Why not statehood?
The other day, a talkative and friendly taxi driver who was taking me to Newark Airport, a white American retired math teacher, asked “Why not?”
Why not statehood?
Good question. In a recent column in Caribbean Business, former Resident Commissioner Pedro R. Pierluisi asked the same question:
“Who could question the value of being able to vote for the President of the nation of one’s citizenship? Who could doubt that two Senators and five Representatives can accomplish more than one non-voting Resident Commissioner? Who could ignore the unequal treatment given to our children, our women, our aged or disabled citizens, our low-income population, our workers and our small businesses in a wide range of federal programs under our current status? And who could disregard the security that represents joining permanently with the most powerful and developed nation in the world.”
The answer to each part of Pierluisi’s question is: You are right, no one. If you accept American citizenship, and virtually every Puerto Rican does, it is logical, common sense, that you should accept all the responsibilities and want all the rights of being part of the U.S. as a state.
But logic and common sense don’t always coincide with economic reality.
Let’s go back to the beginning, July 25, 1898. Indeed, when many in the U.S. and Puerto Rico began to ask that same question?
When American troops landed on Puerto Rico’s south coast, the United States had a problem. It did not start the Spanish-American War to take this small island in the Caribbean, nor for that matter, the Philippines. It did so to free Cuba from Spain, so it committed itself to Cuban independence, as well as the Philippines’.
But what about Puerto Rico?
Days after, the Americans promised the Puerto Ricans the “blessings” of American freedom and prosperity. As the American troops marched up the island, the people greeted them as liberators. In San Juan, after getting over the shock, a pro-statehood party was formed, and for a brief time even the governing autonomist party favored what was called “territorial status.”
Everyone, it seemed, wanted Puerto Rico, like Hawaii in the Pacific, to enter the American union as a “territory” on its way to entering as a state.
So the statehood movement began in Puerto Rico.
But in Washington, it quickly became evident that there was no easy, obvious answer to the question of what to do with Puerto Rico. The U.S. could have ignored what Puerto Ricans wanted, set up naval bases as it did in Cuba, and decided that the island, like Cuba and the Philippines would eventually be independent, and that was it. No status issue.
But it didn’t.
Yes, the Americans coming to the island, reporters, government officials, found an island of extraordinary natural beauty. But the reality was also the people on this beautiful island, one million Puerto Ricans, culturally different, except for a few lived in extreme poverty. Poverty, indeed, as no American had ever seen at home.
The question was now concrete. “Territorial status” meant eventual statehood, and this meant imposing the tax system of one of the wealthiest economies in the world on one of the poorest economies in the world. This was unrealistic.
So how to fit Puerto Rico within the U.S.?
In 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court, in what are called “the insular cases” – described by constitutional scholars as among the most difficult ever – created a new status. Yes, Puerto Rico will become a “territory” but without paying federal taxes. For tax purposes, it will be treated as a foreign country. It was called “unincorporated territory.”
From the beginning, many in Puerto Rico and some in Washington argued that at least the U.S. should make Puerto Ricans American citizens. But the problem, again, was economic reality. Would this mean converting the island into an “incorporated territory” and thus imposing federal taxes?
In 1917, Congress extended citizenship. Only a handful of Puerto Ricans declined it. And again the Supreme Court ruled that this did not mean becoming an “incorporated territory.”
In 1952, Commonwealth status was created. The principal argument Puerto Rico used in Congress was that while maintaining the island within the U.S., now under its own constitution, the new status allowed Puerto Rico to continue its remarkable economic development. It retained federal tax exemption that Puerto Rico was using aggressively to industrialize the island.
This argument proved to be decisive. Commonwealth sailed through Congress with virtually no opposition.
So back to the question: Why not?
There are, of course, many in Puerto Rico, commonwealthers and independentistas who politically and ideologically oppose statehood no matter what, in large part for cultural reasons – that Puerto Rico’s national identity would be assimilated and disappear.
But the question is if Pierluisi’s arguments in favor of statehood are irrefutable, and they are; if there has been a statehood movement since day one, that is, going on 119 years; and if the statehood party has won most elections since 1968 – in nine of the 13 elections sending a pro-statehood resident commissioner to Congress – Pierluisi (in my view one of Puerto Rico’s most responsible, serious, likable politicians) among them, why isn’t Puerto Rico a state?
The answer, I believe, is that asking “Why not statehood?” is asking the wrong question.
Yes, Pierluisi’s arguments are irrefutable, but they are beside the point. The point is: Can the Puerto Rican economy sustain the weight of federal taxation. The right question is: “Can Puerto Rico become a state?”
From day one – from 1898 – many answered: “Of course, not now. But in the future.” Others: “I don’t know how, but I have to believe that someday, somehow, we can.”
In order words, statehood has always been, is today, and will be in the future, an “ideal.”
Why isn’t Puerto Rico a state? The answer is that it never could, it can’t today, and there is no realistic possibility that it will be in the future.
—A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist at The San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and editor and publisher of El Reportero.