Puerto Rico has endured corruption, bankruptcy, violence and 124 years of U.S. colonialism.
Now, for the second time in five years, a hurricane has devastated the island. In 2017 it was Maria, a Category 4 monster, one of the strongest storms to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century.
This time it was Fiona, technically a weaker Category 1 storm, but one still powerful enough to thrash the power grid, flood towns small and large, collapse bridges, ruin crops and leave the 3.3 million residents of the island short on water, food, medicine, everything.
It’s a familiar script. The anguish, the laments, the courage, the realization that Puerto Rico looks and feels helpless, beaten down, with failing political leaders and institutions and little power of its own.
Fiona has stirred up bitter memories of the Trump administration’s insulting treatment of Puerto Rico after Maria.
Fiona was a foreseeable crisis. We knew that post-Maria reconstruction was lagging, that the power company was unreliable, that blackouts popped up any time for hours, even days. We knew that unscrupulous politicians ran the system, from one party to the next, from one governor to another.
In the space of just three years — 2019 to 2022 — two governors were ousted: one by a grassroots movement partly fused by fury at his hurricane response and texts showing him mocking Maria victims and female political leaders, and another arrested on corruption charges.
Activists, progressives and academics say the crisis is rooted in the island’s colonial status. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans on the island can’t cast ballots in presidential elections, have no voting representation in Congress and too often are seen as not quite American enough, even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and 5 million of us live in the States. Is it not time, then, for Puerto Rico to end this unequal and unfair relationship with the U.S. and become its own master?
Fiona has stirred up bitter memories of the Trump administration’s insulting treatment of Puerto Rico after Maria. (Trump went so far as to throw paper towels at an audience gathered to greet him in San Juan). Worse was the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s reportedly slow response and the meager disbursement of federal emergency funds, bottlenecked at both ends in Washington and in San Juan.
Even more degrading to many Puerto Ricans has been the impact of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act to restructure the island’s $72 billion debt, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016.
The measure placed the island’s economy — in effect, the government — under the rule of a federally appointed board that locals jokingly called “la junta.” The board imposed severe austerity measures and, in the view of board critics, deprived people of the freedom to make decisions about their own lives.
While President Joe Biden acted promptly after Fiona landed, issuing emergency declarations, releasing federal money and dispatching FEMA support, he was slow to announce the pro forma sympathy tour that presidents routinely embark on in disaster areas. (President George W. Bush was hit hard when he didn’t rush to do so in New Orleans after Katrina).
It’s telling that even for presidents more positively inclined toward Puerto Rico, their policies and symbolic gestures still underscore the island’s second-class status. Why do Puerto Ricans, despite Congress’s obvious distaste for the statehood idea, continue to believe that statehood is just a matter of time? And that when it comes, it will solve our problems? Fiona and Maria make clear that greater affiliation with the U.S. is not what Puerto Rico needs.
That reality should be at the forefront of Puerto Rican minds if legislation calling for the first-ever binding plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status reaches the full U.S. House. The measure offers Puerto Rican voters living on the island three options: statehood, independence or independence with free association (the ballot would not include its current status, Estado Libre Asociado, as a territory).
Under that measure, Congress will have to accept Puerto Rico as the nation’s 51st state if statehood wins the plebiscite. (Statehood has won nonbinding referendums in Puerto Rico in 2012, 2017 and 2020.) Similarly, it would have to allow for independence if that’s what Puerto Ricans back.
A third option that would face the voters as part of the bill — independence with free association — gives Puerto Rico sovereignty while maintaining some arrangements with the United States. Details, however, have not been forthcoming, and it’s a proposal that seems to me too much like the current nebulous situation.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer supports legislation to change the status of Puerto Rico but has acknowledged he does not yet have the votes to pass the bill. And while Democrats hold a slight 221-212 majority in the House, that may be gone in the next Congress.
Still, even if the bill passes the full House this session, what’s next? An unmovable object: the U.S. Senate. Republicans are opposed to Puerto Rican statehood, which means it couldn’t clear the 60-vote threshold for legislation in the body.
“The Republicans’ announced opposition in the Senate on this issue makes any effort by the Democrats inconsequential,” says Jorge Duany, an anthropologist at Florida International University and author of “The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move.” “The island’s status simply isn’t one of the top priorities for Congress right now and hasn’t been for a long time.”
That Puerto Rico has to wait on Congress, in which it can’t vote, to have the possibility of determining the form of government it wants is just the strongest statement of why separation is needed.
As a result, he said, the status of the island “will continue in a political limbo in the foreseeable future.” It can’t win independence without approval of Congress because, Duany says, it is subject to the legislature’s authority under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution.
That Puerto Rico has to wait on Congress, in which it can’t vote, to have the possibility of determining the form of government it wants is just the strongest statement of why separation is needed. Puerto Ricans should embrace a peaceful grassroots people’s movement to force Congress’ hand, like the one that two decades ago succeeded in ousting a U.S. Navy base out of Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, Congress is not the only body opposed. Pockets of Puerto Rican nationalists and progressives who support independence have consistently lost at the ballot box.
As skeptical as I am that Puerto Rico will ever become a state and as much as independence seems remote, I need to believe that Puerto Rico will find a way to tear down colonialism before another devastating hurricane comes again.