José Fuentes Agostini, former Attorney General of Puerto Rico and Chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, gave testimony at the recent hearing on Puerto Rico status legislation with the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Fuentes Agostini reminded his hearers of the history of Puerto Rico’s status plebiscites, and then moved on to the implications of statehood.
What will statehood mean for Puerto Rico?
Anti-statehood leaders often ask for Congress to clarify what statehood might mean for Puerto Rico. This is disingenuous of them, because we already have 50 states to look at. Their histories show the diversity of U.S. states, but they also show exactly what happens when territories become states.
“Under the U.S. Constitution, new states to the union are admitted on ‘equal footing’ with existing states. The ‘equal footing’ doctrine makes it clear that when Puerto Rico becomes a state, full constitutional rights will apply to its residents, including constitutional U.S. citizenship and the Bill of Rights. As a U.S. territory, the Bill of Rights does not fully apply in Puerto Rico, and a 1917 statute, not the U.S. Constitution, grants U.S. citizenship,” Fuentes Agostini stated. “Statehood is a responsible ballot option because there are no variations on its definition. Each of the 50 current states is treated equally under federal law. The meaning of ‘state’ is well established and consistent; there is a sense of certainty in the definition.”
Fuentes Agostini went on to discuss three implication of Puerto Rico statehood which are often discussed — and, he said, often misunderstood.
“(1) predictions of Puerto Rico’s partisanship as a state, (2) the economic implications of Puerto Rico statehood, and (3) the impact of statehood on Puerto Rican culture. Contrary to assertions that Puerto Rico would be a deep blue state with a struggling economy,” Fuentes Agostini pointed out, “Puerto Rico is poised to be a purple state with a strengthened economy, and Puerto Rican culture would thrive as a result.”
Will Puerto Rico vote blue?
While the argument that U.S. citizens should not receive equal rights in case they might vote for one part or another is ant-American and undemocratic, it is actually one of the most popular arguments against statehood for Puerto Rico in Washington.
“As a matter of fact, at the time of the November 2020 election, all of the top government officials in Puerto Rico – Governor Wanda Vázquez, House Speaker Johnny Méndez and Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz – identified as Republican,” Fuentes Agostini reminded his listeners.
He also reminded them that Hawaii was expected to be a red state and Alaska was expected to be a blue one. Exactly the opposite turned out to be the case.
“We cannot know the partisan makeup of a congressional delegation for the state of Puerto Rico until the U.S. citizens there are afforded full voting rights,” he concluded. “What is obvious is that the party that is viewed as being responsible for including Puerto Rico fully in the America’s national democratic process will be remembered by Puerto Rican voters for many years to come.”
Will statehood benefit Puerto Rico economically?
Many of the territories which have become states were in financial distress when they were territories. All of the territories which have become states benefited financially.
“Throughout history all U.S. territories have underperformed and been in an arrested development compared to after they became states,” the former Attorney General told the committee. “At its core, the current territory status represents an inherent limitation on Puerto Rico’s economic development because it creates an unequal playing field with a distinct disadvantage from which the local economy cannot escape. It also creates incentives for deficits and debt spending as a way to make up for underinvestment by the federal government when local elected officials are faced with the public demands of a local electorate who see the higher quality of life and higher incomes stateside and can easily relocate to obtain better economic opportunities.”
The ease with which residents of Puerto Rico can become residents of states is one reason that Puerto Rico faces what Fuentes Agostini described as “the ticking timebomb of population loss.”
“Federal underinvestment under territory status will always hamper Puerto Rico’s aggregate demand and cause residents to relocate stateside making sustainable economic growth difficult if not impossible,” he said. “According to the U.S. Census, the relocation of Puerto Ricans stateside has led to a population decline from 3.9 million in 2000, to less than 3.2 million in 2019. That is absolutely devastating for the Island’s economy because it diminishes the consumer base, tax base and the workforce, and increases per capita debt. This trend makes it crystal clear why a gamechanger like the definitive resolution to the political status issue is urgently needed, and why further delay by Congress could be catastrophic.”
Fuentes Agostini also pointed out that statehood has historically benefitted former territories very consistently. In the first decade after becoming a state, most new states saw their economies double, wages skyrocket, and populations grow.
“Statehood will provide Puerto Rico the equality, stability, access and certainty needed to attract long term investors. It will increase interstate commerce by boosting consumer demand. Statehood will also help speed up debt restructuring by promoting the economic growth needed to support debt repayment and to regain access to capital markets for making responsible public investments in infrastructure that can generate more growth in the future.”
What about Puerto Rico’s culture?
“The course of Puerto Rico’s history changed in 1898, when the United States acquired the Island in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. At the time Puerto Rico already had a rich identity and cultural history with a mixture of Spanish, African and Taino native influences. And while some like to raise concerns about Puerto Rico retaining its unique cultural identity as a state, this again is a false dichotomy. In the United States, every state has its own culture and identity. There is no reason to believe that Puerto Rico would be any different,” said Fuentes Agostini. “The reality is that Puerto Rican culture and identity has already been shaped in undeniable ways from its current territorial relationship with the United States, and American culture has also been shaped by Puerto Rico. There are simply no requirements under statehood that would prevent Puerto Rico from maintaining its culture and identity.”
“The stateside population of Puerto Ricans is itself the greatest proof that one can continue to carry and cherish one’s culture and identity as Puerto Rican while also enjoying the full and equal rights of U.S. citizenship under statehood,” he went on. “There is no contradiction in being proud to be Puerto Rican and proud to be American at the same time.”
Referring to the vibrant culture of Puerto Rico visible on the Island and stateside as well, Fuentes Agostini concluded, “Puerto Rican culture continues to endure despite its long colonial history – and its colonial status today. An economically vibrant Puerto Rico under statehood would be much more able to retain and further develop local talent in arts, music, dance, cuisine, sports and other cultural fields than under the deteriorating territory status where top talent is often times forced to leave the island to be able to fully develop and grow.”