On May 28th, 2017, if a bill currently in the Puerto Rico legislature goes through, the people of Puerto Rico will be asked to vote in the first federally-sponsored plebiscite. They will be presented with this question: should Puerto Rico be the 51st state of the United States, or an independent nation?
Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated territory of the United States, belonging to the U.S. and being under the power of the U.S. Congress. In November 2012, 54% of voters in the last status referendum rejected the current status. 5% of the voters in that plebiscite chose independence. 33% chose the “Sovereign Free Associated State” option. If a majority of voters choose independence in May, there will be a vote in September between independent nationhood and the free associated state option.
The most important thing to keep in mind about the free associated state option is that it is a form of independence. Residents of Puerto Rico would be citizens of Puerto Rico, not citizens of the United States. The two nations — the United States and Puerto Rico — would negotiate the terms of the association, and either side could end the relationship at any time, without the agreement of the other nation.
Free association is not the same as enhanced commonwealth. The terms of the agreements the U.S. has made with its free associated states in the past have changed over time. There is no requirement that the two nations in this kind of relationship must agree on changes. And there is no going back. Puerto Rico would have to become an independent nation before negotiating the terms. If the United States refuses any of the terms Puerto Rico feels most strongly about, Puerto Rico would not have the option of becoming a state or a territory of the United States, because it would be independent.
Does Puerto Rico have the resources to become independent?
Puerto Rico imports 85% of its food. Only 6% of the land can be farmed for food, and Puerto Rico’s agriculture industry has been sinking for some time. While this situation could improve over time, it would put an independent Puerto Rico in a tough situation.
Puerto Rico also imports most of its clothing, machinery, and fuel. In fact, Puerto Rico does not refine petroleum at all, and all natural gas and other fossils fuels are imported. Puerto Rico has the resources to be an important producer of alternative energy, but there again Puerto Rico would be in a tough position as it built up those resources.
One of the advantages of being part of the United States is that each state has easy access to the goods produced by the other states. Arkansas produces rice for the entire nation and California supplies all the states with fruits and vegetables. Texas keeps the U.S. in cotton and wind energy and North Dakota shares its honey with the rest of the nation. Of course there are global imports and exports, but Puerto Rico would lose by opting out of interstate commerce. The United States would lose, too, but Puerto Rico would face more immediate hardship.
Could Puerto Rico survive as an independent nation? Certainly. Singapore is a good example of a small but successful nation. When they were expelled from Malaysia in the 1960s, they had 10-12% unemployment (just slightly less than Puerto Rico) and few natural resources. The international community was skeptical about Singapore’s chances of survival. Now, Singapore is in a strong economic position, even if the residents do not have the level of political freedom and security expected in North America.
But Singapore had no choice. Their transition was difficult and they faced a great deal of hardship. Would the people of Puerto Rico, where the Independence Party has always represented a small fraction of the population, accept the hardship required to survive the transition?
Statehood is the best option for Puerto Rico
Statehood is the best option for Puerto Rico. As long as the reality of the choice is clear, the people of Puerto Rico have the opportunity to gain equality and sovereignty as the 51st state of the Union. Sign the petition, share the Case for Statehood with your friends and family, and make this year the year for statehood.