Beto O’Rourke Says He’s For Puerto Rico Statehood: Is Taking a Position Enough?

Mar 25, 2019
5:26 PM

Beto O’Rourke speaks to supporters during a meet-and-greet with the Mujeres Network at a home on March 24, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

On Sunday, a video published by CNN’s Leyla Santiago showed Robert “Beto” O’Rourke supporting statehood for Puerto Rico. This isn’t the first time O’Rourke has stated his position regarding the commonwealth, yet it has caught the eye of many this time around. His statement has sparked a lot of reactions from activists, journalists and leaders in the Boricua community, among whom the issue of sovereignty versus statehood is contentious. Within the Democratic 2020 field, the candidates’ current stances are a mix of unclear positisons, or responding by saying that the people of Puerto Rico should decide. Which begs the question: is O’Rourke’s simple act of taking a strong position of the issue (and presumably advocating for it) enough?

“It is shocking to us that, in modern era…we treat our fellow Americans in this way,” he said, in response to a question by Santiago. “The only way I see us being able to permanently solve the problem of a permanent second-class status for the citizens of Puerto Rico is to ensure that they are a state, they have two U.S. senators who can vote, that are fighting day in and day out for their rights… Puerto Rico needs to have that first-class status.”

The small audience clapped in response.

These statements proved to be controversial, particularly for an island where the struggle for independence has been long fought.

For some, his statements completely disregard the autonomy of the people of Puerto Rico, which underscores the issue itself: the right for people to decide.

Others, like Latino Rebels founder (and Puerto Rican journalist) Julio Ricardo Varela, said that O’Rourke is one of few if not the first Democratic candidate to issue such a clear position.

Still, in February, Politico published a piece about how Puerto Rico has actually been an ongoing issue among candidates, with Julián Castro making Puerto Rico his first stop, and Bernie Sanders hiring San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz (who announced last Friday that she’s running for governor) as his campaign co-chair.

During his visit, Castro said that it was up to the people of Puerto Rico to decide. Senator Elizabeth Warren had the same response. Sanders’ position remains unclear, though on his campaign website it states that one way to solve the financial crisis is to grant the island independence, but with a note that says, “However, by doing so, it would also cut off any support provided by the U.S. Treasury and force creditors to accept large financial losses, setting it off on a bad start as a new nation” (though it should be noted that Cruz is for sovereignty).

As for Beto, one prominent person who has shown support is pro-statehood Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who thanked O’Rourke for his position. Rosselló is a Democrat.

From a controversial financial management fiscal board (known as PROMESA) with members who don’t even live in Puerto Rico, to the inability for local residents to vote during the very presidential campaign where the issue is being contested, Puerto Ricans have been left without autonomy for too long—over a century. And this has frustrated residents.

While it may be surprising that O’Rourke has taken a stand (and it happens to be statehood, normally what Republicans not named Trump advocate for), what is certain is that having outsiders make decisions concerning the island is an ongoing issue. O’Rourke is going to have to do more than pick a side and advocate for it to engage the people and win over boricuas.

And as for all the claims that statehood is a given for Puerto Rico? It’s complicated. Very complicated.

Any real debate regarding this topic must include Puerto Ricans, or else it’s just window-dressing.


Amanda Alcántara is the Digital Media Editor at Futuro Media. She tweets from @YoSoy_Amanda.