Puerto Rican statehood is at it again
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The island of Puerto Rico has long been held up in a seemingly endless debate over whether or not it should become the 51st state of the union, remain its course as a territory or free association, or obtain outright independence. The discussion traditionally heats up towards the end of each election cycle, with this previous election being no different. The incoming pro-statehood governor, Ricardo Rosselló championed himself as the last governor of the colony; smear campaigns painted his opponent as separatist and anti-American; and a mysterious PAC appeared seemingly out of nowhere in previous weeks to promote statehood. Finally, Rosselló vowed to initiate special elections as part of his “Plan Tennessee” to vote for federal senators and representatives; promising that statehood was right around the corner. Statehood is further away than ever but politicians still find ways to squeeze out political capital from promises of increased federal funding and prosperity.

The statehood option has failed at the polls when referendum on the matter were carried out in 1967, 1993, 1998 and 2012. In the latest, statehood won what appeared to be super majority of 61% though a closer look shows that the statehood vote has not grown in decades. The anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party boycotted said vote and rallied its followers to protest by submitting blank ballots. Once factored in, only 44% of voters opted for statehood. Nevertheless, four years of political turmoil, heavy emigration, fiscal chaos, and a recently imposed federal control board have provided a ripe environment to prey on voters’ fears of further cuts in federal funding or economic instability. Roselló’s New Progressive Party (NPP) has rammed statehood down voters’ throats and by doing so, won enough votes to pull in a 3 point win. In fact, months prior Roselló had won a heated primary arguing that he was somehow more of a “statehooder” than his NPP opponent.

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Only time will tell the effectiveness of Roselló’s efforts, though it sure appears to be an uphill battle. For the last 12 years Puerto Rico has elected pro-statehood Resident Commissioners; the island’s non-voting representative in the U.S. House. During said period, three House bills have been introduced in both Democratic- and Republican-controlled Houses with the latest titled the “Puerto Rican Statehood Admission Process Act”. Two died in the House and one in the Senate, with 76% percent of Republicans voting against. As with previous bills which survived long enough to reach a vote, the Republican Party has traditionally opposed Puerto Rican self determination out of fear that islanders might actually elect to become a state.

For the time being, the federal government seems to be more concerned with fiscal matters, entirely overlooking the Puerto Rican Statehood Admission Process Act in order to streamline the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act. Approval of the Act’s federal control board took only seven months from the first bill to its final approval, while discussion concerning Puerto Rico’s territorial status has been near stagnant for the last six decades. Nor does it seem that the matter will be a top priority of the incoming administration, with Trump’s public policy advisor and Puerto Rico liaison Alan Cobb downplaying the matter last July, stating that statehood was a "long path" and that the fiscal situation "doesn't help". The lukewarm Republican Party platform, for example, calls on yet another referendum to measure the electorate’s preference.

Supposing that Puerto Rican voters were to vote heavily in favor of statehood, and even if the Republican-controlled Congress were to put aside their traditional opposition to an admissions bill, it is to be seen whether or not the matter will find its place in an already charged political agenda which includes affordable health care, defense and trade. With Trump’s promise to oust up to 3 million immigrants from the country, statehood might not be apt for a presidency mired by American nationalism and rocky relations with Latinos. But at the end of the day, despite the far fetched idea the proposal continues to be capitalized upon by politicians eager to win another election.

Luis Gallardo is a municipal legislator and is based out of Puerto Rico. He has an M.P.A. from Valdosta State University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Puerto Rico. You can connect with him on Twitter or Facebook at @LuisGallardoPR or luisogallardo@gmail.com


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