Conversations about statehood for Puerto Rico sometimes include speculations about what might happen under statehood. Even after Hurricane Maria, “commonwealth” party leaders continue to suggest that statehood could somehow be worse for Puerto Rico that the current territorial limbo. Without special tax loopholes, those politicians claim, there would be no reason for businesses to invest in Puerto Rico.
This is disrespectful to Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico has a future, the island will be rebuilt, and there is no evidence that luring people in with unrealistic tax deals will work better in the future than it did in the past. The uncertainty is not in statehood. It’s in remaining in the current territorial status.
What’s a territory?
In Statehood for Alaska, George Sundborg, Sr., a journalist who was instrumental in Alaska’s fight for statehood, wrote that “the territorial plan of government was devised for regions under the sovereignty of the United States to which Congress felt itself compelled to allow a measure of self-government, but to which it was unwilling at once to grant full membership in the Union. The status of territory has always been regarded as a sort of governmental adolescence, from which, with increasing population, the area would eventually grow into adult statehood. When a territory has acquired about 60,000 people, it has usually been regarded as of age. Every state west of the Alleghenies, except Texas and California, passed through this stage of development.”
Being a territory is like being a teenager, growing toward the adulthood of being a state. The “commonwealth” party has been pretending for years that Puerto Rico has or could in the future have some kind of special relationship with the United States, different from being a state or a nation, but somehow better. “The best of both worlds” is a phrase you sometimes hear. The U.S. federal government has said over and over — from Congress, the White House, and the courts — that this fantasy won’t happen.
Sundborg said that the government didn’t know what to do with territories that weren’t on their way to becoming states. “Since the whole theory of territorial government was based on the assumption that the period of territorial tutelage would be short, and would be followed by statehood,” he said, “not too much time or effort was ever expended by Congress in perfecting it.” Congress figured, he went on, that “the ill consequences of any imperfections in the territorial system could only be temporary.”
In Puerto Rico — in the economy, the response to Hurricane Maria, and the dwindling population — we can easily see that there are serious imperfections in the territorial system.
“The fundamental law of the land has very little to say on the subject of the relationship of American territories to the Union. The only indication of the intention of the makers of the Constitution is in Article IV, Section 3, which reads: ‘The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.’ The rest of the instrument seems to postulate, both in spirit and in wording, a group of states and nothing else.“
Sundborg was talking about Alaska, but it’s just as true of Puerto Rico. Being a territory is a powerless, uncertain, and temporary state.
What is statehood like?
More people of Puerto Rican heritage now live in states than in Puerto Rico. What is life like in states? It’s different from one state to another. Across the nation, different language are spoken, different celebrations take place, different foods are eaten. These things are not the core of statehood.
In each of the 50 states, the people have a say in the laws they live under. They have a vote in presidential elections. They elect representatives to serve them in Congress.
They are fully covered under the U.S. Constitution.
States have rights. Not just privileges temporarily given to them by Congress, but sovereignty and authority based in the very nature of a state. Puerto Rican Independence Party President Ruben Berrios Martinez once laughed that a U.S. senator from the state of Puerto Rico would have more power than the President of the Republic of Puerto Rico. That is absolutely true.
There are currently 50 states. 32 used to be territories before they became states. All of them are more prosperous than Puerto Rico. All have lower crime rates. None has an unemployment rate as high as Puerto Rico’s was before Hurricane Maria. There is no mystery about states: they are different from one another culturally and geographically, but they are equal in rights and responsibilities.
Truthfully, there is no mystery about continuing as an unincorporated territory, either. For more than half a century, “commonwealth” party leaders have claimed that Puerto Rico is “not a mere territory,” that it should get “special treatment,” and that it has ” a unique relationship” with the United States. It is obvious that this is a fantasy. The truth of the current unincorporated territory status is exactly what Puerto Rico has been facing: inequality and powerlessness.
The Puerto Rico Senate recently passed a resolution declaring “that Puerto Rican residents are in the process of achieving equal obligations and rights as American citizens as a state of the Union, after 119 years of colonial disadvantages and 100 years of being citizens.” The resolution called for refusal of “special treatment or special economic benefits that undermine that will.”
Statehood means sovereignty, equal rights under the U.S. Constitution, and a level playing field among the states. Join us in working toward statehood for Puerto Rico.