Is Puerto Rico about to become the 51st state?

In August last year, Donald Trump tweeted that: “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt.” 

He did so knowing that despite being US citizens, Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico cannot vote for US president; a consequence of the island’s status as an unincorporated US territory. Slandering the entire territory, or offering to trade it for Greeland, wouldn’t have significant ramifications in the polls. 

This could be about to change for US presidents going forward however. The island’s ruling New Progressive Party (PNP) – longtime champions of the island’s push for statehood – is holding a referendum on Tuesday which asks whether, simply, Puerto Rico should be “admitted immediately into the Union as a State.” 

There is a problem, however. The referendum, like the five (yes, five) status referendums preceding it, is not legally binding. The DoJ did not give approval, and, in any case, the power to grant statehood lies with Congress, not Puerto Ricans. 

Previous status votes have been marred by boycotts and low turnouts. The 2017 vote – in which 97% of voters chose statehood above independence or retaining the status quo – had just 23% turnout. In 2012, over 500,000 voters spoiled their ballots in protest against the perceived illegitimacy of the referendum.

Sensing that November’s vote will be plagued by the same issues, representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez (both of whom are of Puerto Rican descent) recently introduced the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. The act aims to circumvent the referendum process while also avoiding a unilateral act of Congress, the likes of which have ‘ravaged’ the island in the past, according to a joint op-ed published by the pair

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act in August this year

The bill proposes the creation of a Status Convention, to which Puerto Ricans would elect delegates. Those delegates would then determine a single solution, be it independence, statehood, free association or some other form of status, to be put to the Puerto Rican people in a referendum. The results of that referendum would then be put to Congress.

This, the pair’s op-ed argues, would afford Puerto Rico the “freedom to design its own future.” Fellow Democrats of Puerto Rican descent have criticised the bill for doing the precise opposite. Rep. José E. Serrano took to Twitter to say: “I have always supported an end to the colonial commonwealth status. The horrific inequities and harms of the past few years have made clear why Puerto Rico needs either statehood or independence. But that choice shouldn’t be limited to a club of elites.” 

The path forward for Puerto Rico therefore remains unclear. Puerto Ricans, generally, lack faith in politicians, and are likely to have no more faith that Tuesday’s referendum will deliver real change than they did for the previous five. Equally, gestures from the mainland, including bills such as those introduced by representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez, could be perceived as the actions of a colonial regime and counterproductive to what should be, when it comes down to it, a decision made by Puerto Ricans for Puerto Ricans. 

What is certain however is that some form of change to the island’s status is coming, and statehood is as likely an option as any. Inevitably, despite efforts both from within Puerto Rico and on the mainland to make this a truly Puerto Rican decision, the final say on the island’s future will be made in Washington, not San Juan.

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