Puerto Rico’s relationship status with the United States has been set to “It’s complicated" for more than a century.
But it’s never been clear just what Puerto Rico, or the rest of the United States, prefers — a problem that newly introduced legislation aims to solve by fostering a dialogue on the island about its future. Do Puerto Ricans want to seek statehood, which under the Constitution requires approval from Congress? Or would they prefer independence from the United States? What about other alternatives, such as a looser affiliation with the United States that stops shy of independence? And ultimately, who gets to decide — just Puerto Ricans living on the island, or should members of the Puerto Rican diaspora get a say too?
Right now the island’s status is a confusing muddle. Officially, the island is a US territory, and its residents are American citizens. But it’s a second-class form of citizenship: Even though Puerto Rico residents are subject to federal laws and can be drafted, they cannot vote for president and have no voting representation in Congress. The island’s residents also do not pay federal income taxes.
A fiscal crisis, Hurricane Maria, and a string of severe earthquakes at the end of last year exposed the way the island gets short shrift from Washington. (Remember when President Trump wanted to sell Puerto Rico right after the devastation caused by Maria?) An exodus of Puerto Ricans has left the island ill-prepared for any economic recovery. And now it has to deal with a pandemic. All of this has conspired to keep Puerto Rico in a state of perpetual economic struggle and has led more Puerto Ricans to view the current political arrangement as untenable.
Though the island has held a series of votes on its political status, they have been purely symbolic nonbinding exercises. “These are not referendums,” said Yarimar Bonilla, a political anthropologist and professor at Hunter College’s Department of Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies. “They’re very expensive opinion polls.” And badly designed and confusing, too. It’s why there has been no definite answer on what Puerto Ricans prefer. In the 2012 plebiscite, Puerto Ricans were asked: Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status? Regardless of whether they answered yes or no, voters then were supposed to tick what nonterritorial option they preferred. In 2017, the outcome was a strong preference for statehood; but the vote had low participation as the “independentistas” and other local parties boycotted the referendum. Yet another nonbinding referendum, the sixth, is planned for Nov. 3. It will ask voters: Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a state?
A bill filed in Congress last month by Democratic Representatives Nydia Velazquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both from New York and of Puerto Rican descent, would set the stage for a more meaningful debate over the island’s status. And, crucially, it asks Congress to respond to whatever solution Puerto Ricans propose.
Velazquez and Ocasio-Cortez’s bill, called the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, would establish a status convention, whose members would be elected by Puerto Rican voters. These delegates would study what alternatives should be on the table, “be that statehood, independence, free association, or any option other than the current territorial agreement,” the congresswomen wrote in an op-ed. Meanwhile, a congressional bilateral negotiating commission would be established to “provide advice and consultation to delegates,” according to the bill’s language. Puerto Ricans would then vote on what the delegates come up with, and the decision would be presented to Congress.
“This bill is meaningful because the default, historically, has been Congress washing its hands,” said Pedro Reina Pérez, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Members of Congress “always say, ‘We’ll respect whatever you decide,’ but there’s never been an opportunity for us to decide anything for real.”
Here’s what’s else is novel and promising in this approach: Puerto Ricans have never fully explored and debated what each of the options would look like. If statehood wins, asked Bonilla, “Would there be an economic package to repair the economic disparities between Puerto Rico and other states? Would we be able to hold on to Spanish as a language? Would certain tax incentives that hold together the Puerto Rican economy be removed?” Moreover, if the island chose independence, what would the separation look like, and what would it mean for Puerto Ricans living on the mainland?
The bill has been endorsed by several Puerto Rican community groups, including Power 4 Puerto Rico and LatinoJustice, and policy organizations like the Center for American Progress. Many have criticized it, primarily the “statehooders,” those who support Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state. Democratic congressman José Serrano, also from New York and of Puerto Rican descent, strongly opposed the legislation on the grounds that it was a “closed-doors” approach. “I believe that all Puerto Ricans should help determine the future of the island — not just a few,” Serrano tweeted. “Puerto Ricans should have a say.” That, of course, is nonsense, since Puerto Ricans would elect the delegates who would form the status convention and they would vote on whether to accept its recommendations.
Right now, this bill represents the best effort to fully empower Puerto Ricans to make an informed decision on their future, and puts the onus on Congress to act on it. The question of Puerto Rico’s status must be resolved — otherwise, the island won’t have a real opportunity to heal and reconstruct its economy.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.