OPINION: Puerto Rico’s future: Equality in our nation
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There is only one path for Puerto Rico’s future progress: The territory must become a state. 

Until it does, the “unincorporated territory” status will continue to limit its economy to a disastrous extent. Because of that, many more individual Puerto Ricans will go on to obtain personal statehood — equal treatment with other Americans and the greater opportunity and political power that means — through a simple airline ticket, further shrinking the local economy.  


Since by court ruling Puerto Rico isn’t fully a part of the United States, even though it is under the authority of many laws and its people are U.S. citizens, it theoretically could become a separate nation. But becoming a full and permanent part of the U.S. was determined 100 years ago.

The U.S. took over Puerto Rico in 1898 from Spain. But because making it officially part of the nation could have led to a demand for statehood from the Philippines, taken simultaneously, they were legally deemed to be “possessions,” rather than parts of the U.S. 

This not only meant that they could become independent, as the Philippines later did. It also meant the territory could be treated differently from parts of the country — even the territories that were considered “incorporated.” 

Even so, U.S. citizenship was extended to Puerto Ricans in 1917 to more closely and permanently bind us to the U.S. 

It succeeded. Today, almost all of us prize American citizenship. This includes even most of the minority that talks about nationhood. If the territory were made a separate nation, it would see a massive emigration, as those who haven’t moved to a state already would do so to preserve their citizenship. 

In truth, no Puerto Rico political faction wants the current undemocratic, second-class status that has resulted in a failed economy. Leaders of the faction associated with the current status have floated “enhancement” wish lists that include ending the application of Congress’s constitutional power over territories, nullification of federal laws, national economic powers in international trade, exemption from taxation, and continued state funding and direct transfers from the U.S. Treasury, an impossible combination of different political conditions. 

So, statehood is the future — and most Puerto Ricans want it. For a hundred years we have been legally Americans. We now want to be Americans fully and permanently in every way, with equal responsibilities as well as rights. 

More than 61.1 percent voted for this in 2012. A greater percentage may do so Sunday, in the first plebiscite ever limited to options that have been determined under U.S. law to be legally viable. All those are on a ballot that adopted verbatim the U.S. Department of Justice comments on accurate descriptions under a 2014 federal law.  

So nationalists, and some of the few who are doing well under the current system, are urging a boycott to undermine the results for statehood. 

Puerto Rico’s economy suffers from being treated as part of the U.S. for some policies, foreign for others, and as a second-class U.S. area in others. The inconsistent and incoherent mix, coupled with the lack of a vote in our national government, has left our island underdeveloped, contributing to an economy that has lagged that of the 50 states for four decades, has been in depression for 10 of the last 11 years, and is projected to continue to decline.

It started when the price of oil skyrocketed; then international free trade eliminated the previous advantage of being “part” of the U.S. market and enjoying our labor, environmental and other regulations. 

Policies to treat Puerto Rico differently from the states haven’t been the answer and can’t be. There’s one model that works in the U.S. economy, and that’s fully integrating into it as a state.

That economic failure led to a deficit and debt load such that the federal government last year established a process that over the next decade threatens the loss of $27.3 billion, 78 percent, of what bondholders — mostly small investors across the nation — are owed even after squeezing the territory. 

The law recognized that federal policies were partly to blame and impaneled a task force of members of Congress to recommend changes. Their recommendations were good, but underscored the limitations of territory status. 

The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act also recognized “Puerto Rico’s right to determine its future political status.”

There are now 5.3 million people of Puerto Rican origin in the states to 3.3 million on the island, with 2 percent leaving annually. In the states they earn twice as much and have half the poverty rate. Puerto Rico’s problem isn’t Puerto Ricans; it’s territory status. 

Most of those of us left in this piece of the U.S. want the full promise of America without having to leave our home and loved ones. It’s in your interest as well as ours that justice is made so.  

As Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer González-Colón is the territory’s sole representative in the federal government, with votes only in committees and caucuses of the House of Representatives.