Over the last century, the “Affiliated Territory” has asked this question, and the broader one of independence a number of times, always choosing to remain under the sphere of influence of the US, but never formally seeking statehood. However, this time may be very different indeed.
Home to three and a half million US citizens who have no representation in congress, Puerto Rico became a US territory after the Spanish American War in 1898. By 1917, the residents of the island were granted full US citizenship by Congress when it passed the Jones Act. In 1947 they were granted the right to elect their own governor, and in 1952, Puerto Rico adopted its own Constitution. Since the turn of the 21st century, Puerto Ricans have gone to the polls four times to vote on this issue, each time confronted with three choices: US statehood, remaining a territory, or full independence.
In 2012, when the last referendum was held, almost fifty five percent of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. However, because of ballot irregularities, the US congress ignored the election.
Should Puerto Rico vote to become a state, it will mark the first new addition to the United States since Hawaii in 1959. It will also mean a fundamental shift in the US Congress. Currently Puerto Rico has delegates to Congress, but no actual vote.
Surprisingly, even though Puerto Rico is a bastion of progressive views where the population overwhelmingly votes Democratic, even the GOP is in favor of statehood.
During the 2016 Republican national convention, the party added language to their platform that said “We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state. Once the local vote for statehood is ratified, Congress should approve an enabling act with terms for Puerto Rico’s future admission as the 51st state of the Union.”
And as a candidate, President Donald Trump said “The will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood.”
Beyond the fundamental questions of governance, Puerto Ricans are also contending with a massive budget and debt crisis. Many of the fiscal issues would be quickly resolved by full statehood. Currently, there are very few measures available to the Puerto Rican government to reduce debts which are almost institutionalized through federal budgets that tend to marginalize the island’s needs and capabilities.
Fully seventy two percent of registered voters have declared their intent to show up to the polls this weekend, with another twenty boycotting the referendum altogether.
Governor Ricky Rossello supports statehood claiming it will “solve our 500-year-old colonial dilemma… Colonialism is not an option…. It’s a civil rights issue… 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy.”
And, while the majority of Puerto Ricans seem to support statehood, there has always been a vocal minority that have sought full independence and seen its ties to the US as nothing more than colonialism. A number of nationalist radicals have sought to gain independence through the use of force, including an assassination attempt on President Harry S. Truman.
How excited are you at the possibility of our nation growing again? Can you remember when Hawaii joined the US? Please share your thoughts with us here.