By Alex Hayes
Within Puerto Rico, an existential debate has taken place for decades. On the one hand, votes have been held within the territory on whether the island should become a U.S. state since 1967, and a statehood movement existed even earlier. On the other, independence movements have existed within Puerto Rico for centuries, since its establishment as a Spanish colony; with the colony’s transfer from Spain to the United States after the Spanish-American War, the independence movement simply changed its target. Both sides of the debate make valid arguments, and I certainly don’t have the authority to advocate for either side. However, the indecision in this debate has left Puerto Rico in an entirely untenable position.
Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory leaves it acting in some respects as an independent country and in others like a U.S. state. There are some advantages to this position: for example, Puerto Ricans do not have to pay federal income tax and can field their own Olympic team. But there are many more drawbacks. Puerto Ricans do not get to vote for president, and their representatives in Congress cannot vote on bills; despite this, federal laws apply in Puerto Rico and the island depends on numerous federal agencies – meaning Puerto Ricans are deprived of truly democratic governance. Most importantly today, this means Puerto Ricans depend on disaster relief from agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that are in no way accountable to the Puerto Rican people.
When FEMA failed to help the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there were consequences. Representatives and senators from Louisiana were able to push for relief funding and reforms at FEMA. President Bush’s approval ratings fell. The next year, Democrats were able to take over the Congress thanks to what the public perceived as poor handling of the hurricane. But now that FEMA is failing to help the people of Puerto Rico, there will be no consequences. Puerto Rico’s congressional representation cannot push for relief or restructuring.
President Trump needn’t worry about his approval ratings in a territory that cannot vote for president. Given that there are no political consequences for failing to provide disaster relief to Puerto Rico, it should come as no surprise that cleanup efforts are underway in Texas and Florida while Puerto Rico is left helpless.
But even without the effects of natural disasters, Puerto Rico is placed in a perennially perilous position by its status as not-quite-a-country and not-quite-a-state. In terms of economics, Puerto Rico gets the worst aspects of both statehood and independence. Like a state, Puerto Rico is unable to default on its debts, cannot set its own economic policies to alleviate problems and cannot turn to international institutions like the World Bank of IMF for help. But, like an independent country, Puerto Rico receives no assistance from the U.S. government to deal with its economic problems. When a state is close to defaulting on its loans, it can receive an essentially no-questions-asked cash injection from the federal government to keep it afloat. But now that Puerto Rico is close to defaulting, it has no options. It cannot declare bankruptcy and has no one to turn to for help.
The eventual status of Puerto Rico, whether it be statehood or independence, is a question for the Puerto Rican people. After over a century of exploitation by the United States, the Puerto Rican people have fully earned the right to statehood, if they want it, as well as self-determination, if they want it. But for now, the island’s limbo status is completely unacceptable.
The federal government must end the second-class citizenship it gives to Puerto Ricans and to the residents of all territories. If the island is going to be forced to rely on the federal government, that government must be made accountable to the Puerto Rican people. And if the U.S. is going to limit Puerto Rico’s economic self-determination, it must give the island the same assistance it gives to U.S. states.
Alex Hayes is the PR chair of the Hofstra Democrats
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