Response to Hurricane Maria shows the need to fully enfranchise the people of Puerto Rico
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Last October, President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE extolled his own leadership in responding to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Evidencing his triumph, the president boasted that a mere 64 lives were lost in the Category 5 tempest. Now, thanks to a recently released study by Harvard University, we know that the real death toll was much, much higher. And the failures that gave rise to such a massive loss of life are, in no small part, the progeny of congressional inaction on the question of Puerto Rican statehood.

According to Harvard researchers, an estimated 4,645 Puerto Ricans perished in Hurricane Maria’s path of destruction—seventy-three times as many as the Trump administration’s initial estimates and more than twice the number claimed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Inadequate emergency medical services, prolonged power outages, and a protracted rebuilding program are all contributing factors to the higher than initially reported death toll. But more fundamental to this tragedy are Puerto Rico’s encumbrances in advocating for its own interests.


With 3.3 million residents, Puerto Rico’s population is larger than twenty-one states, and approximately the same number of Americans live in Puerto Rico as in the state of Iowa. But unlike Iowans, whose interests are looked after in Congress by two senators and four representatives, Puerto Ricans have no real voice in their country’s affairs.

As an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico enjoys some constitutional protections but lacks key others. By the grace of Congress, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth. They can serve in the U.S. Armed Services and pay taxes to support federal programs. But unlike Americans living in one of the fifty states, Puerto Ricans have no voting members of Congress and cannot participate in presidential elections. True, most Puerto Ricans are not subject to federal income taxes, and Puerto Rico does have a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. But that is a pathetically inadequate consideration in exchange for the basic safeguards of democracy—namely, participation and, by extension, representation. And that dearth of representation has a real impact on Puerto Rico’s ability to leverage its fair share of assistance from the federal government.

Last summer’s hurricane season offered a macabre illustration of how Puerto Rico’s lack of representation fairs in comparison to states with fully empowered congressional delegations. In stark contrast to the robust federal response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, Puerto Rico continues to get short shrift. With another hurricane season just around the corner, more than 22,000 Puerto Ricans still lack electricity, and thousands more are vulnerable to outages because of Puerto Rico’s fragile power grid.

It isn’t difficult to imagine circumstances being far different if Puerto Ricans had a half dozen members of Congress shouting from the rooftops of Washington, D.C., on behalf of their constituents. Indeed, it was for that very reason that Congress as an institution was created. For their part, 97 percent of Puerto Rican voters supported statehood last year, and Hurricane Maria’s aftermath has underscored the reasons why Puerto Rico voted to become America’s fifty-first state. Yet Congress, which holds the keys to Puerto Rican statehood, remains inert.

At the heart of this injustice is more than a century of ill-advised misadventures in colonialism. For far too long, members of Congress have proven themselves to be poor colonial guardians, time and again sublimating the interests of Puerto Rico to those of their own voting constituents. America’s failure to fully enfranchise the people of Puerto Rico is a stain on our history and a testament to what happens when American citizens are deprived of a voice in government. The only remedy to that sorry state of affairs is for Puerto Rico to be granted statehood along with the full suite of rights, responsibilities, and representation that goes with it.

The United State is better than our failure to protect the people of Puerto Rico might suggest. It’s time for us act like it and recognize the right every American citizen should have to representation.

Scott A. Olson is a former congressional staffer and a graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law. He is a Political Partner of the Truman National Security Project. Follow him @SOlsonOR. Views expressed are his own.