Puerto Ricans should be very interested in maneuvers happening right now in Congress and in Puerto Rico that could determine whether Puerto Rico will become the 51st state. Congress is the final and only authority on whether it will ever actually happen.
Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who is the elected but non-voting representative of Puerto Rico in the U.S. House of Representatives, has introduced legislation (The Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act) to petition Congress for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state and pave the way for the actual transition to statehood. The legislation follows up on a mandate by Puerto Ricans who voted in an island-wide status plebiscite less than seven months ago. A slim majority rejected their political status as a political territory of the United States. A larger majority (61.13 percent) voted for statehood.
Public referendums on the preference of Puerto Ricans as to their collective political identity are not new. Charles R. Venator-Santiago, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, who has a Ph.D. in political theory and public law, said the Puerto Rican legislature has introduced nearly 100 status bills since 1993. Plebiscites on status have been held at least four times, in 1967, 1993, 1998 and 2004. This time, more Puerto Ricans made it clear they want to become a state rather than remain a commonwealth.
Even as Pierluisi was advancing the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act, the Puerto Rican legislature, dominated by the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which supports the commonwealth status quo, approved a resolution that said the vote in the recent plebiscite was inconclusive because of confusing language, blank and absentee ballots.
That kind of reaction from the opposing party should come as no surprise, since Puerto Ricans are used to extremes in this debate. Where else could one party — the pro-commonwealth PDP — abolish English as one of Puerto Rico’s official languages in favor of Spanish one year (1991), while another party — the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) — changed the official language back to English a year later? Today English and Spanish are both official in Puerto Rico.
A hearing is now also scheduled to discuss Puerto Rico before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where matters concerning this 100-mile-long, 35-mile-wide island in the Caribbean (about the size of Connecticut) are usually referred.
The Obama administration has also included $2.5 million in the 2014 Justice Department’s budget, earmarked for the Puerto Rican Elections Commission to help cover the costs of one more federally sponsored plebiscite. The funds will be used for voter education, and to prepare for “all [ballot box] options, including the enhanced Commonwealth.”
The question is — why one more? And what is an enhanced commonwealth?
Some Puerto Rican scholars will argue that commonwealth is merely a politically expedient term that was applied to Puerto Rico in 1952 and that the real question in the status debate is whether, as an unincorporated U.S. territory, the commonwealth option has any legal basis in the U.S. Constitution.
The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, which reports to Congress on the status of the island every two years, has laid out a series of policy and administrative reforms to develop a much closer collaboration between Puerto Rico and federal agencies on how federal resources are used in Puerto Rico. This collaboration could redirect federal grants and interagency resources in the future and address the 41 percent of Puerto Ricans on the island who live below the poverty level, reduce a 12 percent unemployment rate, and speak to major concerns about the quality of health care, crime and public safety.
Statehood would also lead to a tsunami of new voters in U.S. national elections. Puerto Rico has a population of 3.7 million people and, with 81.7 percent of the population voting in the 2004 presidential primary, the island has the highest voter turnout rate in the United States. For the first time in history, Puerto Ricans on the island would be able to vote in the actual presidential elections and have official representation in the U.S. House and Senate.
Whether you’re a second or third generation Puerto Rican and you have few ties to Puerto Rico or you still maintain close ties to the island, there is much at stake. A new chapter in Puerto Rican history is being written, and it will affect generations of Puerto Ricans to come.