Puerto Rico: Another Pass at Statehood

On June 11, Puerto Rico’s fifth referendum for statehood was held. The referendum showed widespread support for Puerto Rican statehood, with 97% in favor of it. However, with only 23% voter turnout for the referendum, many of its detractors point to the historically low voter turnout, claiming the result to not be indicative of the will of the Puerto Rican people. Low voter turnout is a result of a boycott conducted by all major parties who oppose statehood. The referendum asserted many notions that certain parties, such as the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), and certain movements, such as the Free Association Movement, reject. These entities believed that any action other than a boycott would be tantamount to conceding these claims, and therefore organized a boycott.

Since its cession into the United States in 1898, the island of Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the United States of America. Puerto Rican citizens were granted U.S. citizenship 100 years ago in 1917 with the Jones-Shafroth Act, but are still not afforded the same rights as citizens of a U.S. state. Due to their commonwealth status, American citizens who take residence in Puerto Rico are disenfranchised at the federal level. Puerto Rico residents do not vote during presidential elections and do not have representatives in neither the House of Representative nor the Senate. Puerto Rican men are also eligible for the draft, as they are U.S. citizens.

If annexed as the 51st U.S. state, Puerto Rico would be the 29th largest state by population, granting them 5 Representatives and 2 Senators. But annexation is contentious. Although every president, and both political parties, in the last 30 years have officially had Puerto Rican statehood as part of their overall platform, Congress has not found a reason to move forward with annexation in the past.

Puerto Rico has a lot to gain from U.S. statehood, and not just politically. The most cited and enticing change would be a gigantic increase in federal grant money. Currently the Puerto Rican government only receives $6.5 billion annually in federal government grants. However, if they would become the 51st state, that number is estimated to increase to $16.5 billion each year.

Puerto Rico was hit hard by the economic recession of 2008, but because of their commonwealth status they are still recovering almost a decade later. As an unincorporated territory, the local government cannot evade their debts like state and federal governments and since it is not a sovereign state they cannot seek aid from the International Monetary Fund. They cannot merely print more currency either since they don’t control their money supply. Just last year, the Obama administration passed a law in June, creating an oversight board that allowed the Puerto Rican government to enter in a bankruptcy-like restructuring process.

Puerto Rico can’t continue with the status quo. The numbers are pointing to Puerto Rico being in a “bend or break” situation. Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status doesn’t allow for economic flexibility and if statehood or sovereignty are not reached many fear the outcome will be civil unrest. Puerto Rico is at a turning point in its history and must make a major decision to avoid the territory’s looming crisis, whether that be statehood, sovereignty, or even the lifting of U.S. austerity measures.

Alexander Dufresne, World Affairs Council Intern

Photo Credit: Politic365