It was recently reported that in 2017, while Puerto Rico was suffering through the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a natural disaster that would ultimately claim nearly 3,000 lives, President Donald Trump had inquired about “selling” the Island. While this heartless suggestion was discarded by his advisers, the incident speaks to how disposable Washington has long viewed Puerto Rico to be.
For more than 100 years, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has been subjected to policies foisted on it by a Congress frequently uninterested in the welfare of those who live there. This reality touches every aspect of Puerto Rican life:Puerto Rico receives disparate treatment for Medicaid reimbursement, nutritional support and a host of other safety net programs, despite being poorer than the poorest state. These problems and others stem from Puerto Rico’s unique, long-standing colonial status, which has resulted in the island’s residents being treated as second-class citizens.
The time to remedy this situation has come, but it must be done correctly. Puerto Rico needs to be afforded the freedom to design its own future. That’s why the two of us, both members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent, have introduced the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. The legislation that would prompt Puerto Rico’s Legislature to create a Status Convention whose delegates would be elected by Puerto Rican voters. This body would develop a long-term solution for Puerto Rico’s status, be that statehood, independence, free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.
What the convention negotiates and puts forth would then be voted on in a referendum by the people of Puerto Rico before presentation to the U.S. Congress. The key is that this framework would be developed by Puerto Ricans and for Puerto Ricans, not dictated to them like so many previous policies.
Until now, Puerto Rico has been ravaged by decisions made unilaterally by Congress. In one especially disastrous move for the economy, Congress began phasing out an important manufacturing tax break in the mid-1990s that had long bolstered the island. In particular, pharmaceutical firms that had previously flocked to the commonwealth left in droves, eroding the local economy and tax base.
Over the years, most notably during the period in which those companies fled the Island, the government of Puerto Rico borrowed heavily, fueling the current debt crisis. That fiscal crisis was compounded by a puzzling law Congress crafted in the 1980s that excluded Puerto Rico from bankruptcy tools available to other localities.
Puerto Rico’s local environment also suffered from Washington’s mistreatment. The island of Vieques was subjected to decades of U.S. Navy test bombings of everything from Agent Orange to depleted uranium, and Viequenses suffer higher rates of cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico. While more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in U.S. conflicts since World War I, the U.S. military has still not addressed the health and environmental damage it instigated in Vieques.
More recently, as Puerto Rico has endured hardship from Hurricane Maria, earthquakes in January and, now, the spread of COVID-19, the island has received inadequate assistance from the federal government.
All these problems underscore the need to politically empower Puerto Ricans. It is understandable that many of our friends in the Democratic Party have eyed making Puerto Rico a state as the answer. That view gained further traction after the U.S. House recently passed legislation that would move the District of Columbia toward statehood.
But this approach, often undertaken with the best of intentions, is misguided. Puerto Rico’s history is vastly different from the District’s. Unlike D.C., the island had a unique Caribbean heritagethat existed long before it was forcibly seized by the United States.
Equally important, there isn’t overwhelming support for statehood in Puerto Rico, as there is in D.C. With Washington, most opposition to statehood emanates from Republican lawmakers in Congress, none of whom reside in the district.
Conversely, in Puerto Rico there remain visceral disagreements about the status issue. Despite five plebiscites, “statehood” has never received an unequivocal mandate from Puerto Rican voters. The two most recent referenda were marred by voting irregularities and dismal participation. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice refused to validate the results of the 2017 referendum. While yet another nonbinding status vote is scheduled for November, the recent primary fiasco in Puerto Rico does not inspire much confidence that the outcome will be any more reflective of popular opinion than previous votes.
For true, legitimate change, Puerto Rico’s status must be resolved from the ground up. Plans for altering the Island’s relationship with the U.S. should not just garner the consent of the Puerto Rican people; they should originate with them. In fact, many in Puerto Rico would view Congress pushing statehood not as an end to colonization, but the culmination of it.
In 1898, the United States military invaded Puerto Rico, bombed its capital, imposed a blockade and ultimately annexed the island as a territory. That dark episode began more than a century of exploitation and brought us to the current, untenable situation. The people of Puerto Rico deserve true empowerment.
It would be an affront to that goal for the U.S. Congress to blindly push the island toward one political solution without Puerto Ricans’ full participation. Rather, Congress must establish a mechanism to allow the proud people of the island to chart their own course forward.