For Puerto Rican Statehood, It’s Now or Never: So It’s Never? (OPINION)

Jan 21, 2021
2:38 PM

(AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

Supporters of statehood for Puerto Rico are on the clock.

On January 5, when Georgians ensured the Democratic Party would control the U.S. Senate, House, and presidency for at least the next two years, they also created the best political environment for Puerto Rican statehood in recent memory — perhaps ever. If the leaders and advocates, on the Island and the mainland, who have been trying to add Puerto Rico to the Union for decades cannot achieve it in the very near future, there’s good reason to doubt they ever will.

Here’s what pro-statehooders can currently boast:

  • The new U.S. president who last September said: “I happen to believe statehood would be the most effective means of ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally, with equal representation on a federal level.”
  • Barack Obama  — the patron saint of contemporary liberals— who in his eulogy for John Lewis said Americans should honor his legacy “by guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C. and in Puerto Rico.”
  • Full Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches of government at a time when Democrats routinely muse about granting statehood to Puerto Rico, both as a matter of social justice and civil rights and for their partisan political advantage.

  • Bipartisan Congressional support for statehood, including from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Marco Rubio (both of whom represent millions of Puerto Ricans in New York and Florida, respectively), and at least 60 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, on both sides of the aisle, who supported the most recent pro-statehood bill. (The meaning of the asterisk should or will soon be apparent.)
  • A Puerto Rico status bill co-authored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  — the most influential progressive in the U.S. Congress —  which is not explicitly pro-statehood but lays out a process that could very well lead to it.
  • An American public, particularly on the political left, that for all its faults is more committed than ever to social and racial justice, inclusion, equal rights, and “decolonization;” and that after Hurricane María and Trump’s criminal neglect of Puerto Rico is more aware than ever of the island’s precarious political status. In fact, 66% of the American public apparently support Puerto Rican statehood.
  • A pro-statehood Puerto Rican governor and pro-statehood Congressional representative — one a Democrat, one a Republican, which in theory allows them to drum up support on both sides of the aisle —  both of whom claim to have strong allies in Congress.
  • And, for the first time ever, a Puerto Rican status plebiscite with significant voter turnout in which statehood won a clear majority.

The last point is crucial. For decades, American leaders have said they’ve just been waiting for a clear signal from the Puerto Rican people about what they want. Previous plebiscites have been won by the status quo or “none of the above,” or marred by boycotts and low turnout. Not so this time. Was it a politically motivated vote? Of course. But it’s a political issue—that criticism is tautological. Did one side make shady claims and promises? Ditto. Is it the slimmest of majorities? Absolutely. But it’s the height of hypocrisy for Democrats, who have spent the last few weeks defending the integrity of an election Joe Biden won with 51% of the popular vote, to question the validity of a vote statehood won with 53%.

And yet, that’s exactly what they’re doing. It took mere days after the November elections for prominent Democrats’ enthusiasm for statehood to start waning. A Biden spokesman already said the new President “will work with representatives of each status option to participate in a fair and binding process of self-determination.” Schumer now says he’s waiting for “consensus,” a preposterous precondition to political action that, on any other issue, would make him a do-nothing obstructionist. Joe Manchin, the R̵e̵p̵u̵b̵l̵i̵c̵a̵n̵-̵l̵i̵t̵e̵ moderate Democratic senator from West Virginia  — on whom the party’s entire legislative agenda may depend —  says he’s waiting for “all the facts.” These are not the statements of political leaders who have heard, and stand ready to heed, the will of the Puerto Rican people. These are, pardon my French, the same bullshit clichés with which they’ve been jerking Puerto Ricans around forever.

Supporters of statehood would have you believe that this is all the fault of anti-statehood “separatists” like former Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, Puerto Rican independence leader Juan Dalmau, or even no-name writers like me who sow division and allegedly hold back the otherwise unstoppable tide of annexation. (And it’s true there are plenty of intellectually dishonest takes, on the plebiscite especially, from opponents of statehood whose aims I share but whose messaging and tactics I disavow.) But the pro-statehooders’ theory on who is truly standing in their way is laughable on two counts.

First, it’s ahistorical and unconvincing, if not downright ridiculous, to imagine that the U.S. government would be so deferential to a minority of Puerto Ricans with marginal political influence in the United States. To take just one recent example, the objections of pro-independence and other progressive Puerto Ricans certainly did not stop Congress or President Obama from passing PROMESA.

Second, the implication in the statehood supporters’ accusation is that their political project would do far better if all opposition to it evaporated, which is at once stupidly true and truly stupid. If your battle plan depends on the enemy abandoning the field, you’re going to lose the war. If statehood inspires so little political will in the U.S. that the objections of some Puerto Ricans are enough to derail the whole project, what hope does statehood have when it faces off against the right-wing political machine that has already signaled it will fight it with its last, lying breath?

To cite Occam’s Razor: all else being equal, the simplest and best explanation tends to be the right one — and the simplest explanation for why statehood remains out of reach is that the United States has had, and still has, no intention of granting it. That’s why not a single plebiscite has been binding, not a single pro-statehood bill has been voted on, and why the Democratic political leaders who supported it right before the 2020 election are now backpedaling.

So, what now? I don’t expect pro-statehooders to merely shrug their shoulders and give up their more-or-less good-faith political goal. I do, however, expect them to try and prove me wrong, and they’re off to a bad start. Already, some Puerto Rican pro-statehooders are quiescently accepting that 53% is not enough to compel Congress to act. Perhaps they’d do well to ask Schumer, et al. exactly what percentage would constitute a sufficient political mandate — just in case it’s closer to 99% and they’re being taken for a ride. Puerto Rican governor Pedro Pierluisi has already floated the idea of yet another plebiscite which, whatever bluster he may otherwise summon, is all but an admission that pro-statehood efforts are dead in the water.

At the same time, Americans who support statehood seem to be shrugging their shoulders and noting that it won’t happen without getting rid of the filibuster — which won’t happen either. That’s both an accurate assessment and a shameful political abdication on an issue they claim is about equality, civil rights, and racial justice. With allies like these, who needs political opponents?

So, if not statehood, what then? Certainly not the immoral, untenable status quo. And pro-statehooders will gleefully point out that, if statehood faces an uphill climb, the road to independence is even steeper as long as support for it is in the single digits. But  —and here’s the most critical point —  the obstacles to independence and to statehood are not just different in degree, but in kind.

Unless one thinks that the U.S. would try to keep Puerto Rico against our collective will, the primary impediment to independence is that not enough Puerto Ricans want it. That may be hard to change, but it’s wholly within our power to change it. On the other hand, statehood must be granted to us by political leaders and institutions that we have very little power to affect, and faces formidable partisan, economic, and sociocultural barriers that may be downright impossible for Puerto Ricans to dismantle.

Or, to use an analogy, it’s the difference between trying to convince your family what to have for dinner and trying to convince a restaurant, not just to serve you, but to whip up your favorite meal. The former may prove difficult if your family’s particularly divided and stubborn. But the latter is utterly hopeless if you’ve no power over the chef, who can keep sending out bread and water and hope you don’t notice that you’re still starving.

There is such a thing as “better, or even best, but not good enough.” Puerto Rican statehood is having its most promising political moment, and it’s still a non-starter for the United States. And while American presidents and senators move the goalposts for the 57th time, Puerto Ricans are going hungry.

If pro-statehooders  — who are my political rivals but, first and foremost, my compatriots— take seriously the idea that the status quo is a moral and political dead-end, it’s high time they put an expiration date on their demand for statehood and summon the willingness to get up from the table and walk out the door. I know they think a homemade meal won’t taste as good. But in at least one way it’s far superior: nobody from West Virginia could stop Puerto Ricans from cooking and enjoying it together.


Alberto Medina is a Puerto Rican writer and editor. He tweets from @AlbertoMedinaPR.