We had a message from a reader asking, “Will Puerto Rico become another Hawaii?” Of course, the question is ambiguous. It could mean, “Will Puerto Rico become like Hawaii, consistently scored one of the best states to live in?” or “Will Puerto Rico become like Hawaii, one of the richest states in the Union?” After all, Hawaii is ranked #1 in healthcare and natural environment among all the states, #5 for per capita income ($83,173), and is one of the most diverse states.
But we know that there are anti-statehood activists who claim that statehood was bad for Hawaii and even that the state regrets having become a state. There are many who believe that Hawaii was a kingdom before statehood and that statehood was forced on the indigenous Hawaiians. This false narrative is used as an argument against statehood for Puerto Rico. And we think that it is possible that this is what the reader had in mind.
We believe that Hawaii and Puerto Rico are very different places and the admission of Puerto Rico would take place in a completely different context than that of Hawaii. For one thing, Hawaii never had the option of independence, and Puerto Rico still does have that option. Puerto Rico voters have rejected independence every time it has been put on the ballot.
Did statehood annex the Kingdom of Hawaii?
The kingdom of Hawaii fell in 1893. Hawaii became a territory of the United States in 1900. This was the annexation of Hawaii. Just as those who talk about statehood being the “annexation” of Puerto Rico are mistaken, since Puerto Rico is already a possession of the United States, those who think that statehood ended the Kingdom of Hawaii are mistaken.
However we or the people of the time might have felt about the way that the United States came to own Hawaii in 1900, by 1959 the territory of Hawaii needed the sovereignty of statehood to empower voters. The majority of Hawaiians wanted statehood, and the native Hawaiians in particular wanted the power to vote. Before statehood, the corporate interests had the power. As a state, Hawaii had access to the democratic power of the vote.
“As a territory, Hawaii had little power in the United States government, holding only one, non-voting representative in the House. The territory status allowed rich, White plantation owners to import cheap labor and export their products to the mainland with low tariffs. These landowners used their power to keep Hawaii in territorial status,” wrote Lily Tyndall of the National Archives History Office. “Native Hawaiians and non-White Hawaiian residents, however, began to push for statehood. These residents wanted the same rights as U.S. citizens living in one of the 48 states. They wanted a voting representative in Congress and the right to elect their own governor and judges, who were currently appointed.”
But the time Hawaii became a state, there was no chance that it would go back to being a kingdom. The choice was between becoming a state, with equality and sovereignty, or remaining a territory.
Is Puerto Rico in the same position?
Puerto Rico in 2023 is not Hawaii in 1959. Puerto Rico is much larger and more populous. It is much more closely integrated into the national economy.