When Elaine Duke told the New York Times that President Trump had talked about selling Puerto Rico back in 2017, many people responded by saying, “Puerto Rico is not for sale.”
One of these people was Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a congresswoman from New York. In a tweet retweeted by Salon, she said, “I assure you Puerto Rico is not for sale.”
Another was Ritchie Torres, expected to replace Rep. Jose Serrano as a congressman from the Bronx. Torres wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times with that title.
The essay doesn’t focus on whether Puerto Rico can legally be sold or not (more about that later). Instead, Torres points out that holding a colony with severely limited participation in American democracy is not the American Way.
“How can the United States claim to be fully democratic when it openly denies equal representation to 3 million people who are citizens according to its own laws, and when it subverts the popularly elected government of Puerto Rico in favor of a Financial Control Board that is neither accountable to nor representative of the people themselves?” Torres asks.
“There are two alternatives to the status quo of colonialism: independence and statehood. I am squarely on the side of statehood,” Torres wrote. “Puerto Ricans are and have long been American citizens. Instead of depriving them of citizenship entirely, make Puerto Ricans equal under the law. I am hardly alone in holding that view. Rep. Jose Serrano, a progressive icon among Puerto Ricans, has been a staunch supporter of statehood. The 2012 referendum, which saw 78% turnout, resulted in 61% of Puerto Rican voters choosing statehood.”
Anti-statehood paper El Nuevo Dia describes Torres as “leaning towards” statehood, but his own words make it clear that he favors this most popular option. “If commonwealth status is colonialism in disguise and if independence commands support only at the margins, then the only viable option that remains is statehood, which, according to the results of more than one referendum, is the position that best approximates the will of the people.”
Torres agrees that the will of the people should be the deciding factor, but also recognizes that the people of Puerto Rico have already made their will clear.
“Inequalities continue to abound to the ever-deepening detriment of Puerto Rico,” he wrote. “Unlike the 50 states, the island has substandard Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. Unlike the 50 states, it has no access to the normal protections of a bankruptcy court. Instead of addressing each of these inequalities in isolation, as policymakers are prone to do, we should see them all as symptomatic of a deeper disease: the denial of statehood to Puerto Rico.”
And “denial” is the right word. It is not a question of waiting around until 100% of Puerto Ricans choose statehood, or of respecting “all sides” of the question equally. In a democracy, the majority makes the decisions. The majority of voters, in particular. In 2012 and again 2017, there was a clear majority in favor of statehood.
Torres explains it clearly in his op-ed.
“Indeed, the ultimate solution to inequality is equality itself, which can only be conferred by statehood. Everything else, like tinkering with reimbursement formulas, is piecemeal policymaking, which surely has its place. But in an age like ours, which demands bold thinking and action, a systemic problem like colonialism calls for a systemic solution like statehood. A comprehensive decolonization of Puerto Rico is long overdue.”
Who gets to decide whether Puerto Rico is for sale? You would think it would be the people. However, as an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico does not have sovereignty. A state can never be sold, but a territory does not have the rights of a state.
The President of the United States also does not have the authority to sell Puerto Rico. This is true no matter who the president is.
Congress, according to the U.S. Constitution, has the power to “dispose of” and generally make all decisions about territories. Therefore, Rep. Velazquez has the right to say that Puerto Rico is not for sale. Councilman Torres, if he wins the seat he is working for, will have the right to say this.
Indeed, whether Puerto Rico has the authority or not, we all surely can insist that “Puerto Rico no se vende,” a popular slogan for many years. As citizens of the United States, we have the right to free speech, and we should use that right to speak up for ourselves.