Statehood for Puerto Rico

Al Jacobs

A most impressive half-page advertisement appeared in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago. Alongside the photo of Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, a highly regarded Hispanic representing California’s 32nd District since 1999, is her statement concerning the U.S. territory of Puerto Pico: “President Joe Biden and the people of Puerto Rico said yes to statehood for Puerto Rico.”

Following this is a portion of a Sept. 15, 2020, speech by Joe Biden, where he said: “I happen to believe Statehood would be the most effective means of ensuring that the residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally with equal representation at the Federal level. But the people of Puerto Rico must decide and the United States Federal Government must respect and act on that decision.”

And finally is the tally of Puerto Rico’s Statehood Referendum held in November 2020: Majority voted Yes 52.52% for statehood vs. No 47.48%.

Historically, the eagerness by many for formally integrating Puerto Rico as one of the states is nothing new, with much heated debate on the subject as far back as the 1950s. It deserves to be noted, however, the United States has not granted statehood to a jurisdiction since 1959, when Alaska became admitted on Jan. 3 and Hawaii on Aug. 21.

As for a rationale favoring statehood over the years, it was largely financial – for the Puerto Ricans hoped to receive such things as increased disability benefits, Medicaid funding and a higher federal minimum wage.

In more recent years, there are justifications for statehood which are far more compelling. While it is often claimed Puerto Ricans are treated like second-class citizens, it may be more accurate to contend they are treated like foreigners. When Americans were polled in 2017, only 54% knew these islanders are, in fact, U.S. citizens. This was conferred upon them in March 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act. However, the approximately 2.83 million residents of the island are often subjected to discrimination that stateside citizens are not. As a class they are frequently subject to the whims of Congress.

As Charles Venator-Santiago, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut summarized: “Congress has a wide berth to do what it wants to govern the island. They’ve chosen to discriminate downward.” Exactly what the professor visualizes as downward is not clear, but it is certainly not favorable.

Irrespective of what we may view as unfair treatment of a disadvantaged group of U.S. citizens, if we are choosing to deny statehood for Puerto Rico, we can easily come up with some fine sounding reasons. Very plainly, no one ever intended Puerto Rico to be a state. The United States occupied Puerto Rico in 1898, taking the island from the Spanish to ensure a strong military presence in the Caribbean and access to a canal through Panama – most certainly not to add a state to the union.

After we ended military occupation of the island, the Foraker Act signed on Apr. 12, 1900, by President McKinley designated Puerto Rico as an unorganized territory. Though the act did not confer citizenship, several U.S. senators believed the legislation gave false promises. Senator John Spooner (R-Wisconsin) stated: “I am not yet ready, nor are we called upon now, to give that quasi pledge of statehood, or to imply they will ever reach a condition where it shall be either for their interests, or certainly for ours, to let them be one of the members of the Union.”

And finally, in a 1901 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Downes v. Bidwell, Puerto Rico became designated as a non-incorporated territory, one not enjoying the protections of the U.S. Constitution and whose people are not U.S. Citizens. Admittedly, although Puerto Ricans thereafter received citizenship and constitutional protection, it cannot be denied the island was clearly never meant to be a state.

Let me now add we could, if we chose, provide all sorts of historical and philosophical reasons as to why Puerto Rico statehood is advisable – or inadvisable – depending upon our points of view … or more accurately, depending upon our deeply held biases. However, this is an appropriate time to end the diatribe and discuss what is actually going on in today’s world.

The real reason why Puerto Rico statehood is favored – or opposed – relates in no way to historical intent or presumed benefits for deserving groups. It is, instead, a matter related to hard personal antagonisms. We’ll now take a closer look at just what it is all about.

Those favoring statehood contend it will not only be good for Puerto Rico, but that it will be equally good for the United States. Currently, neither Puerto Rican citizens nor companies operating there pay federal taxes to the U.S. When they become our 51st state, they will … thus an influx of taxpayer money.

A second benefit relates to the island’s agriculture potential. Representative Darren Soto, the first Floridian of Puerto Rican descent to serve in Congress recently wrote: “The island is primed for a comeback fueled by small local farmers who enjoy year-round growing season and can grow a wide variety of premium specialty crops such as coffee, mangos, papayas, plantains, melons, cassava and yucca, among other crops.

Although as a territory it generates little more than $800 million annually – accounting for only 8% of the it’s gross domestic product – as a state, with a thriving agriculture industry, it would mean cheaper access to those crops for all Americans, and a new industry that would offer employment for anyone living there.”

Thereafter, I reviewed the overwhelming number of Internet articles advocating statehood – for perhaps an hour and a half – but none of them mentioned any rational benefits to the United States. What I learned, among other things, is the following:

“Withholding Puerto Rico statehood is part of a far more sinister nationwide effort to disenfranchise nonwhite Americans at disproportionate rates. This is the context in which this territory has been denied statehood for more than a century.”

“The Republican argument concerning Puerto Rico is hypocritical and belies how Republicans brought in a number of states. As George Derek Musgrove, PhD, History Professor at the University of Maryland explained: ‘Western states that were brought in in the late 19th century – Colorado, the Dakotas – were not only brought in on a party-line vote, but they were brought in specifically with the purpose to pad Republican majorities.’”

“Today, nonwhite Americans are more likely to be purged from voter rolls, more likely to live in gerrymandered ‘vote sinks’ where elections are effectively decided by maps and not voters, more likely to ensure horrifically long lines to vote, when they can vote at all”

“Republicans sped up Nevada’s admission in 1864 to give President Lincoln an election boost, and lobbied to have the Dakota Territory split in two in order to gain four Republican senators instead of two. Hawaii was granted statehood in order to gain Republican representation after Alaska provided Democrats a boost.”

Much of the information I gleaned is historically fascinating, and I could prate on and on, but I believe you’ve gotten the point. There is but one reason why Puerto Rico statehood is being aggressively advocated – and the reason is purely political. And to conclude, I’ll summarize a bit of what I learned during my hours of scouring the many articles I encountered in researching this subject.

Puerto Rico currently carries public debt of $72.2 billion (equivalent to 103% of GDP) and more than $55 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, with no legal path to restructure the government’s liabilities or stabilize its finances. Its economic woes stem from its highly politicized policies which change whenever a political party gains power. In comparison to the different U.S. states, it is poorer than our poorest, Mississippi, with 41% of its population below the poverty line.

On a global scale, Puerto Rico’s trading partners are mainly the United States, Ireland and Japan, with most of its products coming from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its dependency on oil for transportation and electricity generation, as well as its dependency on food imports and raw materials makes it reactive to world economy and climate changes, while its agricultural sector represents less than 1% of its GDP.

As you consider both the benefits and detriments, you should note that if Puerto Rico attains statehood, the U.S. will inherit its $72.2 billion in defaulted debt as well as the $55 billion unfunded pension liabilities they have been unable to divest themselves of. This is because our country becomes immediately responsible for the island’s debt. And finally, our newly acquired 51st state will add one more record to their reputation: the highest level of poverty and crime of any state in the nation.

[Editor Note: Al Jacobs, 91, passed away Jan. 15 from injuries suffered in a December automobile accident. In addition to his bi-weekly Beachcomber column, he wrote a weekly column for the Dana Point Times and – for the immediate future – we will be sharing some of those submissions not appearing in our publication.]


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