Over the past week, a series of massive earthquakes have ravaged Puerto Rico and its neighboring countries. On January 6th, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast. A day later, the most massive earthquake in Puerto Rican history hit, clocking in with a magnitude of 6.4. On January 11th, not even a week later, another 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit. Within a week, all 3 massive earthquakes had left the territory devastated. This fits a broader trend regarding the territory. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as of late December, there have been 123 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or higher. The United States’ response has been lackluster. This is not the first time that the United States’ bias against its territories has led to harm to the territories themselves. As an unincorporated territory, those born in Puerto Rico are given citizenship, but they are often denied the rights traditionally attached to it, like voting. The United States has shown a clear bias towards states over its unincorporated territories, to the extreme detriment of those living within them. Nothing highlights this better than the United States’ differing responses to crises on the mainland and on Puerto Rico.
The United States’ failure to provide adequate support for its territories is not a new phenomenon; it has been occurring ever since Puerto Rico became a United States’ commonwealth decades ago. Recently, the failure of the United States to send vaccines to Samoa contributed to shortages, which allowed a measles outbreak to spread. More closely related to the current situation, President Donald Trump seemed to make light of the damage Hurricane Maria left as he tossed rolls of toilet paper into crowds of citizens. Additionally, Trump has frozen the $18 billion that was allocated for relief after Hurricane Maria. Additionally, a 2018 study from BMJ Global Health found that the federal government not only responded to hurricanes in states like Texas and Florida, but also granted them access to more federal funds relative to the storm severity and need after landfall. All of this serves as evidence of the bias the United States has against helping its territories.
This refusal to provide aid has real, tangible effects on the people on the ground. For example, the money allocated for aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria would have been used to rebuild the infrastructure, harden their electrical grids for better protection against future natural disasters, and rebuild bridges, homes, and workplaces. In the context of the current earthquakes, funds could be of critical, timely importance. Elizabeth Vanacore, a seismologistwith the Puerto Rico Seismic Network (PRSN) at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, says the recent tremors follow the traditional sequence of an earthquake – there are foreshocks and aftershocks surrounding one, more massive quake. What that means is there are more earthquakes to come, some matching the level of destruction left by those that have already occurred. USGS estimates confirm this, claiming there’s a 70 percent chance of an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.0 or higher and a 12 percent chance of an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 or higher in the next week.
These earthquakes have already unleashed havoc, and with more to come, funding for relief should be a priority. Jennifer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s Commissioner to the United States Congress, claims the quakes have caused over a hundred million in damages and destroyed at least 559 buildings in the territory. Thousands have slept outside in fear of their homes collapsing on them in their sleep due to a quake. Rodriguez-Wiewall, head of Direct Relief’s Puerto Rico office, reportsthat about 2,000 people have been displaced by the earthquakes. At least one person, Nelson Martínez, has died because of the quakes. Martínez was 73 years old and died in his home. Even given this tragic death, the administration refuses to act. Not only are they denying aid for the earthquakes, they are still refusing to allow Puerto Rico to access the 18 billion dollars allocated to them. Trump’s justifications for withholding the funds are “corruption,” and “financial mismanagement.” This is a classic conservative tactic used with other groups, such as Native Americans. Conservative media outlets often lamentfunding provided by the government to tribes, claiming its part of the bloated “big government” budget. While acting as an argument to refuse the funds to marginalized groups like Native Americans and Puerto Ricans, it also serves to establish the inferiority of those groups. It paints them as incompetent, incapable of governing themselves.
All of this contributes to making those who live on tribal land, or in territories into second-class citizens. The double-edged sword of rhetoric claiming that Puerto Rico is corrupt is that while seemingly a justification for small government, it actually serves to bolster arguments for greater federal control of territories and their finances. Moves towards more control undermine territories’ sovereignty and already limited rights. All of this is made possible by the flawed structure of territorial inclusion within the United States: people born in the territories are citizens of the United States, but they have no elected representatives with voting power in either house of Congress. The closest they come is Jenniffer González, a non-voting resident commissioner. This lack of electoral influence means that there’s no political incentive for politicians to pander to Puerto Ricans. In these politicians’ minds, there’s no reason they should spend tax money on Puerto Ricans, even though they pay many federal taxes.
Puerto Rico has been paying the full costs of statehood, without any of the benefits, for far too long. The last decade was replete with Puerto Rican attempts to gain statehood. In 2012, a referendum was held where the majority of citizens in Puerto Rico voted for not maintaining their current political status, and a majority of that group voted for statehood amongst other options. Two years later, in 2014, two resolutions were submitted, one in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. Both failed to make it out of committee. In 2017, another referendum was held, but failed miserably, with only around 23% turnout. Citizens widely protested the vote, refusing to participate in another non-binding vote. A year later, in 2018, Jenniffer González filed a bill that would give Puerto Rico a path to statehood in 2021, but after being introduced, the bill wasn’t acted on. Finally, in 2019, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act was introduced, which would provide another pathway to statehood, but it seems like it will fall to the wayside much like earlier attempts.
None of this is reason to give up hope for broader structural shifts in the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. Statehood isn’t far out of reach. Recent Gallup polling shows a majority of citizens in the United States support Puerto Rican statehood. The central problem is that right now, only Puerto Ricans are protesting for their freedom, and because they lack elected, voting representatives, they can’t effectively lobby the government. Mobilizing the support amongst mainland citizens made evident by polling is essential. Those who support Puerto Rican statehood should adopt a strategy that focuses on gaining the support of those with greater political influence. Organizers should use events like the earthquakes to highlight unfair US treatment and its impact to help generate support. Targeting that support towards legal initiatives like the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act could provide serious momentum for Puerto Rican statehood. Creating political networks strengthens movements and leads to greater successes, and likely move towards greater rights for Puerto Rican citizens.