The Way Forward for the Puerto Rico Statehood Movement (OPINION)

Dec 23, 2020
10:57 AM

(AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

In an election cycle full of electoral pluralities and division of the local branches of government, statehood for Puerto Rico garnered the only majority mandate of the 2020 Puerto Rican elections. Now, while the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) contributed to the referendum’s results, the party was not the guarantor of statehood’s victory.

Statehood won the yes-or-no referendum, earning over 216,000 more voters than the PNP gubernatorial candidate, Governor-elect Pedro Pierluisi. The “Yes” vote also tallied over 132,000 more votes than Congresswoman Jenniffer González, the PNP’s top vote-getter. A considerable pro-statehood electorate voted for other parties because these voters do not feel represented by the PNP. As in 2012, these voters showed their political maturity, divorcing their discontent with the PNP from statehood so as to not harm the latter’s fortunes.

The referendum proved that the Puerto Rican statehood movement is greater than the PNP, that the movement develops separately from the party, and that the movement can stand its ground and defeat a consolidated opposition. Rather than collapsing, the statehood movement is evolving and it is advancing.

However, in the aftermath of the referendum, the statehood movement cannot retire to its customary practice of depending on the PNP and its elected officers to advance the statehood cause. 2021 will be a critical year of action to ensure that the people’s mandate is respected in Congress. The PNP and its elected officers can neither do it all nor should we expect them to do so.

First, the PNP is a political party and political parties, by definition, seek power to implement an agenda. Although statehood should be first on the PNP’s agenda, gaining office comes first. Second, the PNP must govern Puerto Rico when in power. The party is not a one-issue organization that can dedicate all of its attention to the admission of Puerto Rico. Third, and most importantly, the PNP does not project power in the mainland. The party may be the strongest political entity within Puerto Rico, but it does not operate beyond our shores. There is no grassroots PNP element in the states with the capabilities to persuade the mainland public.

The PNP nonetheless remains a relevant political institution and is the only pro-statehood party in Puerto Rico. As such, the party is an important component of a winning strategy for statehood. The PNP cannot, however, be the only pillar on which said strategy is based.

Private citizens and nongovernmental organizations have to step up and carry the brunt of the hard work ahead. In synthesis, the people must create the conditions that will provide our elected representatives and our allies in Congress with multiple courses of action to negotiate the political obstacles of an admissions process. That is the way forward.

Adapting the national political scene to our advantage is done by engaging the American public, the media, and centers of power, both inside and outside the Beltway. Available tactics include making phone calls, sending emails, mailing letters, publishing opinion columns, engaging within social media platforms, forming organizations, donating to worthy organizations, forming and leading teams, training statehood trainers, educating concerned citizens, mobilizing, marching, and protesting. In sum, toil and effort from everyday citizens at scale is required.

Most importantly, the Puerto Rican statehood movement cannot remain an island-bound enterprise. Our statehood movement must assume a national character. The reason for this is simple. Members of Congress will respect and enact our statehood mandate when their constituents compel them to do so. The actors that can provide this pressure are ordinary citizens that live in the states and have the greatest power that we islanders don’t have: the right to vote for federal officers. It is precisely because of this power that stateside citizens are the best advocates for Puerto Rico statehood. We must recruit them.

Our movement must be built to engage and activate statehood champions in the mainland that will demand that our November 3 mandate be executed. Effective activism from our part requires prompting stateside supporters to speak up, call their federal legislators, write them letters, publish op-eds and letters to the editor, and make public calls to action. They must apply the pressure so that their elected representatives become our voices.

Only by coalescing individuals from all walks of life throughout the United States and its territories will our cause acquire the national capabilities that are necessary to prevail in this contest. And only by recruiting stateside advocates to exert pressure on their elected representatives can we compel Congress to abandon its eternal inertia on Puerto Rico and launch an admissions process.

In the final analysis, a great lesson of this latest referendum is that the cause of statehood is in the hands of the people. The way forward is through citizen action, and the time is ripe for a citizens’ coalition to lead the way. Rather than regressing to habitual patterns of post-election inaction and dependency on the PNP, let us, the ordinary citizens who stand to lose the most out of continued colonial status, take up the mantle and get the job done.


Attorney José A. Cabrera, a U.S. Army veteran, is Chair of the Puerto Rico Star Project (Proyecto Estrella) and Co-Chair of the Puerto Rico Young Republican Federation. He tweets from @CabreraCostas.