Below is the full text of my first major writing dealing with the statehood issue with Puerto Rico. It was written as a response to Glenn Beck and many Republican commentators who had (and may still have) gross misunderstandings about the bill in question and about the territory of Puerto Rico itself. It was largely addressed to my fellow classmates in law school and to those who knew me, thus I write with a few assumptions known to the reader. It is also fairly crude and clearly unpolished as I was studying for finals when I typed up my rant. I can’t believe I haven’t reposted this on my new blog, but here you go!
I must begin by stressing that as a Puerto Rican who has lived his entire life in the United States, I cannot be so presumptuous as having the ability to speak for all or even most Puerto Ricans living on the island. As many of you may have known, I have visited the island on countless occasions, but the foregoing is largely based on my own personal research. Recently, the island has once again attained a small spotlight in the national media, though it is hard to take away from the current oil spill in the gulf and Arizona’s new immigration enforcement bill, both of which have dominated the 24 hour cable networks.
HR2499, known as the “Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010” has recently been passed in the House and has been sent to the Senate for a hearing and vote. It was passed mostly along party lines, with some 40 members of both parties voting against their majorities. I feel that there has been a vast range of misinformation, both upon the premise behind the bill and on the state of affairs on the island, both politically and ideologically. I’m taking this time to try to clear things up on both ends.
First, a brief history lesson: Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been a Commonwealth of the United States. The term “commonwealth” in the context of Puerto Rico is not considered the same as that in the “Commonwealth of Virginia.” This island has been a sort of limbo between an independent nation and a state of the United States. There have been several plebiscites on the island to gain a popular determination on what the residents of the island want. In the most recent one in 1998, the residents voted “none of the above” with just over 50% of the vote, with “statehood” at a close second with 46%. That was with “commonwealth”, “free association”, and “independence” also on the ballot. Clearly, my people at the time had no idea what they wanted :-/. Currently, there are three major registered parties on the island, each representing the top three statuses debated: the New Progressive Party (PNP) which is currently in power and represents pro-statehood; the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) represents pro-commonwealth; and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) which, surprise! wants independence from the United States entirely.
For a time, there was a meek and often debated understanding that Puerto Rico and the United States were equal players on the role of governance on the island. But in 2005, that understanding shattered when then-President Bush released the report by the “President’s Task Force on the Status of Puerto Rico”. Long story short, the conclusion of the report stated that Congress alone was the sole player in any overarching issues of the island. Basically, the United States could technically do whatever it wanted, including selling the island to another foreign power. I was vacationing on the island when the report released, and then-Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila (PPD) and other pro-commonwealth leaders trashed the report, arguing that they’ve been lied to for more than 50 years. Pro-statehood and pro-independence groups agreed with the assessment. The position was reviewed and re-affirmed again in 2007. As a result, there has been a strengthening movement to once and for all decide the status of the island, and this bill seems to be a culmination of that movement.
Here’s where my patience begins to lose grip: it seems to me that in all the hysteria surrounding HR2499, both political parties and certain political pundits are guilty of: 1) stereotyping Puerto Ricans in terms of where they stand ideologically and how they would vote if the island became a state; 2) complete ignorance on the relationship of the island to the United States in terms of taxes, benefits, and voting rights; and 3) having no clue on political ideologies of the island’s parties.
I’ll address point 3 first. Prior to Luis Fortuno’s victory, the PPD has been mostly dominant on the island. And for the most part, the PPD has been synonymous with the US Democratic Party. While they have mostly been in favor of the “status quo,” they’ve recently changed to become more in favor of autonomy and having a far larger say in their own affairs than what is currently granted to them. In my own personal view, they seem to want to have their cake and eat it to; they want virtually all the sovereign rights of an independent nation, yet demand the same voting rights and military protection at the federal level as they would as a state in the Union. After a slew of indictments against then-Governor Vila for corruption, Fortuno won by a huge margin in 2008, along with the PNP gaining supermajorities in the Legislative Assembly and in a number of mayoral elections.
Here’s what people don’t seem to know or care: Fortuno is a REPUBLICAN. That’s right. He is both President of the PNP and a member of the US Republican Party. The thing with PNP is that it tries to disassociate itself with either the Republican or Democratic parties. That’s why you see that while Fortuno is Republican, the Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico (the single non-voting member in Congress) is a Democrat, despite both being members of the PNP. Hence the reason you see that the stance of the PNP ideologically is split on fiscal issues (some being fiscal conservatives and other favoring Keynesian policies).
Therefore, do not judge a party by its freaking name. Just because the PNP has “Progressive” in it does not mean that the party follows the same left-wing ideology of the “Progressives” of 1900’s America. If that label is to apply to one party on the island, it would be the pro-Independence PIP. These are are hard leftists which border on the Hugo Chavez-style of socialist ideology, though they are trying to lessen themselves into a Social Democracy stance.
On the 1st point, I find myself frustrated and annoyed with both parties as a result of their stances and votes on the recent bill. Republicans who voted against it seem to assume that if Puerto Rico were to become a state, Democrats would gain an automatic 8 seats in Congress (7 House, 2 Senate) and take away potential Republican seats away from states with lower populations (Puerto Rico currently has 4 million people, which would make it the 27th most populated State in the US if it were one). Democrats assume this as well based on the voting tendencies of Puerto Ricans living in the United States.
On the island, Puerto Ricans are stridently socially conservative. And Fortuno is running the island in a Chris Christie-style shake up of the government on the island, proposing budget cuts on the bureaucracy and being more business friendly. The guy has been so popular that he’s being mentioned as a possible dark horse candidate for President in 2012! It seems obvious for me to say it but the politics of the island are far different from those in the Tri-State Area where a huge chunk of Puerto Ricans reside in the US. I won’t say that the island would go completely red, but the notion that this will be another Democratic stronghold is without merit.
The second point I’ve touched already in a previous facebook post, but I’ll reiterate it again: Puerto Rico is NOT getting a sweet deal with its relationship to the US. Yeah, Puerto Ricans don’t pay federal income taxes and they get the benefits of citizenship and military protection. But that’s kinda where it ends. Puerto Ricans pay all other federal taxes including SS and Medicare, yet receive less in benefits from those programs. We are not allowed to go into trade agreements without the consent of Congress, shackling trade within the Caribbean. Oh, and we also cannot vote in Presidential elections (although we potentially affect party primaries ala 2008), have zero representation in Congress, and as stated before, Congress has complete control over the island in terms of self-government on a national stage.
As far as the bill itself, there’s been a lot of misinformation by conservative pundits which also annoy me. First, the bill allows for all Puerto Ricans born on the island to vote, even those currently residing on the island. I don’t see any issue here other than logistics; a birth certificate will prove that for US residents, but how will that come about? Will the ballots be mailed? How do they know where to go? Second, that the Second vote only grants two options: “Statehood” or “Independence.” Since statehood wins by huge margins over independence in previous plebiscites, people think that this bill is just an automatic doorway to statehood, despite whatever results being unbinding on Congress. This was changed by an amendment which inserted a “commonwealth” status quo option to the second vote. So now people on the island have the three main choices given to them as they have had in the past. Where is the harm?
End rant. Now, back to studying for finals like I should be doing instead of writing this little opinion piece.