Puerto Rico’s Future and America’s

The Washington Times is one of the few major media outlets that pays much attention to the question of Puerto Rican statehood. Today’s editorial catches their general slant as opposing it – although they have run commentaries in the past arguing for new policies towards the island colony.

This particular piece argues that the plurality, but not the majority, of Puerto Ricans prefer the current commonwealth status but that the process being put in place will slant the decision-making towards statehood.

The surface explanation for this editorial is that Puerto Rico will be a strong Democratic state, adding a pair on the Democratic side of the aisle in the Senate and it certainly no secret that the Washington Times slants right. The editorial also notes that as a bi-lingual territory Puerto Rico as a state would force the issue in the U.S. and bilingual nationhood is not a good direction for the U.S. to take – our language should unite us.

The merit of that argument aside, there is another aspect to this problem. The tiny also-ran in Puerto Rican politics are the independentistas. It has been a strong enough sentiment to inspire some serious terrorism including a failed assassination attempt against President Truman and bombings in NYC. (The U.S. government has done some violence to the Puerto Ricans as well.) Now, the Puerto Rican independence movements have been infiltrated and are pretty marginal. But there is a certain gut appeal for independence among many Puerto Ricans. As one Puerto Rican journalist I met put it, “On Saturday night at the bar everyone is for independence. But when they wake up Sunday morning they come to the senses.”

Puerto Rico is a poor island with high unemployment and deficient social services. It is either the wealthiest country in Latin America or the poorest state in the union. Statehood has been the Holy Grail for an important faction of Puerto Rican politics. But will statehood reduce the island’s structural problems? Currently, in exchange for not having representation in Washington, Puerto Ricans are exempt from federal taxes (no taxation without representation.)

Whatever federal benefits their representatives in Washington can obtain – they will probably not be sufficient to counterbalance having to now pay federal taxes.

Is it inconceivable that, once Statehood is reached, the independentistas will be able to shout “I told you so!” as the island’s fundamental problems remain? In those circumstances, could a new secessionist movement gain traction?

This may seem far-fetched. Perhaps Puerto Rico’s sentiments for independence are not that great and will not gain much favor. But the United States fought a long, bloody war over whether or not states can leave the union – the issue is like Pandora’s Box and is best left closed.

That being said, Puerto Rico’s situation is unfair. But in life and politics perfect justice is rarely obtainable. The Puerto Ricans do not wish for independence and statehood isn’t in the cards. But there is some compensation. The tax freedom is a good example as is Puerto Rico’s Olympic Committee. Under the current status Puerto Rico can enjoy the fun part of nationhood, while avoiding the less pleasant aspects. There are worse situations.

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