On May 16th, interim governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez, announced that her government would hold a non-binding referendum in November to decide whether the territory should become the 51st state in the United States. Should it be carried out – and there is serious doubt as to whether it can be carried out at all, let alone successfully – this vote will be the sixth of its kind since 1967 and the third since 2012. The last, held in 2017, asked voters to choose between statehood, current territory status, or full independence. While statehood won 97% of the ballots, less than a quarter of registered voters actually participated. As always, the vote was both nonbinding and uninteresting to the only entity with the power to change Puerto Rico’s status, namely Congress. Unlike previous referendums, the 2020 vote will ask Puerto Ricans one simple question: “Should Puerto Rico immediately become a state?” While Governor Vázquez, the ruling pro-statehood New Progressive Party, and the American government applaud these referendums as exercises in democracy, it is clear to all Puerto Ricans – including myself – that they are and have always been nothing more than political theatre.
This fact is even more obvious when taking into account the island’s recent history. In September of 2017, Puerto Rico was decimated by Hurricane Maria, leaving at least 4,645 people dead. Many more were left living in half-destroyed houses without electricity for months or even years afterward. Governmental and private relief efforts have largely been slow and ineffective, and the island still struggles with the storm’s effects three years later. On top of this, in January of this year, a series of earthquakes gradually began to peck at what the hurricane had left untouched and continue into today. Combined, this series of disasters has succeeded in decimating the whole of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria largely effected north and central regions, while the earthquakes are centered on the southern coast. In combination, these events have left the public vulnerable and the government weak. This allows the United States to exert more and more control over the island while denying basic constitutional rights to islanders.
This sort of treatment is not new, however. The United States government has held territorial domain over Puerto Rico since it first invaded during the Spanish-American War in 1898. When Spain surrendered, they ceded the island as part of a package of colonies in the Treaty of Paris. Unlike Cuba and the Philippines, who both eventually gained independence from the United States (though arguably only after a revolution and a series of wars respectively), Puerto Rico and Guam remain American “commonwealths.” They are effectively colonies in all but name as this legal designation was created to avoid scrutiny from the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization.
Puerto Ricans did not meet this with open arms, of course. 20th century Puerto Rican history is littered with uprisings and subsequent massacres at the hands of the U.S. military and local police. In 1950, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman. The U.S., in response to this rebellion, has continuously passed legislation that restricts the rights of islanders.
In 1948, the American-controlled Puerto Rican Congress passed Law 53, the Ley de La Mordaza (“Gag Law”). This made it illegal to write or speak about independence, meet with others on the subject of independence, or even to display the Puerto Rican flag. It was eventually repealed for violating both the Puerto Rican and American Constitutions, though only after nearly a decade of repression. Said constitution was in fact drafted in 1952, in the middle of the period the law would have been in effect. While it did eventually repeal the Gag Law, and it allows residents of the island to elect their own representative government, it also allows the United States to overrule this government at any time they see fit.
In 2016, U.S. Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (ironically shortened to PROMESA). This gave an American Fiscal Control Board control over economic affairs on the island, one of the only significant policy sectors the island government could dictate. The passage of PROMESA has effectively left vital public services like healthcare and education in an extreme deficit. The government has also demonstrated that it would rather allocate resources toward its insurmountable $74 billion debt than toward keeping hospitals and public schools in operation.
This unequal relationship was put on display in September of 2017, when the island (as well as Dominica and St. Croix) was devastated by Hurricane Maria. When Florida and Texas were wracked by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey at nearly the exact same time, President Donald Trump sent out weekly messages of strength and unity, saying that “We are with you today, we are with you tomorrow, and we will be with you EVERY SINGLE DAY AFTER, to restore, recover, and REBUILD!” In contrast, he once tweeted that Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them.” He has also lamented FEMA for offering too much despite the fact that islanders have not seen even a small fraction of the allocated relief funds. His White House has frequently characterized the island as a foreign burden on American resources even though Puerto Ricans are American citizens and, therefore, have a right to these resources.
Even former governor Ricardo Rosselló threatened to “punch the bully in the mouth” should the U.S. continue with its negligent disaster response. This comment was made only three months before he himself would be ousted after 15 days of non-stop anti-government protests, brought about by rampant corruption within the Rosselló administration. The protests, which took place in July of 2019, marked a particular tonal shift in the local political scene. With many in both the island and diaspora populations left frustrated by the multitude of political scandals and totally exhausted by unresolved tragedies, the July protests were the culmination of decades of repression thrown in the government’s face. It resulted not only in the end of the Rosselló political dynasty, but also the end of the brief interim governorship of Pedro Pierluisi, who held the position for less than five days.
With the protests and the upcoming referendum re-exposing American colonialism to the general zeitgeist, one must question whether there is a solution. For interim governor Wanda Vázquez and her ruling New Progressive Party, the solution is statehood. They argue this would grant Puerto Ricans the full rights of citizens living in American states (although, as stated previously, Puerto Ricans are already American citizens). For the opposition, the Popular Democratic Party, that solution is the present territory status. This they argue – despite every historical example saying otherwise – grants the island the best parts of statehood and independence without the responsibility of either, and is the best choice out of the three. While there are official pro-independence parties, they have little power in government, and the subject has effectively lost all credibility among those in power.
Regardless of political lines, it is clear that many Puerto Ricans, especially of younger generations, are increasingly disillusioned both with the island government and its relationship to the United States. All of the events of recent years have made it clear that the U.S. sees its island territories as little more than resource holes, tax havens, and exotic vacation destinations. When it does not like what they do, it strangles them into submission by closing hospitals and schools and then watching them struggle through disasters, recessions, and pandemics. Year after year, presidential candidates promise to respect Puerto Ricans’ right to choose their status but do not acknowledge the factors that inhibit the ability to make that choice. On top of socioeconomic challenges, citizens of U.S. territories cannot vote in national elections and have no voting representation in Congress. Thus, effectively leaving them voiceless.
As both someone educated in Puerto Rican history and a Puerto Rican myself, I cannot call the latest statehood referendum anything other than political theatre because it so clearly will never result in Puerto Rican statehood. Even if more than a quarter of the population shows up to vote, which is doubtful, it is unclear whether statehood is actually something the majority even favours. Most fall somewhere in between the established political lines, and many at this point have rejected them altogether.
Statehood would not even solve the United States’ predatory relationship with Puerto Rico. Instead, it would solidify it: the perfect end to a century of forced assimilation. It is not even something the government of Puerto Rico takes very seriously anymore as it has become more of a political tool rather than a fight for constitutional liberty.
Regardless, Puerto Ricans have clearly grown past arguments over the three statuses and past the parties that allegedly seek to represent us. If Wanda Vázquez and her government have not realized that their political maneuverings have grown stale and obvious, her referendum will surely fail just like all the others have. This is true both in actually facilitating statehood and in grounding her already-crumbling control over the island.