IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

White liberals must stop pushing Puerto Rican statehood for their own benefit. Let us decide.

Telling a nation you colonized that you know what's best for them is no more progressive in this century than it was in the last two.
2020 Puerto Rican general election
The Governor's residence in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Election Day.Alejandro Granadillo / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The liberal fantasy of having 104 U.S. senators — i.e., four new guaranteed Democrats to end the Republican majority — is all dependent on statehood being granted to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. And while the push for D.C. statehood might have more credibility inside Washington and inside the progressive movement, the push on the mainland for Puerto Rico statehood is now mostly coming from a group of people who lack any real knowledge about the colony’s history or its long-standing independence movement.

In fact, white liberals' newfound desire to grant Puerto Rico statehood to thwart Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is just the latest form of American colonialism. It is not as overt as when U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, but it is still colonialism.

The fantasy of granting Puerto Rico statehood just so the Senate can have more Democratic senators rather than as an acknowledgment of the fact that Puerto Ricans are and always should have been equal partners in the American experiment speak to exactly what colonialism is all about: the patronizing attitude that white, mainland Americans' political priorities are of greater importance than those of the people who live there, and that they generally know better than the people who do live there, who don't need to decide what they want.

Yes, it’s true that, on Election Day — Puerto Rico is, after all, part of the United States, albeit not a state — 52 percent of Puerto Ricans who went to the polls (and whose ballots were not among those undiscovered until Tuesday) answered “Yes” to the following question: “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State?”

If only the answer to that question were really so clear.

The push on the mainland for Puerto Rico statehood is mostly coming from people who lack knowledge about the colony’s history or independence movement.

First, the vote is nonbinding and not sanctioned by the Department of Justice — just like the island-colony’s previous five plebiscites. So it was little more than a popularity contest to settle political agendas inside Puerto Rico; the results don’t kick in some formal clause for the statehood process to start or force the one entity that literally owns Puerto Rico — Congress — to act in any way.

In the same election, the only pro-statehood candidate, Pedro Pierluisi, got only 33 percent of the vote, which was enough to make him the governor-elect, but hardly a majority. The Puerto Rico independence candidate, Juan Dalmau, got 14 percent — the most for an independence candidate in decades — and another left-leaning third-party candidate, Alexandra Lúgaro, got 15 percent. Candidates backing independence also gained in the statehouse, strongly suggesting that the seeming "majority" for statehood is hardly as wide a sentiment as the vote count would suggest.

One reason might be that while technically a vote against the question "Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a state?" was a vote for full independence from the United States, the question wasn't worded that way. Voter information campaigns can do a lot, but better-worded ballot questions would actually measure voter sentiment a lot better.

Where does that leave Puerto Ricans — and the mainland Americans who suddenly want us to be a state in their union?

Statehood is not even a real possibility: Admitting new states requires that both chambers of Congress pass legislation and that it be signed by the president, an unlikely scenario in a Senate led by McConnell, who has said several times that statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico are just adding more “full-borne socialism” to the mix.

Beyond that, while polls indicate that Puerto Ricans in Florida heavily favored statehood, those voters didn't carry the day in that state for Biden. Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania did help deliver the state to the president-elect, but Puerto Ricans in the Northeast (including in New York) tend to be more anti-statehood; many who left Puerto Rico in the middle of the 20th century tended to support independence.

In addition, two members of Congress of Puerto Rican heritage, Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both New York Democrats, have co-sponsored a bill calling a mainland-manufactured push for Puerto Rican statehood a direct form of colonialism.

Real liberals and progressives should take note of all of these dynamics, instead of talking about how Puerto Ricans are American citizens and deserve a state that would also deliver the Senate to Democrats. For all the sympathy and support that Puerto Rico has received since Hurricane Maria, the progressive push for statehood is a cynical play, not a supportive move. By pushing for Puerto Rican statehood to benefit themselves, mainland liberals are making Puerto Rico a political pawn once again. That’s what happens with colonies.

By pushing for Puerto Rican statehood to benefit themselves, mainland liberals are making Puerto Rico a political pawn once again.

President-elect Joe Biden, at least, seems to understand some of these dynamics. At a Hispanic Heritage Month event in Central Florida in September, he said, "I happen to believe that statehood would be the most effective means of ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally," and immediately added, "But the people of Puerto Rico must decide, and the United States federal government must respect and act on that decision." This week, Biden re-emphasized the need for a just and binding process.

It’s obvious that some liberals’ intentions to make Puerto Rico a state are as exploitative as a pro-statehood governor saying that a nonbinding popularity contest that shows no clear mandate is the will of the people; Biden isn't going to expend political capital to support it, especially when thought leaders like AOC are urging the process to be led from within Puerto Rico and not Washington.

What is clear from the election results is that the people of Puerto Rico are feeling increasingly ill-served by their two-party system; they aren’t even voting at the levels they have in the past. Progressives do not need to step in and declare themselves “experts” on what Puerto Rico needs. For the last 122 years, mainland, white Americans have showed up with all the supposed answers; Puerto Rico is still a colony.

Let Puerto Ricans decide for themselves what we want to do and who we want to be. Once we do, we will act and let you all know.