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Editorial

One year after Maria: Puerto Rico needs final vote on statehood

Inocencia Rivera was surrounded by solar-powered Christmas lights on her balcony in Morovis, Puerto Rico, in December 2017 — three months after Hurricane Maria struck the island.
Inocencia Rivera was surrounded by solar-powered Christmas lights on her balcony in Morovis, Puerto Rico, in December 2017 — three months after Hurricane Maria struck the island.Carlos Giusti/Associated Press

The aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico with devastating force a year ago Thursday, has exposed the cracks and contradictions in the island’s untenable political status. Over the last 364 days, it’s become clearer than ever that the Caribbean US territory of 3.3 million residents lacks the free hand that an independent country would have to rebuild itself — but also the clout in Washington that would come with full statehood. The tragic result: a slow recovery, with only grudging help from the Trump administration, and an unsettled future.

On the anniversary, it’s right to remember the nearly 3,000 fatalities, renew the commitment to Puerto Rico’s recovery, and continue to aid the many refugee families still struggling on the mainland. (Massachusetts has the second largest number of displaced families, after Florida.) With that pledge, though, should also come a fresh push — in Washington, and in Puerto Rico — to resolve the island’s political identity. The United States acquired Puerto Rico as war booty from Spain more than a century ago, and the island and the mainland have debated what to do ever since. It’s time for Puerto Rico to have the final say on its permanent status.

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“There is an obvious colonial, and hence unacceptable, relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States,” said Rafael Cox Alomar, a professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington, D.C. “The current arrangement is unacceptable.”

In simple terms, Congress ought to authorize a binding referendum: Should the island become the 51st state, or an independent country?

Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1898, in the wake of the Spanish-American War. While its residents are US citizens, Puerto Ricans on the island do not pay federal income tax and cannot vote for president. They do elect a representative in Congress — but that delegate lacks voting power.

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The question of whether to remain a territory, become independent, or join the United States has sharply divided Puerto Ricans. The island has held five nonbinding referendums on its political status, each more baffling than the last. The most recent one was held last year. “They’ve basically been local beauty pageants,” said Cox Alomar: Purely nonbinding “local exercises with no consequence in Washington.”

That hasn’t stopped Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló from pushing a bill for statehood in Congress. Three members of the Mass. House delegation — Representatives James McGovern, Niki Tsongas, and Seth Moulton — have signed on as cosponsors of the bill, which cites the results of the last plebiscite. But that vote — 97 percent in favor of statehood — was useless as a gauge of what Puerto Ricans really want. “Yes, an overwhelming majority of boricuas voted for statehood,” said Pedro Reina Pérez, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and professor at the University of Puerto Rico. “But abstention was through the roof.” Only 23 percent of Puerto Ricans voted.

Instead, Congress should mandate a binding referendum and pledge to respect the result. The conventional wisdom is that Republican leaders would never let Puerto Rico become a state, on the assumption it would become a Democratic stronghold. That’s not necessarily the case — and, regardless, it’s not a reason to maintain the status quo.

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A vote would play out amid the ruins of Maria, America’s deadliest natural disaster in a century. The damage is estimated at roughly $90 billion. The hurricane decimated its already weakened power grid, which brought the longest blackout in American history to the island. It took 328 days for electricity to be fully restored. In addition to the lives lost, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans were displaced by the hurricane. Many of the deaths after Maria could have been prevented, had the federal government’s response to the island not been so shamefully incompetent.

Puerto Rico is set to receive at least $50 billion in federal relief funds over the next several years. Nationally, philanthropic dollars have been raised and invested . Locally, among other efforts, the Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico Fund, housed at The Boston Foundation, has raised $3.8 million, of which more than $2 million has already been distributed to help with immediate recovery and the relocation of Puerto Ricans here.

The flat-footed federal response last year shone a harsh spotlight on Puerto Rico’s second-class status within the United States, and the inadequate federal resources spent there since have confirmed it. Puerto Rico shouldn’t have to live with that indignity. The rest of the country shouldn’t tolerate it either.