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Puerto Ricans press US for state status

Puerto Ricans have voted to become the 51st US state, but it remains to be seen if American lawmakers will oblige.
Last Modified: 12 Nov 2012 19:13
Mitt Romney shakes hands with outgoing Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno [GALLO/GETTY]

The impoverished Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico has operated under colonial and commonwealth rule for more than 500 years. First by Spain and then by the United States after it won the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Puerto Ricans - who are American citizens - voted last week in favour of sending the US Congress a message: it's time to make the territory a US state.

It was the first such referendum to pass in more than 45 years.

Becoming the 51st state would open the territory up to US government assistance programmes like supplemental social security, says Justin O'Brien, the executive director of the US Council for Puerto Rican Statehood. The Washington DC-based advocacy group estimates that Puerto Ricans would in return generate $22bn a year for the US Treasury Department.

"The US has simply left Puerto Rico's status in limbo."

-Amilcar Antonio Barreto, Northeastern University professor

O'Brien says becoming a US state would also balance Puerto Rican interests with those of the US mainland. Puerto Ricans would be able to vote, and they would receive six representatives in the US House, and two in the Senate.

"Puerto Rico has served Washington well," says Frances Negron-Muntaner, a Puerto Rican filmmaker and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Columbia University.

She says Puerto Rico is a territory in name only, asserting that its "colonial status" helped the US Navy dominate power in the Caribbean.

"It was also used as an exporter of sugar cane, then a symbol of capitalism following Cuba's communist revolution, and most recently a consumer market for US goods," says Negron-Mutaner.

Negron-Muntaner also says the relationship has not been mutually beneficial.

The 2010 US Census shows nearly half of Puerto Ricans - 46.7 per cent - live in poverty, nearly double that of Mississippi, the poorest US state. At the same time, the price of food and housing in Puerto Rico is well above the US national average.

Government statistics also show narco-trafficking has caused record-breaking murder rates during the past two years, topping 1,130 deaths in 2011.

Roadblocks to 51st state

A simple majority in both houses of the US Congress need to approve the measure in order for US President Barack Obama to sign it into law.

Obama issued a memo in 2011 supporting Puerto Rico's right to self determination. Republicans added support for Puerto Rico becoming a state into their 2012 political platform.

But US Congressional aides say Puerto Rico's request will be met with silence. US media report that legislators are unhappy with the two-question format of last Tuesday's referendum, saying it does not make clear what the majority of Puerto Ricans want.

The first question asked if Puerto Rico should abolish its current status as a commonwealth. Fifty-two per cent of voters agreed.

The second question was intended for all voters to choose an alternate status: independence, free association, or a US state. In this case, 61 per cent of those who answered the question choose US state. But a larger number of ballots were cast by voters who chose one of the other options, or left the question blank.

Critics also say the two referendum questions should have been asked separately, during two different polls, and not during a national election.

US lawmakers, who opposed the US state option, addressed their concerns two years ago when the US Congress passed a bill authorising the Puerto Rican referendum.

US Congressman Luis Gutierez, who is of Puerto Rican decent, says the language used in the referendum was ambiguous. John Boehner, who is now the US Speaker of the House, voted against the measure.

But some researchers say the bigger problem is that the referendum does not historically fit with how the US chooses to create new states.

A boy waves a national flag during a rally in San Juan [Reuters]

'Wanting the cage, not the bird'

The US approach to annexation “is absorb other land, not incorporate their culturally distinct people,” says Amilicar Antonio Barreto, a political science professor at Northeastern University and author of several books on Puerto Rican nationalism.

He points to the Mexican-American War in the mid 1800's. Its resulting treatise gave the United States present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. At the time, those areas were sparsely populated, says Barreto.

Barreto says a significant part of the US electorate would also not tolerate members of Congress who only speak Spanish. However, the United States "didn't go so far as to annex Mexico," he says. "They had the power, they occupied Mexico City, but they didn't want to bring in Mexicans."

The Puerto Rican independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos, often echoed that sentiment in the 1930s. He criticised the United States for only being "interested in the cage, not the bird". 

The United States "doesn't want to give [Puerto Rico] its independence", says Barreto, citing the value it has for a military base on the island. "They also don't want to bring them into the fold."

"The US has simply left Puerto Rico's status in limbo," says Baretto. But he adds that has indirectly benefitted Puerto Rico's political parties.

'We have not prepared a plan'

Negron-Muntaner says Puerto Rican politicians "mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to get elected, but not to put pressure on the US Congress". 

Following the outcome of Tuesday's referendum, the island's resident commissioner is expected to submit a bill in the US House that calls for Puerto Rican to become the 51st state.

When asked how the territory will persuade US lawmakers to vote on the measure, let alone pass it, Puerto Rican Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock said, "we have not prepared a plan". McClintock also said he has not discussed the referendum's outcome with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"They already face a tough challenge in Congress," says Jame Jones, spokesman for the advocacy group DC Vote.

During the past 15 years, Jones' organisation has advocated for US state status - or at least voting rights for the more than 700,000 residents living in Washington, DC.

"Puerto Rico is an orphaned state," says Jones. "They're not dominated by Republicans or Democrats. So they don't have the solid backing of either party."

The territory's government will also lose its pro-US state supporters in Janurary. Puerto Ricans on Tuesday ousted Governor Luis Fortuno, replacing him with his pro-commonwealth rival. Analysts say the discrepancy between the gubernatorial election and the success of the US state referendum rests on Fortuno's debt-cutting policies.

Puerto Rico's public debt is 89 per cent of its GDP, the largest of any US state or territory. In a bid to combat the debt, and reassure Wall Street that Puerto Rican bonds were a good investment, Fortuno cut social welfare programmes, along with 30,000 jobs from the state payroll. His political opponents criticised the move when unemployment is 13.6 per cent, according to the US Department of Labor.

Exodus from Puerto Rico

Juan Declet-Barreto says he was lucky, living a "privileged, healthy life" in his hometown of San Juan. "I was solidly middle class, I had access to private schools and everything." 

In 1997, he travelled to the US state of Arizona. He earned university degrees in Geographic Information Systems. "It's allowed me to work and improve air quality control," says Declet-Barreto .

And he says there are no plans to move back home.

"My family living in Puerto Rico will not even entertain the notion" because of the territory's economic situation and rise in crime. "My father sold products to printer shops," says Declet-Barreto, "but [his business'] golden years were in the late 1980s."

It is a similar story for more than half a million Puerto Ricans who have left the island since 2000, according to the US Census Bureau. More than 4.7 million Puerto Ricans live on the US mainland, a million more than the population of Puerto Rico.

"Puerto Rico may devolve into a heaven for narco-traffickers."

- Frances Negron-Muntaner, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

The island's population has seen significant drops before, in what is called "The Great Migration" of the 1950's. Puerto Ricans - armed with US passports - formed communities in Chicago and New York. New blends of music evolved such as Nuyorican Soul. And migrants found an abundance of jobs in the service-sector.

However, the newest wave of migrants, like Declet-Barreto, are demographically younger and more educated. 

But Declet-Barreto says he does not favour Puerto Rico becoming a US state, fearing it would lose its national identity. "People there love their US passports, but also their national Olympic team."

Negron-Muntaner says that mentality keeps Puerto Rico's remaining residents from migrating. But she warns if the territory does not act, and the mainland does not make up for more than 100 years of economic inequity, "Puerto Rico may devolve into a heaven for narco-traffickers."

Follow Jack Zahora on Twitter: @JackZahora

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