In our class session with activist and former Young Lord, Iris Morales, she spoke of current lobbying and proposed legislation towards Puerto Rican independence. This piqued my interest as to the specifics of the on-going debate over Puerto Rico’s status. The island’s current status is as a commonwealth of the United States. Though Puerto Rican islanders are U.S. citizens, elect their own governor, and are subject to U.S. Congressional legislation, they are not eligible to vote in U.S. presidential elections and only have a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.
The biggest developments in the status debate in recent years are the Puerto Rican Democracy Act of 2007 (H.R. 900) and the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010 (H.R. 2499). Both bills called for a referendum to be held providing Puerto Ricans the choice of either continuing their current status as a commonwealth or choosing a new status. The options for new statuses were as either a U.S. State or as a sovereign nation that is either “fully independent from or in free association with the United States.” Though both bills received bi-partisan support in the House of Representatives, the legislation died in the Senate after the end of the 110th and 111th Congresses.
As efforts for Puerto Rican self-determination seemed to fizzle once again after the death of H.R. 2499, President Obama came under increasing scrutiny from Puerto Ricans, many of whom had supported his 2008 presidential campaign. Recently, in March 2011, the White House released the Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status which analyzes the political, social, and economic status of Puerto Rico. This report is latest incarnation of this report, the first of which was released during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Furthermore, referendums on Puerto Rico’s status were also held in 1967, 1993, and 1998; all of which led to mixed opinions on the issue of commonwealth versus statehood. Therefore, it is not one particular individual or political era that has led to such piecemeal political conversations over Puerto Rico; instead it is a chain of disconnected and ineffective talks and legislation.
This checkered political debate leaves the question – where does this issue truly stand? When I conceived the idea of this post I believed it would be a way to help me understand Puerto Rico’s political history with the United States. And usually these stories have a progression and a clear end, such as with Hawaii and its March 1959 referendum addressing its status as part of the United States. But with Puerto Rico there have been referendums, reports, and dead-ends. In my relatively brief look at the matter, I have encountered a more complex and nuanced debate than I ever imagined. The fact of the matter is, the current talks of Puerto Rican self-determination are little different than that which has happened before. Unsurprisingly, this leaves me with some skepticism that the outcome will be any different under the current approach.
It also leaves me wondering how we measure success in this matter. For some it is statehood, while for others it might be independence. If anything, the 1998 referendum showed that few (0.06%) Puerto Ricans are still in favor of their commonwealth status, while 46.49% support statehood and 50.3% selected “none of the above.” And these results are over a decade old. Despite the many pressing issues facing the American people and Congress, hopefully a new, more fruitful effort for effective self-determination is surfacing. In the opening letter to the 2011 Task Force report, President Obama wrote, “I am firmly committed to the principle that the question of political status is a matter of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico.” I believe that the nearly 4 million United States citizens in Puerto Rico deserve this.