Time is thought to have a strange way of healing all wounds. In the case of a hemorrhaging Puerto Rico, the small Caribbean island can only hope their fate will be so forgiving. On June 11th, Puerto Rico’s current governor, Ricardo Rosselló, led a referendum vote which urged Puerto Ricans to choose joining the United States as the 51st state versus the other ballot options of declaring independence or remaining in their current status as a commonwealth. While the results were a shocking 97% in favor of statehood, the referendum has received much criticism with only 23% of the island’s 3.7 million eligible voting population having even made it to the polls.
Despite the negative press, Rosselló plans to take the results to Washington and be aggressive with Congress in converting the island into a state. Statehood status would present Puerto Rico the opportunity to formally declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy and solicit federal funds to bail them out of their staggering $123 billion debt crisis- $74 billion in debt and $49 billion in pension obligations. Declaring Chapter 9 is a privilege currently denied to Puerto Rico as a commonwealth.
Given the current debate over statehood, it is worthwhile to flashback to factors leading up to Puerto Rico’s economic dilemma and its complicated relationship with the United States in order to help comprehend Roselló’s agenda and the island’s future.
The Past Reveals
Puerto Rico was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The island became a Spanish colony after being settled by the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1508. For about the next 400 years, Puerto Rico remained under the political control of Spain. Puerto Ricans suffered from disease, slavery, poverty, and high taxes under Spanish rule leading to multiple uprisings. After much revolt, Spain granted Puerto Rico political autonomy in 1897 by signing the Carta Autonómica. Yet the island’s independence was short lived, in less than a year the United States began to invade Spanish territories, such as Guam and the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. These invasions for power over territory escalated and began the Spanish American War. During this time, Spain was suffering from economic and political turmoil on the Iberian Peninsula. These circumstances heavily contributed to the Spanish being unprepared and preoccupied to focus on the war.
The Spanish ended the war quickly by ceding over control of many of their territories and Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898. With the signing of the Jones Act in 1917 by President Wilson, Puerto Rico officially became a part of the United States as a territory. The Jones Act included citizenship and mandatory military service but not statehood. This timing is often viewed as suspect as 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted for WWI shortly after (Glass 2012: Politico). Thus began what continues to be great debate since 1917, whether the political relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is mutually beneficial or simply advantageous to the United States.
Now in 2017, exactly 100 years from when Puerto Rico officially joined the United States, they have voted overwhelmingly in favor of becoming a state. So what has led islanders to so fervently want to change their status from a commonwealth to 51st state?
A “PROMESA” in Uncertain Times
Fast-forward a century from 1917 and over 200,ooo Puerto Ricans having served in the Armed Forces since the Jones Act was passed – Puerto Rico is now fighting an economic war of its own with little financial relief from the mainland government. As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico has minimal privileges and many restrictions. These privileges include Puerto Rico having its own constitution and most Puerto Ricans being exempt from paying federal income taxes, but have only committee level representation in the United States Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections. These restrictions are outweighing their privileges, making it almost impossible for Puerto Rico to advocate for help from the United States. Given their current debt crisis, Puerto Rico has never needed help so desperately. While many may view Puerto Rico’s $123 billion debt as its own responsibility, the reality is the island is unable to overcome such a daunting financial battle on its own. This immense debt continues to degrade the quality of life in Puerto Rico. Natives are left facing decreasing job opportunities, an exodus of doctors due to insurance companies’ inability to make payments, and a growing number of 150 schools closed down.
The lack of improvement in these conditions over the past year has led to significantly increased pressure for politicians to find a solution. In 2016, Washington passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA. This legislation was originally drafted under Puerto Rico’s previous governor, Alejandro Padilla. PROMESA was created in partnership with the Obama administration to offer Puerto Rico potential economic relief in the midst of its debt crisis, as declaring bankruptcy under Chapter 9 is a privilege reserved exclusively for states.
The PROMESA legislation offers Puerto Rico a possible loophole around this technicality under Title III. Title III states Puerto Rico may readjust its debts by constructing its own malleable payment plan, allowing creditors to collect no more than an arranged adjusted amount. However, this reconstruction of debt may only take place if approved by a District Court Judge. While PROMESA is meant to give Puerto Rico options, it is no guarantee and offers only a short-term solution. This lack of security even with PROMESA explains why so many voted to become a state. Enacting Title III of PROMESA will be no easy feat with new administrations in both Puerto Rico and the United States causing tensions to be higher than ever before between the two. Now it is up to Roselló to continue to challenge Congress and the Trump administration to follow through and not leave Puerto Rico with an empty promesa in its most dire time of need.
Roselló has been outspoken about his intentions to bail out Puerto Rico via statehood since stepping into office in January 2017. He has demonstrated his assertiveness so far by creating a 10-year fiscal plan that was approved by the PROMESA Oversight Board. He is also petitioning to utilize Title III by having filed a semi-bankruptcy claim on May 3rd (Platt 2017: Financial Times). Roselló’s plan and his adjusted payment proposal are still contingent upon the approval of an appointed District Court Judge, which creditors are strongly opposed to. However, besides trying to get approval, the real challenge for Roselló will be convincing Congress to even make the time for him considering Puerto Rico has not been a priority in Washington.
The little attention Puerto Rico has received from Congress is mainly because they are not obligated to or bound to act based on any Puerto Rico referendum voting results, a fact that would change if Puerto Rico were to become a state (NewKirk II 2017: The Atlantic). Even if Roselló is afforded the chance to make his case, with a highly conservative Republican administration, the odds are not favorable. President Trump even tweeted on April 26th saying, “Democrats are trying to bail out insurance companies from disastrous #ObamaCare, and Puerto Rico with your tax dollars. Sad!” Such a hostile political climate looks like even more trouble in paradise for Puerto Rico.
If Congress is unwilling to put Puerto Rico on the agenda, Roselló is preparing to carry out something similar to what has become known as the Tennessee Plan in order to force their hand and not wait in political purgatory. Since Puerto Rico only has committee level representation in Congress, the Tennessee Plan would consist of sending representatives to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Roselló is ready to appoint five representatives and two senators to appear in Washington to mimic the same strategy if necessary (Robles 2017: New York Times). If they are admitted seats, they will be able to represent Puerto Rico and push Congress for statehood status. The state of Tennessee made this technique famous by finding a way around bureaucracy and successfully becoming a state in 1796. Many other states have followed the same path, which has shown to work best with public support also in favor of statehood. Hence Roselló proceeding with mimicking the Tennessee Plan to defend the island’s referendum.
The Role of Democracy
It is most likely that it will come down to the latter, Roselló will probably be left with no choice but to demand rather than ask. Congress will lean against granting Puerto Rico statehood not only due to its $123 billion debt, but also its 11% unemployment rate, neither of which are attractive incentives to take on such a burdensome 51st state. The most recent 2017 referendum was one of Roselló’s first steps to put his plan in action (Walsh 2017: New York Times). But referendums and statehood have been a debate surrounding Puerto Rico for the last century. With such a low voter turnout this time around, many believe it will be a mistake to present these results to Congress. In spite of this low turnout, it is important to take into consideration the current context in Puerto Rico and long-term statehood referendum voting trends.
Despite four referendum votes on statehood prior to 2017, this vote was by far the most critical with long-term financial implications, given Puerto Rico’s insurmountable debt and the potential relief opportunity to file under Chapter 9. So why did only so few Puerto Ricans vote with the stakes so high? The circumstances are a Catch-22. Many Puerto Ricans claim they did not make it to the polls simply because they were unable. While people expressing their voice was more necessary than any previous referendum, voters have also never faced adversity to such an extent. It was not possible for many Puerto Ricans to take off work or arrange childcare in order to vote with reliable jobs and schools both being so scarce. They had to decide between voting or surviving.
In addition, turnout rates may have been affected by the uncertainty of whether or not the vote would be considered official. Roselló proceeded with the referendum vote without approval from the Puerto Rico Justice Department. If the Justice Department had officially agreed to host the vote, they would have been obligated to contribute $2.5 million in logistics (Robles 2017: New York Times). While Rosselló insisting to host the referendum vote may have been for Puerto Rico’s benefit in the long-term, he still had to spend about $8 million to make it possible, sending many Puerto Ricans over the edge in rage given the laundry list of other urgent priorities those funds could have contributed toward.
However, if Roselló does proceed to present these results to Congress, they are not in fact a loss. This year’s referendum results paint a compelling picture.
La Isla del Encanto…y Ejemplo Para el Mundo
Given the table above, in spite of the recent low voter turnout, long-term voting trends reveal Puerto Ricans have been increasingly leaning toward becoming a state. While opposition was high in 1967 with 60% of voters wanting to remain a commonwealth, this sentiment decreased significantly to less than half at 49% in 1993 (Nohlen 2005). As recent as 2012, referendum results favored statehood at a strong 61%. This 2012 pro-statehood majority in addition to consideration of current adversarial factors at play strengthen the 2017 results despite low turnout. The evidence in presenting long-term voting trends would help Roselló to make this year’s low 23% voter turnout obsolete while adding validity to the argument that statehood is what the people of Puerto Rico are truly asking for and need.
Yet reflecting over the past 100 years of history and enacted legislation pertaining to Puerto Rico shows that deals with the United States rarely come without strings attached. So what kind of strings might statehood potentially present Puerto Rico over its next 100 years and is it a price worth paying, especially to the 77% of eligible Puerto Ricans who did not vote? Many Puerto Ricans have expressed concern that statehood would compromise their culture and language. Those opposed to statehood have voiced their unique Boricua identity is priceless. La isla del encanto does indeed have a spirit and livelihood that cannot be replicated. However, the current debt paralysis is like a cancer spreading throughout the island carrying nothing but detriment. Maintaining Puerto Rico’s unique identity will be a struggle for its people regardless of statehood because of its debt. At least statehood not only throws a life raft to a debt-drowning Puerto Rico, it also allows them a way out of what many perceive to be inferior commonwealth status. What Puerto Ricans are truly yearning for is their own agency, which their lack thereof as a commonwealth mirrors an earlier era of colonization. Rather than remain stuck under the authority of another nation, Puerto Rico should take full advantage of the opportunity to finally have a seat at its own table while continuing to serve arroz y habichuelas.
In other words, this period of instability is the chance Puerto Rico has been waiting for. This potential for statehood is a chance to reset and demonstrate resilience by manipulating the situation to their advantage while also resisting assimilation to maintain the sincere character of its people. While previous referendum votes may have been held prematurely, hopefully a century later the time has arrived for the island to not endure another 100 years of second-class citizenship.
Nohlen, D. (2005). Elections in the Americas: A Data Handbook, Volume I: North America, Central America, and the Carribean. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.