers of the 2017 ballot have caused meager reaction and response towards initiating Puerto Rico’s statehood.
Historically, the discussions of Puerto Rico becoming a state and the United States’ mistreatment of these individuals have engendered a cyclical passivity towards resolving Puerto Ricans’ obstacles both on and off the island. According to the United States Constitution, Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1, Congress is authorized to admit new states into the United States.
Typically, the population of a proposed state must portray that the majority is in favor of statehood, (habitually, through a referendum). Subsequently, the territory presents a State Constitution to be approved by Congress, and then the President announces the addition of a new state to the Union. In 1952, a constitution was accepted upon the agreement of Puerto Rico, the U.S. President and Congress.
This constitution establishes Puerto Rico under the jurisdiction of the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution and additionally institutes that all people born in Puerto Rico are also U.S. citizens at birth.
However, citizens living in Puerto Rico cannot vote for the President of the United States nor for the full members of either house of Congress. Every four years, Puerto Rico elects a singular Resident Commissioner, which exemplifies the limited representation given to Puerto Ricans within Congress.
The Resident Commissioner constitutes the only member of the House of Representatives who serves a four-year term. While Commissioners can sponsor legislation and serve on congressional committees, they are denied a vote on any final construction of legislation within the House.
Not only would statehood grant island residents full voting rights at the federal level, but it would also advocate for a stronger presence of agency for Puerto Rico in U.S. Congressional matters. However, maybe the only way to reach genuine political, social and economic liberty is for Puerto Rico to establish independence.
The negative side of statehood is that with this ruling, Puerto Rico will essentially continue to be controlled and administered by the United States. Whether striving for representation on the island, or wanting voter advocacy for important U.S. elections, Puerto Ricans are deprived of basic U.S. citizen’s rights because their origin has been demarcated as a “territory.”
A Closer Look at the Supporting and Opposing Arguments for Statehood
As mentioned earlier, there are clear divides amongst the various parties’ attitudes towards Puerto Rico’s ideal destiny. According to quotes from influential political voices, such as the Resident Commissioner, House Speaker and former governors, the majority of supporting arguments for statehood are generated by the more ‘Republican’ party, known as the New Progressive Party. The following individuals have voiced their opinions in favor of Puerto Rico’s statehood. This information was obtained from Ballot Pedia.
- Former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló (NPP) said, “The people know that we do not want the colony anymore, we want equality, especially political equality, because in a democracy what matters is the right to vote and the right to participate on equal terms in the bodies that govern the nation.”
- Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (NPP) said that all the crises that Puerto Rico had suffered during the prior four years, including hurricanes, earthquakes, the coronavirus pandemic, and the fiscal crisis, demonstrate the urgency of achieving equality with the states. She added, “That is why we cannot wait any longer to receive from Washington the same treatment that is received in the rest of the nation. There is strength in the union, particularly in moments of collective crisis.”
- House Speaker for the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico Carlos ‘Johnny’ Méndez (NPP) said, “The first thing to put in order in Puerto Rico is the colonial situation. That is the great problem that the Puerto Rican people have.” He stated that other problems arise from the island’s colonial status. Méndez added, “We cannot put the house in order if the Puerto Rican people continue to be discriminated against in terms of federal aid.”
Senator Juan Dalmau, former governors and university professors speak out against U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico. This information was obtained from Ballot Pedia.
- Sen. Juan Dalmau of the Senate of Puerto Rico (PIP), who supports independence from the United States, said, “Puerto Ricans are not willing to give up being what we are. To the plebiscite question, do you want to give up your Puerto Rican nationality? The resounding answer will be ‘No!'” He said that PIP would campaign against annexation and colonialism.
- Former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (PDP) called the ballot measure an “exercise in the misuse of public funds.” He said that no one in Washington, D.C. supports the measure.
- Efraín Vázquez-Vera, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, said, “Corruption and incompetence branded the actual pro-statehood government. People are very angry and not willing to vote in the next November general election. Doing the plebiscite at the same time as the general election, it is a way to guarantee the participation of Pro-Statehood voters. So, for the pro-statehood party, it is not important to win or lose the plebiscite, they want to win the general election and to retain the political power.”
For more information on these arguments, you can visit Ballot Pedia
The debates about statehood vary immensely amongst the political parties, officials and voters on and off the island. Moreover, many people both in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, have argued that Puerto Rico’s sixth referendum is more of a political stunt to increase voter turnout and support for the New Progressive Party. Individuals speculate that Puerto Rico’s Governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced, is holding this ballot for her party’s own benefit.
Consequently, those who oppose both the New Progressive Party and their pro-statehood ideals argue that these referendums are historically ineffective and unreliable. How can this year’s poll in November, not succumb to misrepresentation or ignore the voices and issues within Puerto Rico? Will this year’s referendum stand for something constructive or serve as political propaganda for a power-hungry party? What does Puerto Rico need both on and off the island in order to ignite prosperous changes?
What can non-Puerto Rican citizens living in the U.S. do?
Non-Puerto Rican citizens need to support and accept Puerto Rico’s self-determination and listen to the island’s plethora of voices and opinions. As a group, non-Puerto Ricans must strive to educate themselves and others about the historical and modern ramifications of U.S. colonialism. In general, everyone should be aware that compliance with or negligence of tyrannical government authorities can severely and negatively impact the lives of many innocent beings.
In my mind, fact-checking and questioning those who govern our political happenings and decisions are key factors of rightful democracy. Although our nation has evident and inhumane flaws since its very existence, we should use modern technology and advancements towards progressive movements in order to regain and redefine “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We must sign petitions, read articles and have the uncomfortable conversations that force us to examine ourselves and our privilege.
The next part of this article includes an interview with Adrián Bermúdez Pérez. Adrián was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is currently a rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in History, International Studies, and Economics. This interview offers both an educated and personal perspective on the past, present and future of Puerto Rico. With regards to the best solution for the island and its people, Adrián defends independence for Puerto Rico. Interviewing Adrián was important to me because I wanted to provide another layer of understanding, communication and connection for those who are unaware of what’s going on with Puerto Rico.
Latina Republic: How would you describe your transition from growing up in Puerto Rico to living in the U.S.?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: My transition from growing up in Puerto Rico to living in the U.S. for college is characterized by the necessity to adapt to my new surroundings. Language is the most obvious of these adaptations that I had to undergo. All my life growing up on the island, I spoke Spanish almost exclusively in my day to day life.
Yet, here in Madison, I have had to adapt to mostly English. Fortunately for me, I have found a community here in Madison that loves Spanish-language music, so in that front I am not lacking in feeling at home. Being away from my family, my friends, and the island that I love so much has undoubtedly yielded in instances of homesickness, but I am grateful for the friends that Madison has gifted me with and do not regret my decision not one bit.
Latina Republic: What are the major differences between living in Puerto Rico and living in the U.S.?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: The biggest difference lies in the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony and the U.S. is the colonizer. I am a second-class U.S. citizen with no political representation and no right to vote in the U.S. Presidential election while I live in PR, my home. Apart from that, language, food, culture, politics, infrastructure, among other things, are also some major differences I have experienced when living in both Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Latina Republic: Are there any similarities between Puerto Rico and the U.S. that surprised you?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: The similarities between these two that I have encountered stem from the fact that most of my friends in Madison are Latinx, therefore, our cultural backgrounds have similar traditions that tie us together.
Latina Republic: What are your thoughts on Puerto Rico becoming a U.S. state?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: I am completely against Puerto Rico becoming a U.S. state, and support independence for my country.
Latina Republic: What aspects of your life (or the lives of others) have shaped this opinion?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: I support independence because it is the only true anti-colonial, anti-imperialist option. The history of Puerto Rico is rooted in colonial relationships, first with Spain, and now with the U.S. Since 1898, the U.S. has exploited and mistreated Puerto Rico through its colonial relationship.
To support statehood means to turn a blind eye to the injustices committed under U.S. rule and favors the assimilation into an imperialist country. My stance is largely based on my knowledge of Puerto Rican history, that I have learned in the last 5 years or so. This combined with recent political developments in the island and in the U.S. have pushed me in favor of Puerto Rican independence.
Latina Republic: With regards to Puerto Ricans on and off the island, are there certain demographics that provoke people to feel a certain way towards Puerto Rico’s U.S. statehood? Is there a significant divide among the opinions of the younger and older populations?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: From my experience, I am not sure if demographics play a part in whether Puerto Ricans support statehood or not. I may be wrong, but I believe that race, gender, or socioeconomic standing does not influence people’s perspective on the political status. With that being said, I can definitely see an age and generational divide as the younger generations are way less inclined to support the political establishment, while slowly increasing support for independence (at least with those that live on the island and from my experience).
Latina Republic: For those who are not Puerto Rican and live in the U.S., what do you think is the most beneficial act or role that one can and should partake in with the debates about Puerto Rico and U.S. statehood?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: For those that live in the U.S. and are not Puerto Rican, the only role they should take in this matter is to support the complete self-determination of Puerto Rico. No opinion, or belief regarding the political status of Puerto Rico from non-Puerto Ricans matter, unless it is supporting self-determination. Also, non-Puerto Ricans should support reparations for the damages that the US caused on the island (such as the Naval occupation of Vieques, among others).
Latina Republic: According to Puerto Rico’s past polls, the majority of the voters express the desire to become a state within the U.S. Why do you think that the results of the past polls have not been enough to establish Puerto Rico as a U.S. state?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: I would not say that the majority of Puerto Ricans support statehood, and the results from the past two referendums reflect that, due to delivering inconclusive results. First off, the 2012 poll was characterized with ambiguous wording and questioning. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of ballots being inconclusive, and when you add up the number of votes for the first question and then the second question, the numbers do not match by hundreds of thousands.
In total, there were 515,348 blank and invalidated ballots. Secondly, the 2017 referendum was heavily boycotted by every other party except the pro-Statehood party. This led to statehood earning 97% of the vote, but with the referendum garnering only 23% voter turnout among all registered voters. The fact remains that these past polls do not reflect a definitive support for statehood among Puerto Ricans. While this does play a role in whether the U.S. admits Puerto Rico into the union, I believe that lack of support from the U.S. Congress for Puerto Rican statehood is the main reason why.
Latina Republic: What do you think will happen with the November 3, 2020 poll?
Adrián Bermúdez Pérez: With the question posed for the November 3, 2020 poll asking whether you want statehood for Puerto Rico, yes or no? I believe that “No” will narrowly earn the most votes. I believe there is a slowly growing support for independence (and free association, maybe) among the younger generation, while a large block of the electorate supports the status quo. Also, I believe that there is not enough support for statehood that would yield 50%+ majority to win. In addition, an unexpectedly high voter turnout, especially from young people, makes me believe that “No” will earn the majority of votes.
I do not think that statehood could ever happen for Puerto Rico for a couple of reasons: 1) the colonial relationship that exists between the U.S. and Puerto Rico dictates that it does not matter what the people of Puerto Rico decide, it is up to the U.S. Congress to decide that; and from what we can see, there is definitely not enough support for statehood; 2) I see statehood with declining support among young people, therefore, the chances that it ever surpasses the 50% threshold are declining each year; and lastly 3) If the U.S. wanted Puerto Rico to be a state, it would have done so a long time ago, the reality remains that that was never the plan for Puerto Rico and it never will be.
Featured Image: Credits to author, journalist, professor, Ed Morales, from his article, Caught Between Two Governments-Puerto Ricans Show their Resilience.
Lydia Millhon | Wake Forest University
Lydia Millhon is in her final year at Wake Forest University pursuing a major in Spanish with concentrations in interpreting and translation/localization and two minors in Latin American Studies and Politics and International Affairs. Born in Columbus, OH, Lydia always found ways to get involved with community outreach programs. Lydia’s humanitarian experience ranges from tutoring Spanish speaking children to participating in local projects to raise awareness of the U.S. Immigration Crisis and creating a bilingual portfolio for incoming Spanish speaking individuals and families with a local non-profit organization, Columbus Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS). Throughout her Wake Forest career, Lydia has taken advantage of various study abroad opportunities including two summers in Cuba studying Cuban art and literature and a semester in Salamanca, Spain studying the language, politics, and literature. Lydia strives to combine her passions for cultural studies, especially with visual arts, into all of her projects and curriculum. Aside from her fascination and participation in modern dance, Lydia has experience in theatrical, instrumental, and poetic performances cross-culturally. As a part of the Latina Republic Correspondent position, Lydia hopes to further her studies in social issues such as immigration, human rights concerns, and state violence as well as other significant cultural topics including visual arts, environmental action, and local businesses. In pursuit of global human connection, Lydia hopes to unite Latin America with and open the eyes of those around the world.