Podcast Season 2: Current Events

Current Events Ep. 16: Puerto Rico or, “To Be or Not To Be… a State”

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At my school, the senior class always goes on a class trip the last week of high school. So next week, the school will be ¼ quieter while they’re gone to Puerto Rico! And hearing them talking about the trip made me realize… I know almost nothing about Puerto Rico. Well that’s not true. But everything I know about Puerto Rico came from the song “America” from West Side Story and it’s quite possible that those aren’t super accurate. So it occurred to me that if I know almost nothing about Puerto Rico, then you may not either. No offense. But, my assumption is that I know more about social studies than you do because… if not, then… why are you listening to me? It can’t just be for the dad jokes.

Today we’re talking about the island that’s halfway part of the United States: Puerto Rico! What was going on there before we showed up? What has been the relationship between the U.S. and the island? And what’s going on there now? And don’t worry: there will be more than one West Side Story reference.

This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context on Puerto Rico or, “To Be or Not To Be… a State”


Act 1: Ugh. Columbus Again?

The island of Puerto Rico was inhabited almost 2,000 years ago by the Taíno people. They lived as hunter-gatherers in theocratic small kingdoms on the island, occasionally fending off attacks from neighboring islands in the Caribbean. But they were unable to fend off the Spanish.

Christopher Columbus arrived on the island in 1493. He had learned about the island from a few Taíno prisoners he found on a nearby Antilles island and he agreed to return them home, a weirdly generous act for the guy who basically started the slave trade. But, obviously, it wasn’t a humanitarian mission. When he arrived, he promptly claimed the island for the Spanish Crown – because 15th century politics worked on a very strict “Dibs” system, and he named it San Juan Bautista for Saint John the Baptist.

Initially, the island was coveted just as a military outpost to stop off on the way to more profitable Spanish colonies. But about 15 years later, Juan Ponce de Leon was allowed to explore the island and he discovered a few primo attractions: one, he found naturally protected bays that would be perfect for harboring ships. Oh, and he also found gold floating in the rivers. So that was exciting. He named the city he founded “Rich Port” or “Puerto Rico,” but eventually the name stuck for the entire island. They basically switched the names – so San Juan (which was the original name for the entire island) became the capital city and Puerto Rico (which was the original name for the city) was used for the entire island. Because conquistadores can never get the names quite right. Just ask the Indians.

Speaking of the Taino, it should be noted that they did rebel and resist colonization. But they were outmatched by the Spanish. When the first permanent European settlers came in 1508 they estimated there were around 20,000-50,000 natives on the island. By 1544 a bishop counted only 60 left. During that decimation, most of the Spanish agreed that it was better to bring new workers to the island rather than try to utilize the dwindling native population. First they brought native slaves from other islands but eventually used mostly black African slave labor to build their mining and agricultural operations.

Puerto Rican Culture

Similar to many other Caribbean islands, and Latin America in general, Puerto Rican heritage today is incredibly complex. Bloodlines and culture today have evolved from centuries of European, indigenous, and African influences. Although most of the Taino natives were wiped out, many of the towns across the island still retain their original indigenous names and there is still working infrastructure from the pre-Columbian communities. All around the bioluminescent bay, for example, especially in the area of La Parguera, there are canals still used today that were originally carved out by the Taino to protect against flooding during the hurricane season.

Other aspects of Taino culture are still alive as well – not just in Puerto Rico, but around the world. For example, the Taino gave us the name for the hammock, or “hamaca.” It is also theorized that the Taino invented maracas, now ubiquitous in latin music. Other common words that originated with the Taino include iguana, barbacoa, and – appropriately – hurricane or “huracan” which meant “the big blow” in Taino.

African influences are readily seen in popular musical styles on the island. Bomba developed through contact between African slave populations from different Caribbean colonies, creating an intricate style with at least sixteen different rhythms. Heavy on percussion, this music conveyed anger and sadness, inspired slave revolts, and created a sense of community through dance. Out of this style came plena which is more lyrical and narrative. Plena songs describe popular and current events and some musicians have called it “the newspaper of the people.” So it’s kind of like when Jimmy Fallon slow jams the news. But… everyone in the country was listening. And it was better. So it’s not really like that at all let’s move on.

These musical styles rooted in African culture eventually produced reggaeton. Combining hip hop and reggae rhythms with Spanish rapping, it is a quintessentially Puerto Rican creation. The style originated underground club scene in the 1990s and was popularized first by rappers like Daddy Yankee decades before “Despacito.”

OK. Back to Spanish colonialism.

By the mid-1500s, Puerto Rico was mostly valued as a military outpost for the Spanish. Gold production was declining, especially compared to the massive silver mines in Mexico and Peru. Fortresses were built around San Juan making it essentially impossible to conquer – just ask the French or the Dutch or the English, who all tried to conquer it but couldn’t. Think about the importance of fortifying this city of San Juan: this was the first port of call for Spanish galleons entering the Americas and the last stop before the same ships, loaded down with treasure, would make the perilous journey across the Atlantic. The current city of San Juan is mostly the expansion of these fortifications that were further to the west, rather than building on top of the old town, and so travelers can still visit an estimated 400 original structures of historic significance in San Juan alone.

A continuity throughout Puerto Rican history is that the capital of San Juan received a ton of attention and support from Spain. However, outside the fortified walls, the rest of the island – and the people living there – were essentially ignored. A divide grew between the people of San Juan – mostly European and wealthy – and the jíbaros, a rural inhabitant from the more mountainous interior. These figures grew to be folk legends in Puerto Rican culture, kind of in the same way that Wild West outlaws continue to fascinate US Americans.

Puerto Rico continued on as a military outpost and a small but growing cash crop producer for a few hundred years. By the early 1800s revolutions were rippling across Latin America. Mexico was “Grito-ing” in Hidalgo. Bolivar and San Martin were riding horses and rebelling in South America. Brazil was granting itself independence to avoid a bloody slave revolt like in Haiti. The Spanish Empire was crumbling, which begs the question: Why not in Puerto Rico?

The simplest answer to this question is that Puerto Rico did rebel. We’ll talk about it. But their rebellions were typically small and not very successful. So why did they not have a national revolution like other colonies? The main reason is that the island of Puerto Rico was granted more freedom than other parts of the Spanish Empire. The reason for this, as with most things in history, starts with Napoleon. When Napoleon conquered Europe and put his brother on the throne of Spain, this led most Spanish colonies to form independent governments to rule “on behalf of” the true king while he was in prison. This spurred many local organizations across Latin America to gain power and prompted them to push for full independence instead of returning to Spanish rule. But, in Puerto Rico they were mostly an economic colony concerned with trade. As we will see in a second, the island was also mostly populated with Europeans. All they needed from the king was administrative and military assistance, and so they continued to follow the Crown. Because of this, the relatively underpopulated island became a refuge for Spanish loyalists fleeing the revolutions on the mainland. Over time, Puerto Rico was rewarded for its loyalty with an easing of imperial control over the island.

The other reason Puerto Rico didn’t have a full-scale rebellion was because of its demographics. In 1815, the Spanish Crown passed a decree to encourage immigration to Puerto Rico. Essentially, mercantilism was relaxed so that Puerto Ricans could trade with other nations, as long as they were allies of Spain. What this meant was that other Catholic nations built up trade relations with Puerto Rico and immigrants flooded to the island. By the end of the 19th century, 80% of the population of the island was foreign-born, mostly from Europe. And since the Spanish Crown had eased up on their restrictive trading policies and given the Puerto Ricans some ability to control their own economic fate, they were not as incentivized to rebel as others. They also didn’t have the cultural aspect of rebellion like in mainland Latin America. For example, Mexico’s Revolution was intrinsically linked to the indigenous population upending the casta system, and even the South American revolutions were led by Creoles who were resentful of those born in Europe who dominated politics. But in Puerto Rico, the indigenous people were long gone, the majority of the inhabitants were born in Europe and, because of the Decree, were all Catholic and loyal to Spain so there wasn’t much reason to rebel.

However, over the course of the 1800s Puerto Rico was slowly gaining more independence, while remaining a loyal colony of Spain. There were periods of time when Puerto Rico was allowed to elect its own representative to the Spanish Cortes, or parliament, and they ruled to revoke the absolute powers of the island’s colonial governor. But most of these periods of reform were short-lived. In general, as with most colonies, the growing reforms and constitutionalism that was happening in Spain did not extend to Puerto Rico. By the 1860s, a variety of opinions had formed on the island about its future within the Spanish empire. A conservative bloc was fine with staying with the status quo, mostly concerned about economy opportunity. The majority pushed for more representation and inclusion in the government, hoping that Puerto Rico could elevate its status beyond just a subservient colony to become more of a part of the Spanish government. And there was a growing minority advocating complete independence. Pay attention to this, because this exact same debate is happening again but concerning the fate of Puerto Rico as part of the US empire.

In 1865, a local commission was appointed to survey the population and recommend government reforms that would keep the people happy with the Crown. The number one issue was the abolition of slavery. Although Spain itself had abolished slavery in the 1700s, by 1865 slavery was still well entrenched in the main colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba. (Side note: it’s easy to abolish slavery when your economy doesn’t depend on slave labor. But it doesn’t really mean much if you still allow slavery in the places you control that do.)

This recommendation to abolish slavery led the leadership to freak out and start a conservative crackdown, fearing these radicals who thought that, maybe, slavery was bad. Keep in mind that 1865 is 30 years after slavery was abolished in the British colonies and 2 years after the U.S. issued the Emancipation Proclamation. So it’s not like they were leading the charge or anything. Out of this divisive issue came the short-lived 1868 Revolution.

Although the rebellion really only took over one city and eventually led to all participants being imprisoned, the Revolution did prompt Spain to look more closely at Puerto Rico. This rebellion came at the same time as the early Cuban War for Independence and so Spain passed even more reforms to keep Puerto Rico happy and on its side. They abolished slavery in 1873 and granted Puerto Rico a more constitutional government.

The point of all of this is that by the end of the 1800s, the people of Puerto Rico were beginning to benefit from their centuries of compromise and loyalty and were on their way to becoming a semi-autonomous state under the Spanish Crown. But they didn’t really get the chance to see if that could work because a ship exploded near Cuba.

Act 2: Puerto Rico and the United States

Remember the Maine? Yeah you don’t but Teddy Roosevelt sure did. Long story short: the US had been eyeing Cuba for a long time. Cuba had been fighting the Spanish for independence for about 30 years and they were close to winning. Then a US ship accidentally exploded outside Havana harbor and the US used that as justification to go to war with Spain. Teddy Roosevelt rode up a hill and became a hero and the US won. Woohoo! Out of that, the US gained control of Spain’s colonies: Cuba (they were so close!), Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. And the Puerto Ricans, after a long struggle to work within the confines of imperialism to gain some level of sovereignty, had to go back to the drawing board and start all over again with a new Mother Country.

OK. So in really basic terms, these are a few key moments in US-Puerto Rican history that inform the current status of the island.

After the Spanish-American War, in 1900 the US passed the Foraker Act which established the framework for the new Puerto Rican government. The island would have a governor and 11-person council, all appointed by the US president. The island also got its own House of Representatives and judicial system and a non-voting representative in the US Congress. So, since the beginning, it’s been somewhere halfway between a colony with zero rights and a state.

In 1917, things got even more complicated as the US granted Puerto Ricans citizenship just months before declaring war on Germany and entering WWI. It’s a common myth that the US only granted Puerto Ricans citizenship so that they could be drafted to fight but that’s actually not true. The original draft law excluded Puerto Ricans, who were already citizens, but they fought back and demanded to be included on the principle of equality. The US really granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans mostly to shore up support on the island before we entered the largest global conflict that we had ever seen. With German U-boats prowling the Caribbean, there was fear that our overseas colonies would be impossible to protect without the active involvement of the inhabitants of those islands. By granting them citizenship, the US gave them a larger stake in the outcome of the war.

President Wilson was also in an awkward spot. He had built his career and his presidency on preaching to the world about democracy and self-determination, and yet, he presided over subjugated colonies (not to mention the fact that citizens of color and women also couldn’t vote. Not much to self-determine there…) He figured that by granting citizenship to Puerto Rico, he might look slightly less hypocritical when he went and wagged his finger at European imperialists at Versailles. In addition to citizenship, the Jones Act also created a Puerto Rican senate, a bill of rights for the island, and the position of Resident Commissioner – this is an elected representative that serves as the voice of Puerto Rico in the US Congress.

Before we move on, I just want to point out that on the first day of draft registration at the beginning of WWI, over 100,000 Puerto Ricans signed up. Think about it: most of the island didn’t have paved roads or cars. But local volunteers worked for months helping to organize the process and by the end, almost 240,000 registered, although eventually only 18,000 were accepted. As the war went on, they had to pressure President Wilson to create a Puerto Rican division and allow them to fight.

While the Jones Act was a step forward, in reality it did little to expand Puerto Ricans right to rule themselves on any level. The governor was still appointed by the president, not elected by the people, and the administration on the island was way more interested in developing economic opportunities for American companies than allowing full participation by the people. Early governors of the island spent most of their time promoting “Americanization” without much concern for the political desires of the people.

It’s true that from 1900 to the 1930s the economy of Puerto Rico overall benefited from being a US colony. Sugarcane was now inside the US tariff walls and they now had a massive market ready and willing to buy their product. As the island adopted the Dollar, foreign investment poured into Puerto Rico sparking more modern agricultural practices, advanced technology and corporate management. Not to mention the increasing standard of living as rates of disease plummeted and health and sanitation standards increased.

However, while the overall economy and standard of living grew, the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots widened. By 1939, ¾ of the population of Puerto Rico was involved in some way in the production of sugarcane. This is efficient from a global perspective, but this also means that an island of people can’t feed itself. They grew more dependent on imports of basic necessities and were reliant on the fluctuations of the global markets. Also, American corporations bought up more and more land. By 1940, 80% of the arable land on the island was owned by Americans, forcing many small farmers to seek out new opportunities.

As happened around the globe, World War II sparked another conversation about rights, nationalism, and the problems with empire. Apparently it took Hitler for the West to be like, “You know…. Maybe imperialism isn’t great for the people who are conquered?” The same conversations occurred in Puerto Rico as a growing debate emerged around options for its future: Are we fine with the situation as is? Do we want to become a US state? Or do we want full independence?

Arguably the most extreme advocates for full independence was the Nationalist Party. Formed in the 1920s, they pushed – sometimes violently – for a complete break from the US. They began by attempting to organize workers and demand a minimum wage but it soon grew into an armed independence movement. The best example of the interactions between the Nationalist Party and the US government centers on the 1935 Rio Piedras Massacre.

So, in the early 1930s the Governor of Puerto Rico was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He was a Harvard-educated businessman and a decorated war hero from WWI. Side note: he would go on to win the Medal of Honor for leading the first wave of soldiers ashore onto Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion. Like father TR, like son TR.

But in the 1930s, he was also known for being implicated in the now-slightly-boring Teapot Dome Scandal. During his time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he had helped Interior Secretary Albert Fall lease navy oil fields to private companies for personal profit. Fall became the first American cabinet member convicted of a felony and sent to prison. Now, this matters for Puerto Rico because when he became Governor one of the first things Teddy Jr. did was appoint the first Puerto Rican to be the chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico named Dr. Carlos Chardon. Chardon worked with the Liberal Party – the opposition of the Nationalists – to develop a New Deal-style plan that would reform and reorganize the agricultural industry on the island. This was all fine. But the Nationalists, especially their leader Pedro Albizu Campos, was worried that this was a ploy by the US government to take control of Puerto Rico’s natural resources and sell them off to the highest bidder. Now, to be fair, this is the height of the Age of Imperialism when European powers were doing this exact thing all over the world. And also, the US government had routinely done this with native land, Mexican land, and even US Navy land. But, also to be fair, it doesn’t look like that was happening in Puerto Rico.

Regardless, the Nationalist Party organized a protest at the university; local police fired into the crowd and killed four Nationalist Party members in the process. When asked at a press conference why this happened, the police chief said that if Albizu Campos and his Nationalist Party continued to agitate the sugar cane workers and the college students, then he was prepared to wage war to the death against all Puerto Ricans. Over 2 million declassified documents from the FBI show a decades-long secret battle by the US government to undermine the Puerto Rican independence movement of the 1940s and 1950s.

But the US government went beyond covert operations. Eventually, the Nationalist leader was imprisoned on sedition charges for 10 years. When he returned to the island in 1950, the government quickly imposed Public Law 53 or “the Gag Law” to prevent another attempted rebellion. Everyone on the island was prohibited from flying the Puerto Rican flag, singing nationalist songs, or speaking, writing, or meeting about independence. Apparently the First Amendment doesn’t apply to Puerto Rico. Wait, that’s actually real. We’ll get to that in a second. When a Nationalist uprising occurred in Utuado, the National Guard sent war planes and strafed the town, making it quite possibly the only time in American history when the US military launched an aerial attack on its own citizens.

So… the US really didn’t want an independent Puerto Rico. And that was OK, because a lot of Puerto Ricans didn’t either. At this same time, other parties were rising that were advocating other solutions short of full independence. The PPD was the most dominant party from 1948 to 1968. They focused less on political questions of the status of Puerto Rico and more on economic reforms, like redistributing land, establishing a progressive income tax, and providing for the poor. The fact that their slogan was “Bread, land, and liberty” – and the fact that they redistributed land in Latin America during the Cold War – and they weren’t murdered by the CIA should tell you how much the US wanted to retain control of Puerto Rico.

In 1946, President Truman appointed the first Puerto Rican governor – whoa! A Puerto Rican to govern Puerto Ricans! And in 1947, Congress allowed the island to vote for its governor. Whoa! Democracy! By 1950, President Truman signed the Puerto Rico Commonwealth Bill which gave the island more power to determine its own domestic policy. They established their own constitution and were classified as a self-governing territory by the United Nations. For his efforts, Truman survived an assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists and a few years later, four Nationalists fired weapons from the viewing gallery into the House of Representatives, but in general, most people on the island seemed OK with the increasing connection between the island and the United States.

Mostly this was because a continued relationship with the U.S. was pretty good overall for the Puerto Rican economy. Easy access to cheap labor and attractive tax laws all while technically remaining within the U.S. made the island a growing destination for manufacturing. As an example of the scale of these corporate tax benefits, in 2017, the US government estimated that corporations based in Puerto Rico paid $1.42 billion in taxes. Had Puerto Rico been a state, corporations would have paid an estimated $5 billion to $9.3 billion. This growing industry combined with foreign agricultural companies buying up arable land, many workers left the sugarcane and coffee fields and moved into the cities where there were jobs with higher wages and slowly improving working conditions and social services. After World War II once air travel became more available, a lot of young Puerto Ricans also just picked up and moved to the United States, especially New York City. But you know this because you’ve seen West Side Story.

Act 3: Puerto Rico’s Future

OK. This is all great. But… like, what is Puerto Rico? Well, according to Puerto Rico it is “the free associated state of Puerto Rico” while the US calls it “the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” Basically it’s somewhere between an independent country and a state and it depends on who you ask what it is and what is should be. So let’s oversimplify it.

Essentially, Puerto Rico has three options for its future. First, it could push to become an independent nation. This was a much more popular idea earlier in the 20th century before the US built so many economic ties to the island. Also, it didn’t help that the FBI had an entire program called “Cointelpro” that was designed to infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt the independence movement, which it classified as “subversive.” The local police created thousands of carpetas or files detailing the personal lives of individuals involved in the independence movement. About 75,000 people were under police surveillance in the middle of the century. Anyway, that made most people not super excited about calling for independence. According to some of the most recent votes, only about 5% of the population wants full independence.

A more popular option is essentially the status quo. This is often known as the Commonwealth option because it means keeping its current status as a commonwealth of the US. Most who support this option still believe that reforms should be made to improve the relationship but, effectively, they want things to stay mostly the same. So what does that mean? What is the current status of Puerto Ricans?

Puerto Rico’s Status: FAQ

First, are Puerto Ricans citizens of the U.S.? Yes! Great! So, that means that they’re also protected by the Bill of Rights, right? No! Wait, what?

The Bill of Rights explicitly protects the rights of states and the people living in states. So since Puerto Rico isn’t a state, its citizens – again they are US citizens too – are not automatically covered by the Bill of Rights. When an issue relating to the rights of Puerto Ricans comes up, it has to make its way through the courts or be decided by Congress. Today, they are covered by “fundamental civil rights” that prevent discrimination by US states, they can travel freely, and they’ve clarified that they now have other rights like the First Amendment through Supreme Court decisions. But all of these things – their citizenship and their rights – are granted by legislation or court cases, not enshrined in the Constitution. This matters because laws and court decisions are much easier to strike down or revoke, but amending the Constitution is nearly impossible. So Puerto Ricans definitely qualify as “second class citizens” in this aspect.

Next question: can Puerto Ricans vote? Sometimes. They are allowed to vote in the presidential primary, but not in the general election. So they can help decide who becomes their party’s nominee, but they can’t actually decide who the president is. And they don’t have any representation in Congress except one person who is there as a “non-voting representative.” It’s called a Resident Commissioner and currently it’s a woman named Jenniffer González-Colón who identifies as a member of the Republican Party. Basically she can propose legislation, vote at the committee level and can participate in debates, but she ultimately can’t vote on any final legislation.

Finally, do Puerto Ricans pay taxes? Sometimes. Citizens who live on the island are typically exempt from paying federal income taxes, unless they are a federal government employee (and about 20% of them are.) All federal taxes are generally way lower on the island, which provides incentives for businesses to move their operations there. But Puerto Ricans do pay some taxes. In 2016, they paid $3.5 billion into the US Treasury, including paying into Social Security for which they are eligible when they retire.

So, to sum up: currently, Puerto Ricans are citizens who are kind of protected by our basic rights. They can help choose their party’s nominee and they can speak up in Congressional debates, but ultimately they can’t vote on the final decision – for president or for legislation. They can serve in the military and are eligible for the draft. And they pay some taxes, although generally less than other American citizens. And although they can collect Social Security when they retire, they typically get less in other federal benefits like Medicaid.

Also, they are severely limited in their interactions with other countries. As a commonwealth, they don’t have any autonomy over international diplomacy or involvement in Caribbean affairs – all of those issues get funneled up to the US government.

Increasingly, more and more Puerto Ricans have wanted out of this American halfway house. In the last two island-wide votes, the majority has voted in favor of statehood. Which brings us to another question: how does one become a state in the U.S.? First, a state can’t be created without a territory’s consent, which is why the votes held on the island over the last decade have been important. 2012 was the first year that a majority of voters chose “Statehood” on the ballot, which is why this issue has been more prevalent the last few years. The next step would be to petition the US government for statehood – which they have done. In 2018, their representative filed a bill co-sponsored by 21 Republicans and 14 Democrats. So now, Congress could pass legislation to admit Puerto Rico and, assuming the President signed it, they would become the 51st state and flagmakers would have to figure out how to make 51 stars look symmetrical.

Side note: Washington, D.C. has also voted to become a state. They also don’t have voting representation in Congress and it wasn’t until 1961 that D.C. counted in the electoral college and could vote for president. That’s crazy to me. The capital of our country – named after our first president – couldn’t vote for president until 1961. Anyway, so it’s a race between D.C. and Puerto Rico to see who will snag #51! It’s the Jets and the Sharks all over again!

The Pros and Cons of Statehood

OK. But what would happen if Puerto Rico did become a state?

One of the main arguments in favor of statehood is that it could help Puerto Rico restructure its growing debt. Currently, only states can declare bankruptcy and get extra support from the federal government and Puerto Rico currently has more debt than any of the 50 US states. Obama did allow some restructuring and he commissioned an advisory board to help revamp their budgetary crisis, but it’s still not quite the same. Statehood would also increase access to federal programs like Medicaid and disability funding and low-income workers could qualify for a tax rebate.

However, those workers could get a rebate because Puerto Ricans would now be paying all federal taxes. It is estimated that they would pay an additional $2.3 billion in new federal income tax and corporations would see an increase of $5 billion in new corporate taxes that they had been exempt from. This would remove pretty much the only incentive a lot of businesses had for moving their operations to the island, or “offshoring,” in the first place. So there is the possibility that some might move elsewhere. Also, just logistically the transition to statehood would be difficult, especially considering that government on the island has a history of mismanagement. In 2009 they received $7 billion from Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act without seeing much improvement as far as aging infrastructure and a lower standard of living than the mainland US.

In general, the strongest arguments in favor of Puerto Rican statehood are based on rights, rhetoric and American values. One journalist called it “a one-sided form of American citizenship” that makes Puerto Ricans “subject to some of the most egregious and pervasive ongoing civil rights violations of this century.” To many on the island, this became clear in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria when they seemed to be an afterthought to many Americans and politicians. More on that in a second.

On the other side, the strongest arguments against accepting Puerto Rico as a state are economic and cultural. It would cost the US government billions as federal programs expanded to cover everyone on the island. Yes, the government would get more in taxes but it would also fully take on the island’s debt (although, the US really has to take on Puerto Rico’s debt either way. Statehood might just cut through some of the red tape involved.)

And there are those who are concerned with how culturally different the island is from the rest of the United States. It would be the first fully Spanish-speaking state, which is difficult for some Americans to wrap their head around. I mean… we basically already have Spanish-speaking states, just come to Texas. But even on the Puerto Rican side, there are concerns with assimilating into the United States and losing some of their independence, which is an important aspect of their heritage and Puerto Rican pride. And even as Puerto Ricans become influential in larger American society, like Ricky Martin or Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, they identify very closely with the distinct culture and heritage of the island. So it’s tricky on both sides.

For what it’s worth, both the major US parties say they support Puerto Rico. According to their 2016 party platforms, Republicans say outright that they want to admit Puerto Rico as a state, while Democrats – as usual – are a little loftier and more vague. They say they support the island’s right to self-determination but even if they choose to remain a commonwealth, the US needs to reform its relationship with Puerto Rico to expand rights to its citizens.

Not that we normally care what the rest of the world thinks, but internationally, most other countries view Puerto Rico as its own country. It’s like when Americans go to the Bahamas. It’s just the Bahamas. They don’t think of it as visiting part of the British Commonwealth, although it is. It should also be noted that the international community, most notably the UN, is not super into the weird “on-the-side” relationship the US has with Puerto Rico. In 2016, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization called for the US to allow Puerto Ricans the right to self determination, essentially arguing that without that the US was simply just another colonizer. I mean… you know I’m not going to argue… you’ve heard my episode on imperialism…

So what’s going on in Puerto Rico today? Well, let’s just say that most people on the island are less concerned with Congressional legislation and more concerned with… oh, you know… electricity. On an island where 44% live in poverty (compared with 12% in the U.S.), Hurricane Maria was devastating – it was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 100 years. Making landfall in September of 2017, it killed almost 3,000 people, destroyed entire towns, did $90 billion worth of damage and is still heavily impacting the island. A year after the hurricane hit, tens of thousands of people were still living under blue tarps designated as “temporary roofs” and many even lost access to FEMA’s temporary housing because of a federal court decision. It’s moments like this that highlight how crucial it is that Puerto Ricans are not protected by the Constitution, but by laws and courts that are much flimsier.

More than 62% of applicants for FEMA assistance to rebuild their homes were denied because they couldn’t produce the proper paperwork. FEMA also required people to submit applications for assistance online, even though the island was without electricity. FEMA officials first sent to the island didn’t speak Spanish – another sign of the enormous cultural divide between the mainland US and Puerto Rico.

This cultural divide is a huge barrier to a true union between the US and the island. According to a survey done in the wake of the hurricane, only 54% of Americans know that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. Many saw the hurricane and its aftermath as a sad event happening in another country, instead of a domestic disaster the same as Hurricanes Harvey or Sandy.

So, now you know: Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Our seniors, at least, knew that. Because when our school administration let them vote on where they would go for their class trip they specified that it had to be in the U.S. And the seniors found a loophole and chose Puerto Rico. Nicely done, seniors! They definitely paid attention in social studies class…


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Brad Setser interviewed by James McBride, “Puerto Rico’s Statehood Debate,” Council on Foreign Relations, 6/13/2017

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“Gag Law (Puerto Rico),” Wikipedia, 2019

“The Grito de Lares: The Rebellion of 1868,” Library of Congress, 2019

Hector Aviles, “Latin Music History: The Maracas Indigenous Origin,” Latino Music Cafe, 12/4/2014

Katie Zezima, “Puerto Rico pushes for statehood, calling it a ‘civil rights issue,'” Washington Post, 6/27/2018

Magaly Rivera, “Architecture,” Welcome to Puerto Rico!, 2019

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“Puerto Rico a Year After Hurricane Maria,” Amnesty International

“Puerto Rican Bomba and Plena,” Soundscapes Collection, Smithsonian

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“Rio Piedras Massacre,” Wikipedia, 2019

Robert W. Wood, “Hate Taxes? Move to Tax-Free Puerto Rico, Stay American, Avoid IRS,” Forbes, 7/4/2014

“Taxation in Puerto Rico,” Wikipedia, 2019

Thomas G. Mathews, Olga J. Wagenheim, Kal Wagenheim, “Puerto Rico,” Britannica.com, 5/11/2019

“United States politics and the political status of Puerto Rico,” Wikipedia, 2019

“U.S. Territories,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2019

2 thoughts on “Current Events Ep. 16: Puerto Rico or, “To Be or Not To Be… a State””

  1. This episode isn’t playing for me. The download link gives me a “No File” error.
    The other episodes play fine.

    I’m enjoying the content that plays though.

    1. Weird! You’re right – the episode isn’t playing anymore. I’ll look into it – thanks for the heads up! – Emily

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