Puerto Rico has been in the headlines a lot lately. Debts and the Zika virus have been the main angles — even Monica Puig’s big win of Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold medal often came packaged with comments on how much we need cheering up. People are wondering, what’s the deal with Puerto Rico?
What’s the situation?
Puerto Rico is in a difficult position economically. There’s a lot of debt, people are leaving the Island, and yes, there is a Zika virus issue, too. The U.S. federal government is putting a fiscal oversight board in place, as it has done for U.S. cities like New York and Detroit, and there is also a task force charged with the task of helping Puerto Rico grow its economy and improve things over the long run.
Puerto Rico continues to be a beautiful island — the Island of Enchantment — rich in natural beauty, natural resources, a lively culture, and great people. It is home to more than three million U.S. citizens.
What’s the problem?
There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on, but the status of Puerto Rico is clearly a big part of the problem. We’d say it’s the main problem. The 50 states have financial connections and support from the federal government and from other states. Puerto Rico doesn’t have that support.
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. That means that the U.S. constitution allows the federal government to treat Puerto Rico differently from the 50 states. Often, that has meant that Puerto Rico gets less support from the federal government. Puerto Rico has gotten temporary tax deals that have not really benefited the Island. The people of Puerto Rico don’t pay income tax on money earned in Puerto Rico — but about half of the people in the 50 states also don’t pay federal income tax. In fact, tax credits like EITC mean that many Americans get more back in their tax refunds than they ever pay in. Puerto Rico doesn’t get those benefits.
Also, since it’s not a state, Puerto Rico has no senators and no congressmen or congresswomen. The people of Puerto Rico can’t vote for the president. There is a non-voting Residential Commissioner in Washington, and that is all the say people from Puerto Rico have. Naturally, Puerto Rico is not a full participant in U.S. democracy. Congress makes the decisions for Puerto Rico, and none of the people voting on things like PROMESA represent people living in Puerto Rico.
What should be done?
For decades, some Puerto Rican leaders have tried to create a special relationship with the United States. This special deal is often called “enhanced commonwealth.” Unfortunately, enhanced commonwealth is a myth. The U.S. government has been saying so almost as long as Puerto Rico has been talking about enhancing the commonwealth. There’s a lot of history behind this myth, but the Supreme Court has made it completely clear over the past year that there is no reality to that myth.
54% of the voters in the 2012 referendum said that they don’t want to continue as a territory. It’s clear that the status of territory hasn’t worked out well for Puerto Rico. That leaves two options for Puerto Rico: statehood or independence. Independence has not received more than 6% of the votes in any status referendum so far.
We believe that statehood is the best option for Puerto Rico. Statehood would give Puerto Rico all the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.
Congress and only Congress has the power to make new states. Congress represents the people in each of the states. So Puerto Rico needs help from the people who live in the 50 states. If you care, your legislators will care — but only if they know that you care.