OPINION: Tracking down the real question on the 2017 Puerto Rico status plebiscite
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Taxes are climbing, government services are being slashed, the teachers’ pension fund is on the verge of collapse, hospitals are closing their doors, the public university system has effectively shut down, and in response to this cataclysm, tens of thousands are leaving for good. In the midst of the worst financial calamity since the Great Depression for the island, Puerto Rico’s government is moving ahead with yet another plebiscite on its state status question. While most observers will focus on how Puerto Ricans voted, I suggest their gaze is misplaced.

What appears at first glance to be a laudable exercise in democratic governance is a farcical, unfair and irrelevant ballot-box performance. First, this plebiscite does nothing to remedy the island’s dire economic situation. Devouring precious resources on a plebiscite while the government is literally in bankruptcy court is the height of folly. Second, there’s the matter of who can vote. Two-thirds of all Puerto Ricans — those residing on the U.S. mainland — have no direct say in the matter. Third, this plebiscite solicits input from the wrong people. The most compelling question is not what Puerto Rican islanders prefer; rather, it’s what members of Congress favor.

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Let’s cut to the chase. Since 1898, Puerto Rico has remained an American colony.

Many will undoubtedly object to such a harsh label, but even the finest couturier can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Although they are U.S. citizens, Puerto Rican islanders have no direct say in the laws that regulate their lives. Island residents cannot vote for the president, they have no federal senators and have but one nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. The federal Constitution is explicit. Like all federal property, Puerto Rico’s fate is in the hands of Congress. 

Instituted in 1952, the commonwealth status did not alter that state of affairs. Therefore, painful as it sounds, Puerto Rico’s status has never been in the hands of Puerto Ricans. Washington has the last word, not San Juan. Consequently, the question at the heart of this dispute is: What does Congress want? Congressional preferences have been remarkably consistent over time.

For starters, independence is out of the question. Via carrot and stick — conceding U.S. citizenship, pulling the island into the U.S. economy and resorting to political repression — federal authorities cut the independence option at the knees a long time ago.

What about statehood? Except in a handful of cases, territorial status has been a short-lived condition on the road toward statehood. Those precedents were judged inapplicable to the territories seized during the Spanish-American War. What are the conditions under which Congress would be willing to seriously evaluate an application for Puerto Rican statehood? When the statehood issue does arise on the Hill, a determined group of lawmakers invariably revive the cultural compatibility debate. Exchanges about linguistic differences quickly degenerate into squabbles that openly parade thinly veiled Latinophobia. Their message is loud and clear: The nonwhite and non-English-speaking territories need not apply. Here’s another message: We’re happy to have you prove your loyalty by serving in the armed forces, but that doesn’t denote unqualified equality. Although segregation is no longer legal, U.S. citizenship in the overseas territories still operates with a separate but equal clause.

Instead, Congress has been the pre-eminent guardian of the status quo. Let’s not mince words. That passive-aggressive guardianship is not inspired by any great love for the commonwealth status. Democrats and Republicans joined forces 20 years ago to remove the Section 936 investment incentives from the federal tax code — the lifeblood of the island’s manufacturing economy. By doing so, Washington played a direct hand in the territory’s disastrous economic predicament. Rather, commonwealth is the status that gives Congress the maximum flexibility to manage Puerto Rican affairs. We have no better example of this than the financial oversight board — an appointed body Congress created last year to supersede Puerto Rico’s elected government on fiscal matters. The commonwealth status gives the illusion of autonomy while empowering the federal government to yank at will: a pet on a long leash.

So although many will be fixated on the outcome of the June 11 plebiscite, we should be aware that the main attraction is on Capitol Hill. Congress ignored the results of the last status plebiscite, and I suspect it will do the same this time, regardless of the outcome.

Barreto, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Department of Cultures, Societies and Global Studies at Northeastern University.