The World

An Uncertain State

In the debate over whether to admit Puerto Rico to the union, which side is Puerto Rico on?

People wave Puerto Rican flags outside the Capitol
Demonstrators outside the Capitol in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 2, 2019. Angel Valentin/Getty Images

Democrats face a structural problem in national politics: A good-sized majority of American voters support the party, but that currently translates into a tenuous hold on government. One straightforward solution—some say—is to restructure things by adding more states. Numerous left-leaning analysts, looking at the long-term disadvantages Democrats face in the House and even more so the Senate, where sparsely populated, rural, red areas are overrepresented, have concluded that it is imperative that the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, presumably blue, be added as states as soon as possible.

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“If we implemented D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood and passed redistricting reform, that would roughly triple our chance of holding the House in 2022 and roughly the same in the Senate,” polling expert David Shor told New York magazine in a recent interview. Democratic voters don’t need convincing: 76 percent of them now support Puerto Rico statehood, according to a recent Data for Progress poll, a 7 percentage point increase since last year. President Joe Biden has been vague but certainly does not seem opposed to the idea. Even Joe Manchin, the Senate’s swing vote and previously a Puerto Rico statehood skeptic, now at least says he’s “open” to the idea. (He’s not as open-minded about D.C.)

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Elected Democrats generally know better than to express their support for statehood in blatantly partisan terms, but some Republicans have gone ahead and expressed their opposition that way. During the last election cycle, then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described adding the two new states as an example of “full-bore socialism.” Arizona Senate candidate Martha McSally warned that if the new states were added, Republicans might “never get the Senate back.”

For Democrats, the idea has obvious appeal: Democrats can support congressional representation for long-underserved populations and boost their own electoral odds at the same time. In the case of D.C., statehood also aligns with the clearly expressed preference of the place in question. In Puerto Rico, however, things are more complicated. Whether Puerto Rico actually wants to be a state is still an open question. With two new bills in Congress that seek to resolve Puerto Rico’s status in very different ways, the debate is likely about to heat up, and it may break down along some unusual ideological lines.

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The U.S. has governed Puerto Rico under various arrangements since invading it during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Puerto Ricans have had U.S. citizenship since 1917, but weren’t able to elect their own government until 1948. The island has been a semi-independent commonwealth since 1952, but the U.S. Congress—in which Puerto Rico does not have a vote—still exercises significant control over its political affairs.

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“When you try to analyze Puerto Rican politics in terms of American politics, you get lost,” says Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and today represents parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan in the U.S. House.

This is because the question of Puerto Rico’s final status has long been the main dividing line in Puerto Rican politics. The currently dominant New Progressive Party, or PNP, favors statehood. Its main rival, the Popular Democratic Party, or PPD, advocates continuing as a commonwealth with enhanced self-governance. The smaller Independence Party advocates for a complete break from the U.S. (A newly formed left-wing party, the Citizens’ Victory Movement, aims to distinguish itself by intentionally downplaying the statehood question.)

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In 2020, on the same day as the U.S. presidential election, Puerto Rico held a statehood referendum. It was the sixth time a vote on the island’s status had been held, but this one differed from its predecessors by only including two options—yes to statehood, or no. Statehood won by 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent.

Question settled? Not quite. Statehood opponents say the vote was invalid—it wasn’t recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice—and point out that turnout was low, at less than 55 percent. (This was at least an improvement over the 2017 referendum, which was boycotted by the opposition and only got 23 percent turnout.) Opponents also say the vote was a stunt by the PNP to bring its supporters to the polls for the governor’s election happening the same day. If that’s true, it worked—but just barely. The PNP’s Pedro Pierluisi won with just 33 percent of the votes. The candidates from the pro-commonwealth PPD, the Citizens’ Victory Movement, and the Independence Party combined for a little less than 60 percent of the vote, which also suggests that support for statehood is not exactly overwhelming.

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But neither is the support for any other option. “One of the major damages that colonialism does to you is the fear of making final decisions,” says journalist and historian Pedro Reina-Pérez. “The way I see it, whenever Puerto Ricans are faced with the question of making a final decision, most people walk away from it. That’s why you never have a referendum with major participation.”

But George Laws García, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, a D.C.-based advocacy group, argues that the majority has spoken, and that it’s time to move forward. “If we deny the capacity of the people of Puerto Rico to move forward in the process, what you have is a minority imposing a continued territory that everyone on the island recognizes as dysfunctional and undemocratic,” he says. He also notes that in Alaska and Hawaii, support for statehood increased dramatically after Congress officially put statehood on the table, making it a viable and realistic option. That’s exactly what statehood advocates are trying to do now.

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On March 2, Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat from Florida, and Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting congressional representative and a PNP member who caucuses with the Republicans, introduced a statehood bill with 49 co-sponsors. If passed, the bill, modeled on the admission process for Hawaii and Alaska, would trigger one last in/out referendum in Puerto Rico, which—if it passed—would create the 51st state.

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Despite growing public support for Puerto Rican statehood, the bill’s chances seem slim. The statehood movement faces resistance from two sides: partisan Republicans and statehood skeptics within the Puerto Rican and Puerto Rican American community.

The Republican opposition to Puerto Rican statehood is a little ironic. While the island’s parties don’t map evenly onto U.S. partisan divides—the PNP includes both Republicans like González and Democrats like Pierluisi—statehood is generally speaking the conservative position in Puerto Rico. There are McConnell’s full-bore socialists in Puerto Rico, but they tend to favor greater autonomy, as either a commonwealth or an independent country, rather than statehood.

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So whether Puerto Rico’s four House members and two senators would even be guaranteed Democrats is not as obvious as it might seem. “That particular talking point is trite and cynical and kind of ironic. If you look at the actual data, Puerto Rico is genuinely a swing state,” says Laws García. “Anyone who says Puerto Rico is automatically a Democratic state is just not being honest and probably just doing a dog whistle for their base.”

Republicans themselves have historically been divided on the question of Puerto Rico’s status. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush gave the statehood movement its biggest presidential boost to date by affirming his support in the State of the Union address. The following year, however, another tendency in the party emerged when proto-Trumpian figure Pat Buchanan began publicly opposing statehood for Puerto Rico, which he portrayed as packed with welfare recipients and political radicals, not to mention Spanish speakers who would bring a “fundamental change in the character of our union.” Anticipating McConnell two decades later, Buchanan argued that Puerto Rico’s liberal representatives and senators would “overturn the Reagan revolution.” As recently as 2016, the Republican Party platform explicitly backed making Puerto Rico a state, but Buchanan’s arguments still did their job: Only 30 percent of Republicans support the idea.

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It does seem likely that Puerto Rico would be a mostly blue state for the time being. About twice as many Puerto Ricans participated in the Democratic primary as the Republican one in 2016—the last time both parties had a competitive race. But that doesn’t mean it would stay that way forever. During the debate over statehood for Alaska in the 1950s, the assumption was that the state would be Democratic, and indeed its first two elected senators were Democrats. Part of the argument for admitting Hawaii at the same time was that it was more Republican-leaning and would balance things out. That’s not quite how it turned out in the long run.

Still, most Republicans don’t seem in a hurry to take a chance. Even Florida Sen. Rick Scott, long on record backing statehood, has been backing away from that stance, saying the territory’s debt issues should be resolved first. His colleague Marco Rubio has been urging colleagues to keep an “open mind” but is not yet on record backing the Soto-González bill. Without the strong backing of figures like Scott and Rubio, the bill has almost no chance of getting 60 votes in the Senate.

At this point, the better question may be whether it can get 50 votes, from Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has backed statehood in the past, but recently changed his tune, saying that the 2020 referendum process was not fair and tying his objections to a controversial law critics say is aimed at turning the island into a tax haven. He may also be facing some pressure from Puerto Rican voters in New York, where support for statehood tends to be lower than it is in Florida—the other major center of the Puerto Rican population on the mainland.

Two New York representatives of Puerto Rican descent—Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—are about to introduce their own competing bill, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. This bill, a previous version of which was introduced last year, aims to “end the colonial situation in Puerto Rico,” as Velázquez put it to me. This means a process held outside what she calls the “territorial cloth.” The bill would set up a “status convention,” with delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters, that would develop a long-term solution for Puerto Rico’s status. These could include statehood, full independence, a “free association” status like that of independent former U.S. colonies like Palau and the Marshall Islands, or an “enhanced commonwealth” status, in which Puerto Ricans would gain the right to elect congressional representatives and the president while maintaining some degree of national sovereignty. This solution would then be put to the voters for a final referendum.

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While the bill is portrayed by opponents as an attempt to block statehood, Velázquez says she is not campaigning for any of the status options. “As a member of Congress, I should not interfere with that process. That’s for the people of Puerto Rico to determine,” she says.

Statehood advocates like Laws García dismiss this proposal as unnecessarily convoluted and argue that Puerto Rican voters have already had their say via their elected representatives. He also dismisses the “enhanced commonwealth” idea, which would probably require a constitutional amendment, as a “Mickey Mouse Fantasy Land.”

But to Velázquez, the main point is that Congress should not be privileging one status option over another when it’s still a live debate on the island.

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“I have seven brothers and sisters. There’s a sister or two who support statehood. Some who support free association. Some who support independence. Who am I to tell any of my family what’s right for them?” she says.

Even as Puerto Rico has lingered in the stasis of commonwealth status, it has been through an extraordinarily tumultuous few years materially and politically. The island’s government was mired in a grinding debt crisis—the result, in large part, of federal economic policies—which the Obama administration responded to in 2016 by setting up an oversight board to manage Puerto Rico’s finances; the board is widely despised on the island as an unelected colonial imposition. Then in 2017 came Hurricane Maria, whose initial devastation was followed by indifference and neglect from the mainland, leading to prolonged suffering and mass death. In 2019 came a protest movement leading to the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Roselló. Then, in 2020, came a deadly earthquake.

It’s not clear how this period—and the Trump-led U.S. government’s blithe disregard throughout it—will affect the statehood debate. What is clear, both from the anti-Roselló movement and from the strong performance of third parties in the 2020 election, is that it has led to widespread frustration at the status quo.

That frustration, however, does not necessarily mean an end to the stalemate over Puerto Rico’s status. Congress is unlikely to act without a clear and unambiguous signal from the island, but such a signal is unlikely unless Puerto Ricans see clear and unambiguous support from Congress.

One thing the island’s factions can probably agree on, from the strongest statehood supporters to the most ardent nationalists, is that framing Puerto Rico’s future in terms of what it means for partisan control of Congress is not exactly helpful.

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