What a state to be in!

Puerto Rico’s legal limbo may be about to end after more than one hundred years. Under a bill coming to the US Senate, islanders will be able to vote on their status.

Puerto Ricans are US citizens, yet they cannot vote for their president. Their islands are unincorporated territories – owned by the US – denying them the same rights and privileges of other US citizens.

If Pedro Pierluisi, the islands’ resident commissioner, is successful, the situation will finally be clarified. His Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009 will allow the Caribbean archipelago to decide to either remain the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, assimilate fully into the 51st state, claim independence, or develop a new, looser association with the US.

However, there is no certainty that Puerto Ricans actually want the clarity of independence or statehood. They opted to retain the status quo in elections in 1967, 1993 and 1998.

The islands have never been sovereign. For four hundred years, they were a territory of the Spanish. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, they passed into the hands of the US, where they remain.

The fire has gone out of the “autonomistas” and the days of violent calls for independence have passed. In 1950, extremists attempted to murder President Truman and in 1954 they succeeded in injuring five congressmen at the US Capitol.

The days of violent repression of calls for independence are also history. In 1937, a peaceful protest was shot upon by the police, killing 21 and wounding 200.

  • Puerto Rican GDP per capita: $18,400 (CIA 2007)
  • US GDP per capita: $45,800 (CIA 2007)
  • Puerto Rican population below poverty level: 45% (US Census Bureau 1999)
  • US population below poverty level: 9.2% (US Census Bureau 1999)
  • Puerto Rican median household income: $14,400 (US Census Bureau 1999)
  • US median household income: $42,000 (US Census Bureau 1999)
Now, the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno (Puerto Rican Independence Party) barely has the popularity to rate official recognition. The Independence party has never garnered more than 5% of the popular vote.

At one with Uncle Sam for the most part, the established links with the US are too strong to make autonomy palatable. The ability to flit across to the other 50 states and send home remittances will not so easily be given up.

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2007, there are now more Puerto Ricans living in the USA (4.1 million) than on the islands (3.9 million).

Full assimilation as the 51st state of the USA has clear benefits. As well as equitable voting rights, relatively impoverished Puerto Ricans would receive Medicare health insurance and a bridge over the vast income gap with the other states.

Puerto Ricans form part of the fabric of US society, culturally and politically. Once a staunch independence advocate, Sonia Sotomayor will now be the first Latino on the US Supreme Court. The cultural kickback to Uncle Sam Statehood comes at a cultural price. Anibal Acevedo-Vila, the previous governor, said: “Statehood would go against that sense of uniqueness, culture, identity that we do have under commonwealth.”

Status quo

In a rallying cry for no change in 2007, he continued: “We are US citizens, we are a commonwealth of the US, but we are a nation sociologically. We call ourselves Puerto Ricans. We don’t call ourselves Puerto Rican-Americans.”

Despite the draw of the US and the impotence of the independence movement, Puerto Ricans have a sense of their own national cultural identity. A sense of “puertorriquenism”, balanced by economic realism, flourishes among Puerto Ricans in the US.

Time for no change?

Assuming the non-binding vote goes ahead, Puerto Ricans will once again be faced with making a decision about who they are: Puerto Ricans first and Americans second; the 51st state; or, for the first time since Christopher Columbus, a sovereign nation.

Jonathan Stibbs for RT