The Status Sham of Puerto Rico

Nov 27, 2018
11:16 AM

To all you new progressive “experts” on Puerto Rico and its political relationship with the United States, it’s time to take a pause.

While interest in all things Puerto Rican has hit an almost record high ever since Hurricane María destroyed the island over a year ago, recent debates about whether or not the U.S. territory should become the 51st state of the Union have seriously lacked critical context, resulting in the inaccurate conclusion that just because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, it is only logical to surmise that statehood is an inevitable done deal.

If that were the case, Puerto Rico would have become a state in 1917, the year American citizenship was granted through an act of Congress. But more than 100 years later, however, the only inevitability is this: the current status discussion in Puerto Rico is just a sham, manufactured by the island’s mostly white and male and wealthy political class to distract the populace from the deeper issues of an island that has crumbled under the leadership of mediocre neocolonial politicians and the Washington masters they serve.

Since 1967, Puerto Rico has held five non-binding plebiscites to determine its political future. And because the non-binding votes mean exactly that (they don’t mean anything), nothing has changed.


Puerto Rico still remains a colony, an actual unincorporated territorial possession of the United States. In the 1950s, the territory become a commonwealth or Estado Libre Asociado, which in essence are just 20th century terms for colony. In its simplest form, we Puerto Ricans might be U.S. citizens, but if we live on the island, our rights are greatly limited. We have no Congressional representation, even though we contribute with taxes (yes, look it up). We can’t vote for President even though we have the macabre pleasure of fighting in U.S wars and dying so that other Americans can enjoy their freedoms.

The last six years serve as the perfect example of why the Holy Grail quest to finally resolve Puerto Rico’s political status has led to no progress at all. In 2012, Puerto Rico held a doesn’t-matter-one-bit plebiscite where it rejected its current commonwealth status and if given a choice, it selected statehood, even though the two-part question led to a protest from commonwealth supporters—500,000 of which very likely didn’t vote for the second question out of protest. That lack of courage by status quo supporters gave statehood supporters a new sense of (false?) hope that Puerto Rico would indeed become the nation’s 51st state.

That didn’t happen.

In 2014, the Obama administration said that it would allocate federal money for a binding plebiscite, the first in Puerto Rico’s history. At the time, it felt groundbreaking, a game-changer. But then the debt crisis took over the debate and soon enough there was more bipartisan support for a federally-imposed Fiscal Control Board that would literally run Puerto Rico’s finances than any final federally-supported resolution on Puerto Rico’s political status.

Obama chose PROMESA over ending the colony. And Puerto Rico is paying a heavy price for it.

By 2016, Ricardo Rosselló, a pro-statehood Democrat, became the island’s governor. Hopes for Rosselló to lead on the status question were high, especially since he believed that a federally-supported and binding plebiscite that would ask the simple question, “Should Puerto Rico become a state, yes or no?,” would put an end to all this political limbo. This push would have finally forced Puerto Ricans to decide without falling back on a third option: the colony.

That didn’t happen either, because in early 2017, the Justice Department insisted that if the next plebiscite were to be binding, it would need to add the current commonwealth status to the plebiscite options—the same commonwealth status clearly rejected in 2012 (oh yeah, I forgot, that result didn’t count). Obviously, there were other factors at play here, but Rosselló, instead of taking more time to work with the Justice Department to change the ballot language and run the risk of not having a binding resolution being funded by federal dollars, went ahead on his own to change the ballot language and just rushed a plebiscite in June of 2017 without any final input from the DOJ.

If Rosselló were so confident that statehood would win in a DOJ-approved and federally-funded binding plebiscite, why didn’t he want to work with the DOJ to get a binding plebiscite done? Why not delay the vote and get actual buy-in from the U.S. government?

Instead, he chose the same tiresome path that has gotten Puerto Ricans nowhere since 1967: another non-binding plebiscite, which is essentially a glorified Twitter poll.

As a result, even though Rosselló could say that statehood received 97% of the vote, the numbers didn’t count in the eyes of the U.S., so the results were never certified by the DOJ, giving Congress the perfect out to continue not caring about Puerto Rico’s political status. And despite statehood supporters insisting that the 2017 plebiscite was a mandate by the people of Puerto Rico, only 23% of the population voted, with statehood showing its lowest voting support since 1967. Let’s repeat this: with statehood showing its lowest voting support since 1967.

Granted, commonwealth supporters didn’t even show up to vote and as a result, the status quo earned its worst showing ever, even doing worse than independence, which at least on paper, still has had no real support for years—a point that continues to confound observers of Puerto Rican politics, but when a nationalist movement has experienced a history of violent repression from the U.S. and colonial authorities for decades, being a very public pro-independence visionary in Puerto Rico (do they even exist now?) has led to years of continued repression and fears perpetuated by Puerto Rico’s political class of the island becoming the next Cuba or Venezuela.

Then, once you thought that Rosselló would try to address the next cycle of the hamster circle known as the Status Sham, Hurricanes Irma and María struck Puerto Rico, and priorities shifted dramatically.

Yet even as his administration struggled with recovery efforts, Rosselló created  a “shadow Congress” of five “Representatives” and two “Senators” to ask for statehood in D.C.

Nothing happened, except some press releases, photo opps and visits from Hall of Fame catcher Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez (no, seriously) with members of Congress.

Pudge is no longer a member of the “shadow Congress” and Puerto Rico’s quest for statehood is still dead on arrival, especially now that Rep. Rob Bishop, the Republican Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a fervent pro-statehood supporter, will no longer chair the committee when Democrats take over the House in January.

Bishop, in his last symbolic move, recently wrote a letter to acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, asking that the DOJ call for (wait for it) a federally-sponsored binding plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status that will ask the following question, “Should Puerto Rico become a state, yes or no?” (or even this: “Statehood: Yes or No?”)

Guess who quickly said such a binding plebiscite should happen?

Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who will face a very tough re-election bid in 2020 and might even be challenged by San Juan mayor Carmen “Yulín” Cruz, who does not support statehood at all.

Bishop then followed up with a letter to Rosselló and other Puerto Rican leaders, calling for Puerto Rico to act on (wait for it again) another binding plebiscite.

We are back where we started, here we go round again, to quote The Kinks.

Now, with the Democrats taking over the House, it is incredibly unclear if they will even take on Puerto Rico’s status question, especially when traditional support from Puerto Ricans in the Democratic Party has been either commonwealth or independence. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a fervent self-determination supporter, is leaving, but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is arriving, and her positions on statehood are really not clear. Besides, there is more political will to look at Puerto Rico’s economic recovery than finally dealing with it colonial status.

Those Puerto Ricans who actually can vote in states like Florida could pressure Congress on the statehood issue, but so far the statehood has not been a rallying cry at all because local island politics has dominated the conversation.

There is also no true statehood leader in the U.S. Congress who is a Democrat, and if you think that person is suddenly going to magically appear in a few weeks, good luck with that. Puerto Rico has to get its house in order before taking on its political future.

So the sham continues, and Puerto Rico suffers. Meanwhile, critical issues of the island’s debt crisis, its bleak economic future and how it recovers from one of its worst natural disasters ever keep getting lost.

Which is why all you new progressive “experts” on Puerto Rico need to really understand that the statehood question is really complicated, and you shouldn’t expect it to be resolved in this next Congressional session. 

Especially at this rate.


Julio Ricardo Varela is founder and publisher of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media. He tweets from @julito77.