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Opinion: The Moment of Truth for Puerto Rican Statehood?

The current major push by the Island’s Governor and his party to make Puerto Rico the 51st state has created a new momentum for this movement - as well as an increased strong response by its critics.

While we're aware of significant divisions in United States politics, this is no less the case among Puerto Ricans. But despite this divide on the status question, what is currently most interesting is whether or not the current statehood push will get a positive (or any) response from the U.S. Congress or the White House.

If Congress does respond, will that put an end to the debate or fuel further divisions? If it doesn’t, would that mean the end of the statehood movement and the opening to a renewed focus on the possibilities of independence?

Puerto Rico Teeters On Edge Of Massive Default
An American flag and Puerto Rican flag fly next to each other in Old San Juan. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

What are the elements of this current statehood push?

First of all, the statehood movement has, since 1973, tied its argument to decolonization. Before that, they went from being super-Americans to then shifting their argument to protecting the civil rights of Puerto Ricans. With the collapse of the Commonwealth status, this approach of statehood as decolonizing has resonated with many.

Second, the manipulation of the politics of the June 11th plebiscite has gotten the pro-statehood message out widely in the American media, which they hope will have an impact on Congressional awareness and opinion on the issue.

Despite the criticism that this was a “fake” plebiscite, criticisms of it have gone over the heads of most Americans who read the headlines. The low turnout rate that was reported in the media was not troubling because in the mainland U.S., voter turnout in general is so dismal. The plebiscite gambit, therefore, may have worked.

Related: What’s Next in the Fight for Puerto Rico Statehood?

Third, there are now five Puerto Rican members of Congress who can vote, and three of them — Serrano, Labrador and Soto, who said he would co-sponsor legislation after the plebiscite results — have said they would support an eventual path to statehood. If you add Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, the Puerto Rican Congressional delegation of 6 has 4 statehood supporters. This means, therefore, that this position should be able to get a hearing before the Congress.

Fourth, the Governor of Puerto Rico has successfully pushed through legislation enabling the Tennessee Plan that would send a delegation of projected members of Congress from Puerto Rico to go to Washington to claim Puerto Rico’s right to statehood.

Fifth, with the Commonwealth party seemingly in disarray with internal divisions between the ELA and sovereignty wings, and the independence movement mostly on the defensive, the statehood movement is more unified than ever and in control of the Island government.

Related: Amid Historically Low Turnout, Puerto Ricans Vote for Statehood

Taking all of the elements together, it would appear that the statehood movement sees a clear road to achieve its goal.

Some opponents of statehood see as a priority the need to derail its momentum. But an argument can be made that the promoters of statehood should be supported or at least not obstructed in their current efforts.

The reason for doing so is the general feeling on the part of some opponents of statehood that the United States Congress would never agree to welcome Puerto Rico as a state. This is an ideal time to test this assumption.

If the United States Congress rejects this request for statehood, would this mean that, as some statehood leaders have said, they would turn to independence? But seeing how for other former territories statehood came decades after they asked for it, I doubt it. But you never know.

Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He is co-editor of the forthcoming book by the University of Notre Dame Press, “Latinos in New York: Communities in Transition, 2nd Edition.” He can be reached at afalcon@latinopolicy.org.

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