What about Puerto Rico?

The most prominent elected American political leader of Puerto Rican descent and ethnic identity in the U.S. government now supports admission of Washington D.C. as a state of the union. Bronx Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez used her Twitter account to endorse recognition of D.C. as a state.

At the congressional hearing on D.C. statehood, Ocasio Cortez reminded her listeners that her family could not participate in presidential elections because they lived in Puerto Rico. “Where the disenfranchisement of Puerto Ricans was rooted in the colonialist and imperialistic history that we’ve had in policies of the United States,” she said, “the issue of D.C. statehood is rooted in a different evil in our history, which is the history of slavery in the United States.”

Naturally, AOC’s declaration of support for admission of D.C. causes many to wonder if and when she also will support statehood for more than 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. Her past pronouncements on the status of Puerto Rico have gone only as far as observing the current political status of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory is historically and constitutionally consistent with that of a “colony” of the United States.

It is not clear or confirmed if AOC supports statehood as an option to complete the “decolonization” of Puerto Rico.

The pro-statehood party in Puerto Rico won the 2016 general elections and gained control of the territorial local government. In a 2012 local plebiscite the majority of voters had already approved termination of the current status and admission to statehood as a permanent status. Statehood was also approved in a 2017 status vote with lower than usual voter turnout due to voter fatigue and boycotts by the anti-statehood parties seeking to prevent repetition of the decisive pro-statehood vote in 2012.

Against that backdrop, AOC’s statements recognizing the “colonial” status of Puerto Rico implicitly acknowledges “decolonization” has stalled under the “commonwealth” regime of local territorial government. However, the U.S. Congress has authorized a federally recognized status vote to confirm majority support for statehood.

Given the legally certified results of the 2012 and 2017 status votes with clear majorities favoring statehood, the next vote is expected to be an up or down vote on statehood. That follows precedent for most of the 32 territories that became states, and it is allowed under federal law authorizing a vote to confirm the results of the 2012 vote approving statehood by 61%.

It is widely assumed AOC will support statehood or independence if chosen by the people in an informed democratic act of self-determination. However, independent nationhood has not been approved by even as many as 6% of voters in past plebiscites.

D.C. statehood issues complicated

Using her Twitter account to declare new national policy positions, three days ago AOC tweeted:

“DC was the 1st territory in the United States to free the enslaved. It’s where Black Americans fled the tyranny of slavery & towards greater freedom, to DC. Yet today it’s where 2nd class citizenship reign, and the right to vote is denied. It’s time to recognize DC statehood.”

D.C. statehood supporters welcomed AOC’s endorsement. Criticism of her assertion that D.C. is a territory in which voting rights are denied due to the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination made the following points:

  • U.S. citizens in the District of Columbia asked for and were given home rule and vote for chief executive and lawmakers in the government of the District of Columbia.
  • As in all geographic locations under U.S. sovereign rule but not in a state, residents of D.C. do not have voting rights in federal elections for representation in Congress or the Electoral College.
  • Federal voting rights and representation in federal political system are apportioned to the states under Art. I and Art. II of the U.S. Constitution, so voting in federal elections is a right of national citizenship exercised through state citizenship.
  • D.C. and Puerto Rico are both within the borders of the United States, but have a different constitutional status.
  • Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S. governed under Art. IV of the Constitution, pursuant to which 37 new states have been admitted to the union.
  • Washington D.C. is a federal “district” governed by Congress under Article I, Sec. 8, Cl. 17, acquired by cession of land for the nation’s capital by state of Maryland.
  • The only precedent for ending federal “district” and “seat of government” status is “retrocession” of 1/2 of original District Columbia back to the state of Virginia in 1846.
  • Several states abolished slavery in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, before it was abolished in D.C. as a part of compromise also admitting California as a free state.
  • Ownership of a slave was legal in D.C. until 1861.
  • Puerto Rico actually suffered slavery under Spain ten years after slavery was abolished in the United States.
  • Statehood for D.C. would be historically unprecedented in some ways; for example Puerto Rico is 5 times larger than Rhode Island, 2 times the size of Delaware, and the same size as Connecticut.
  • By comparison D.C. is over 80 times smaller than Puerto Rico, and 20 times smaller than Rhode Island.
  • D.C. political status and rights are defined by 23rd Amendment, and it is not known if constitutional amendment would be required to re-constitute D.C. as a state.

Whatever the merits of those points made by critics of AOC may be, the issue on the minds of statehood supporters in Puerto Rico is whether AOC will lend her political prominence to the cause of statehood for Puerto Rico.

As a territory Puerto Rico has the option of nationhood as well as statehood; that is not the case for D.C. in any scenario.

That is why past self-determination votes on status in Puerto Rico have included options other than statehood, including sovereign nationhood.  However, nationhood means loss of U.S. citizenship, and if nothing else is clear it is that if U.S. citizenship is to continue only statehood secures equality. AOC’s support for D.C. statehood now naturally raises questions about her position on Puerto Rico  status. If a majority vote for statehood again, will AOC support full integration and equal U.S. citizenship rights attainable only through statehood?



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