Consensus, Statehood, and Self-Determination (OPINION)

Feb 1, 2021
1:17 PM

In this June 11, 2017 file photo, supporters of Puerto Rico’s statehood wave U.S. flags and pro-statehood banners at the New Progressive Party headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

SAN JUAN — Opponents of political change often argue that consensus is needed whenever they want to obstruct change. That is why those who oppose Puerto Rico statehood appeal to a mythical “consensus,” even though voters have chosen statehood three times within the past eight years.

This utopian vision of democratic governance requires that solutions to problems must satisfy everyone. However, democracies function through majority or plurality votes and proceed from the fact that whomever wins an election is considered to have a mandate not only to run the government, but also to implement their policies. This, to be sure, is an imperfect system, but it permits democracies to function.

Throughout American history, majority votes and consensus have at many times been in conflict in the admission process of states. For example, several states saw close referendum results in which statehood won by small margins. Some territories even voted against statehood. For example, Wisconsin voters rejected statehood by 75% in 1842.

Interestingly, even after defeat, statehood activists continued to fight for statehood. That work pays off; the historical record shows that once Congress drafts an admission act —where the terms of admission are stated clearly for the people of the new state— an overwhelming majority of voters favors statehood. That is how voters in Wisconsin after rejecting statehood, later supported it with 83% of the vote.

This historical record is important. As we can see, sometimes statehood was rejected by people and statehooders had to make their case anew in order to win their political rights. Being a political process, the admission of states is usually a messy affair. A statehood bid often requires various plebiscites, and efforts to spur action in Congress frequently fail. However, once citizens vote for statehood, statehood eventually happens. If there is insistence.

This is why the discourse on Puerto Rico’s status exclusively as “self-determination” is flawed. Curiously, some groups sabotage legitimate acts of the Puerto Rican people in creating their own state, all in the name of performing an “inclusive process” for all status options, usually in the form of a status assembly where all options are represented.

Some, like Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, have even argued that Puerto Rico’s vote for statehood merely demonstrates that Puerto Ricans are divided on statehood. This ignores the fact that politics, by nature, is a divided field. This is why majorities or pluralities win; a universal consensus is, in most cases, impossible.

Similar to other states, we can see how the Puerto Rican statehood movement has fought through the years to grow support for statehood. Last Election Day, there was a plebiscite that was not boycotted by any party, with a simple yes or no question on whether Puerto Rico should be a state. Statehood won by an absolute majority. This fact must also be taken together with the understanding that historically, Puerto Ricans have favored permanent union with the United States. The major political parties support the union, and in all plebiscites, there has only been a miniscule margin favoring independence. Moreover, there has never been —as former Puerto Rico Governor Rafael Hernández Colón explained— a community composed of American citizens that separated itself from the Republic.

However, if some in Washington believe the issue is so divisive, I propose the enactment of a federal statehood v. independence plebiscite as a solution. Puerto Ricans, it must be emphasized, have never favored secession. The debate has been more on how union would evolve.

Furthermore, with statehood having won a majority, there is no need for an “inclusive process.” The point is settled locally, and rehashing the issue in an assembly where status options that have little support are represented simply to make activists feel happy is absurd.

Statehood won. We must proceed from that fact. To insinuate the contrary or support other votes for options consistently rejected by Puerto Ricans is to disgrace democracy. Sadly, the view of ignoring Puerto Ricans’ vote for political equality seems to be winning. Statehood has won the battle, but so far it is losing the war. In any case, who counts more? A minority status view for independence seeking to be imposed on a free community of American citizens? Or the vote of Puerto Ricans for equality?


Rodney A. Ríos-Rodríguez is an attorney and writer for the Puerto Rico Star Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates statehood for Puerto Rico. Twitter: @rodney_rios95.