Why Statehood for Puerto Rico Matters So Much Right Now

We’re hearing that Puerto Rico shouldn’t be thinking about status right now. On the surface, that makes some sense, since as of this writing fewer than half of the people have electricity and 30% are still without water in some parts of the Island. Many people in Puerto Rico are still coping with basic survival needs. Statehood for Puerto Rico, some people say, should wait until things are back to normal on the Island.

But the need for status resolution is actually greater than before.

We heard before the hurricanes that Puerto Rico’s political status should be ignored until the debt crisis was settled. That status shouldn’t be discussed until Puerto Rico managed economic recovery. That status wasn’t important until the PROMESA fiscal oversight board finished their work. Now it’s the disaster. There have been plenty of other excuses over the century and more that Puerto Rico has spent as a territory of the United States. Ignoring Puerto Rico’s political status is not actually a sensible choice, though.

Puerto Rico’s territorial status is the source of the problems.

Puerto Rico didn’t get hit by a hurricane because it’s an unincorporated territory. But the response to the disaster was different from the response in the States that also were hit by hurricanes. We have seen comments here at PR51st suggesting that a territory just doesn’t deserve as much support as a state. We disagree. Puerto Rico is a possession of the United States, and the U.S. has responsibility for the Island — no other country does.

The United States is, however, legally able to treat territories differently from States. Territories do not have the sovereignty or the rights of States. The 32 territories which have already gained statehood are now much more prosperous than they were as territories — including the most recent ones, Alaska and Hawaii. There is no evidence that Puerto Rico is more different from those other territories than they were from each other. Each one had a different path to statehood, but all of them benefited from the change.

Keeping Puerto Rico in the status of an unincorporated territory has kept Puerto Rico from becoming prosperous. The results include infrastructure that’s in poor shape, less federal support, and a lack of voice in the legislature.

Money will be spent in Puerto Rico; status will affect financial decisions.

The United States has a responsibility to Puerto Rico, because the U.S. owns Puerto Rico. Money will be spent for disaster relief and rebuilding.

The question is, will that money be spent patching up things in a territory, or will it be spent building the 51st State of the Union?

Puerto Rico doesn’t want independence, and the “commonwealth” option is nothing more than the continuation of more than a century of inequality. Statehood for Puerto Rico is the only realistic option for the future, the only one that is positive for both Puerto Rico and the United States.

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