In the ongoing debate surrounding the recently reintroduced Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) in the U.S. Senate, it is crucial to recognize the complexities of Puerto Rico’s potential shift in status and the inherent responsibility that lies with U.S. lawmakers.
Recent endorsements from Connecticut’s political leaders on the PRSA have raised concerns that their support may stem from electoral strategies and pandering to pro-statehood donors rather than a genuine commitment to addressing the multifaceted issues involved in this pivotal decision for Puerto Ricans.
The PRSA, while a progressive step in many respects, falls short of providing comprehensive and transparent information vital for the Puerto Rican nation to make an informed decision regarding their future. Puerto Ricans, who have suffered 125 years of U.S. colonial rule, have fought long and hard for the right to self-determination, freedom, and to exist as a nation. This struggle deserves to be met with a bill that avoids the pitfalls of past referendums, which were often marred by boycotts due to their reliance on incomplete or biased language.
A bill aiming to decolonize Puerto Rico must confront essential and important matters head-on, such as: the official language post-statehood, the transition to federal taxation, the future of maritime restrictions like the Jones Act, and others. These are not trivial concerns that can be deferred to future educational campaigns without binding commitments. Puerto Ricans are entitled to clear answers to these fundamental questions now, not after they decide on a status option.
Language is the bedrock of Puerto Rican culture, with at least 95% of the population being Spanish-speaking dominant. The island nation’s daily public operations — from government and judiciary to media — are conducted entirely in Spanish. The PRSA must clarify if Spanish will remain the controlling and official language, as any imposed shift to English could irreversibly alter the island’s cultural identity.
Historically, the U.S. has imposed language requirements on territories like Arizona and New Mexico before granting them statehood. Will Puerto Rico face a similar mandate? The PRSA does not say anything on this important issue. The absence of a definitive stance on such a critical issue is incongruent with the democratic values the U.S. purports to uphold.
Taxation is another domain where clarity is non-negotiable. The PRSA must unambiguously state whether Puerto Ricans would face a 70% income tax rate under statehood, considering the existing high local tax rates and fiscal commitments made by the despised and unelected fiscal control board. This transparency is essential as it directly influences the economic viability and quality of life on the island. The potential ramifications of federal taxation on Puerto Rico’s public employment and debt repayment strategies cannot be overlooked.
The PRSA must address concerns raised by projections and studies like those from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2014, which speculated on significant public-sector layoffs, increase of dependency, and financial instability should statehood occur. According to data in this GAO report, statehood would essentially destroy the Puerto Rican economy, increase dependence on federal funds, plunge more Puerto Ricans into poverty, and ultimately push more Puerto Ricans out of Puerto Rico. The PRSA does not mention this.
Regarding federal maritime laws, the PRSA should address whether the Merchant Marine Act, better known as the Jones Act, would continue to apply, which it does not. The huge economic and political implications of this act are profound, particularly during emergencies when the island requires waivers to receive crucial supplies, underscoring the act’s everyday impact on the cost of living for Puerto Ricans.
The current version of the PRSA that was reintroduced oversteps by simplifying the definition of statehood while imposing disproportionate obstacles to other status options. For example, for Puerto Rican independence advocates, it is unacceptable for the bill to allow the U.S. to dictate the terms of Puerto Rico’s constitution under independence, as this would only perpetuate the cycle of external colonial control.
The process of decolonizing Puerto Rico must be led by Puerto Ricans, devoid of external influence or U.S. political maneuvering. The senators from Connecticut must not only recognize the diversity of opinions among Puerto Ricans in their own state, many of whom support independence, but also engage with all representatives of various status options —statehood, independence, and free association alike. Unfortunately, while some U.S. senators blindly believe that most Puerto Ricans support statehood (thus pander to this group), in the 2020 referendum, only 27 percent of registered voters in Puerto Rico actually came out to support statehood.
Do the senators from Connecticut realize that many of their own Puerto Rican constituents not only support independence and sovereignty for Puerto Rico, but also support the events of the Puerto Rican Independence Party’s (PIP) chapter in Connecticut? Yes, the PIP has pro-independence chapters across many states and cities. Were the senators informed that in September, the Puerto Rican community of Hartford came out to meet and support Sen. Maria De Lourdes Santiago, the vice-president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party?
We call upon Sens. Murphy and Blumenthal and their peers to also meet with pro-sovereignty advocates in Connecticut and to refrain from co-sponsoring any legislation on Puerto Rico’s decolonization that does not place Puerto Ricans at the forefront of the decision-making process. Legislation must provide clear, unambiguous answers to the critical questions posed above, ensuring a fair and informed process for Puerto Ricans (in Puerto Rico and the diaspora) to determine their future with the United States.
Only through such a comprehensive and inclusive approach can we hope to honor the principles of democracy and self-determination that are at the heart of this significant juncture in Puerto Rico’s history.
Javier A. Hernández is a Puerto Rican writer, educator, linguist, small business owner, and pro-sovereignty activist. He is the author of PREXIT: Forging Puerto Rico’s Path to Sovereignty and Puerto Rico: The Economic Case for Sovereignty.