“To reach the unreachable star. This is my quest. To follow that star.
No matter how hopeless. No matter how far.”
“The Impossible Dream” from the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha
Don Quixote’s elusive quest is a fitting metaphor for Puerto Rico’s statehood movement. For over 120 years, Puerto Rican annexationists have campaigned to convert the archipelago into a state of the Union. In 1899, one year after Spain was forced to cede Puerto Rico to the United States, the island’s Republican Party and the Federal Party called for the archipelago’s “definitive and sincere annexation.” Consistent with their understanding of U.S. territorial policy, the annexationists expected Puerto Rico would automatically become an incorporated organized territory, and eventually be granted statehood. This clearly did not happen.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1901 (Bidwell v Downes) that since Puerto Rico was “inhabited by alien races differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought,” it would be barred from admission into the Union until the time when “our own theories may be carried out and the blessings of free government under the Constitution extended to them.” Puerto Rico long ago acquired these attributes, which are central to the creed of American exceptionalism, but it still languishes as the American empire’s last remaining colony.
Since 1967, when the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP in Spanish) first gained control of the insular government, it has leveraged public resources and political contributions in an ongoing campaign to recruit U.S. legislators and the American public to its cause. The PNP has held five plebiscites since 1993. It appointed two shadow congressional delegations modeled on the Tennessee Plan to lobby Congress for statehood. The PNP Resident Commissioner and statehood supporters in Congress regularly introduce legislation calling for Puerto Rico’s admission to the Union.
This past March, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González and Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) introduced the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act (H.R. 1522). In the same month, Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) presented the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021 (H.R. 2070), which includes statehood as a territorial option.
Between 1898 and 2021, Congress introduced over 140 territorial status bills. Over the years a multitude of congressional commissions has descended on the archipelago to assess public sentiment for status change. Congress has held dozens of hearings on Puerto Rico’s territorial status. Most recently, the House Committee on Natural Resources held hearings in April and convened a second set of hearings in June. The hearings focused on status-related legislation that includes statehood as a possible decolonizing option. It is surprising this was the first time Congress held hearings on a statehood admission bill.
The PNP employs high-powered lobbying agencies and law firms to influence congressional committees with jurisdiction over Puerto Rico. Former PNP officials established the Puerto Rico Statehood Council and the Puerto Rico Equality Forum to lobby Congress. The council in turn set up PR51st, which it describes as a public advocacy initiative.
Despite all this activity, today the PNP is no closer to adding another star to the American flag than its annexationist progenitors were in 1898. Yet the PNP marches on, resolutely ignoring the political headwinds that have stymied the statehood movement. Recently, the PNP has intensified its campaign to convince Congress to admit Puerto Rico into the Union. This urgency is driven by dramatic political developments that have unnerved the PNP leadership. A popular uprising in 2019 forced Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, at the time the leader of the PNP, to resign. Scandals involving PNP officials and mishandling of crises caused by Hurricane María in 2017 and the earthquakes in 2019 undermined the party’s credibility. The PNP lost control of the legislature in 2020. Its base is eroding as new progressive political parties gain more support.
Why does the PNP persist in its statehood campaign when faced with long-standing, seemingly insurmountable congressional opposition?
The short answer is that the PNP has no choice but to sustain the illusion that statehood is a historical inevitability. The PNP has mounted a permanent campaign to gain and hold onto political power by convincing Puerto Ricans that statehood is inevitable. The political party that controls the governorship commands the abundant resources of the colonial state and manages billions of dollars of federal transfer payments and emergency funding.
The PNP has no program for governing. Its growth strategy “aims to ensure Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal transformation” by enhancing profitability for U.S. corporations. It has no discernable ideology that is intrinsic to Puerto Rico’s reality. However, much of its leadership is politically conservative along the lines of the Trump wing of the Republican Party, and it is also fiercely and violently anti-independence. The PNP campaigns on the theory that it is only a matter of time before Congress gives in to its demand for statehood. The PNP reasons that Congress cannot permanently evade the moral obligation to grant Puerto Rico political equality, which can only be conferred by admission into the Union.
The PNP held plebiscites in 2012, 2017, and 2020. All were mired in controversy and marked by a steady drop in voter turnout. Efraín Vásquez-Vera, a university professor and former assistant secretary of state under the opposing Popular Democratic Party (PPD in Spanish), ridiculed these plebiscites as having been “designed and pushed forward without consensus by the almost fanatical pro-statehood political party while in power, with the evident purpose… of maintaining alive the chimera of statehood.”
This partisan commentator is not alone in rebuking the credibility of the PNP-orchestrated plebiscites. The Department of Justice has also raised questions, previously stating that the ballot propositions in the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites contained inaccuracies and were potentially misleading, and that the premise of the 2020 plebiscite —that the people of Puerto Rico had conclusively rejected the current territorial status in 2012 and 2017— was one with which the DOJ disagreed.
The 2012 plebiscite had two important takeaways. First, 54 percent of Puerto Rico’s 1.9 million voters disapproved of the Commonwealth status. Second, the PNP did not get the mandate for statehood it wanted. The state electoral commission certified that 61 percent of the 1,364,000 cast were for statehood, but the results excluded 498,604 (24 percent) blank ballots that were cast. The opposition parties argued that by not counting the blank ballots, which they claimed were protest votes, the official results of the plebiscite failed to accurately measure the level of statehood support. It is ironic that while voters rejected the Commonwealth, they also voted Luis Fortuño and the PNP out of office. The PPD governor Alejandro García Padilla signed a concurrent resolution in May 2013 declaring that the 2012 plebiscite results were “inconclusive.” According to García Padilla, statehood support dropped to 44.4 percent, if the “protest” blank ballots were counted.
The PNP held another non-binding plebiscite in 2017 and ignored the U.S. Justice Department’s objection that the ballot had “ambiguous and potentially misleading statements” and could hinder “efforts to ascertain the will of the people from the plebiscite results.” Only 23 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, but that did not deter the PNP from proclaiming that statehood had achieved an overwhelming mandate with 97 percent of the vote. A buoyant Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced that “the United States of America will have to obey the will of our people.” But a cynical Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) mocked Rosselló, saying that “not even Putin gets 97 percent of the vote. We’re going to take that seriously?” Former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, a member of the PPD, was sure that “Washington will laugh in their faces,” since winning 97 percent of the vote is the “result you get in a one-party regime.”
Puerto Rico’s Shadow Delegates in Washington
After the 2017 plebiscite, Rosselló installed the Puerto Rico Equality Commission (PREC), a shadow delegation to the U.S. Congress, and dispatched it to D.C. to “advocate for both the termination of Puerto Rico’s territorial status and the island’s admission as a state of the Union.” Rosselló appointed two shadow senators and five shadow representatives to the government-funded lobbying organization, among them three PNP ex-governors: Luis Fortuño; Pedro Rosselló, the governor’s father; and Carlos Romero Barceló, grandson of the first president of the Puerto Rico Senate, Antonio Rafael Barceló. On January 10 of this year, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González called on Congress to recognize and seat the commission’s members. Congress ignored the petition.
At the end of the commission’s lackluster tenure, its chair, Romero Barceló, reported that the PREC “worked steadfastly to cultivate relationships and support among members of Congress for Puerto Rico’s decolonization process” and “influence national opinion in favor of statehood.” According to PR51st, the statehood advocacy initiative tied to the PREC, Rosselló established the PREC because he wanted to “reassure those who worried that Puerto Rico would be a blue state.” Statehooders falsely depict Puerto Rico as politically polarized along the toxic ideological fault lines of U.S. national politics. But in Puerto Rico, the political divide centers on territorial status and government accountability. Puerto Ricans uniformly agree that good governance is vital. With no discernable achievements to date, the PREC appears to have quietly dissolved in the wake of Gov. Rosselló’s ouster in 2019.
The PNP tried one more time in 2020 to get a mandate for statehood, and in the process shore up its flagging base. It partially succeeded with statehood obtaining 52.5 percent of the vote in the non-binding plebiscite. But many considered the victory illusory since only 52 percent of the electorate voted, the lowest turnout in at least seven decades. The plebiscite results confirmed Congress’s suspicion that the PNP overstates the extent of statehood support.
In 2014 Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) spoke against the Puerto Rico Status Resolution bill, which “set forth a process for Puerto Rico to be admitted as a State of the Union.” According to Wicker, “The percentage of statehood supporters has not changed significantly over the last 20 years and certainly does not serve as an impetus for Congress to entertain yet another admissions process now.” Recently Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) echoed the same concerns when he announced that he would not support the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act of 2021 because the referendums “did not reflect the strong consensus required to advance” the statehood act.
In the 2020 elections Pedro Pierluisi, the PNP gubernatorial candidate, was declared the winner with barely 33 percent of votes. But the PNP suffered a stunning legislative defeat, losing its majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Its share of Senate seats plummeted from 21 to 9, and from 32 to 20 in the House. Days before the new legislature was seated, the PNP enacted a law to authorize elections for a new shadow delegation to Congress. On May 16, 2021, about four percent of registered voters elected a six-member delegation —two shadow senators and four shadow representatives—comprised of PNP loyalists and party members. The delegation is supposed to lobby Congress to accept the 2020 plebiscite results and vote for statehood. Among those elected were the discredited former governor Rosselló and the controversial former Ponce Mayor María “Mayita” Meléndez, who lost the 2020 election to her PPD rival by 35 points.
Gov. Pierluisi allocated $1.25 million to cover the delegation’s salaries and expenses. The delegate elections cost an additional $1.1 million. The decision to hold the delegate elections during a fiscal crisis and pandemic was widely criticized. In a statement, the Puerto Rican Independence Party chastised Pierluisi: “The decision to use public funds to impose a mechanism of private lobbyists to promote the status vision of only one party is an insult to the country.”
While Congress has never shown much interest in Puerto Rican statehood, it also has never considered relinquishing Puerto Rico, once a prized Caribbean possession of strategic and economic value. Puerto Rico occupies a liminal space in the American empire, belonging to but is not part of the United States. As an unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico straddles two distinct forms of sovereignty: statehood and independence. In 2013 Sen. Ron Wyden stated that “Puerto Rico must exercise full self-government as a sovereign Nation or achieve equality among the states of the Union.” The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the “third path” between statehood and independence, effectively ended when PROMESA was passed and Supreme Court rulings affirmed that Puerto Rico is a territory with no sovereign rights.
The PNP will continue its quest so long as Congress chooses not to bar Puerto Rico’s admission into the Union, something it is loath to do since it would evoke the racist 1901 Downes v Bidwell ruling. Congress prefers to equivocate about the prospects for statehood and has never set down the conditions under which this would happen. The 2021 Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (H.R. 2070) is Congress’s latest variant on how to manage the quixotic statehood issue. The bill authorizes the Puerto Rican legislature to convene a status convention where elected delegates will decide on alternative self-determination options to include in a referendum, but it does not set a time limit for the convention to conclude its work. The process may take years. But before holding the referendum, “a congressional bilateral negotiation commission” will oversee the process and generate reports for the Senate and House committees of jurisdiction.
Voters will cast ballots in rank order for statehood, independence, and free association. The bill does not describe how the rankings will be counted. Different counting methods will yield different outcomes. The bill requires Congress to “approve a joint resolution to ratify the self-determination option” selected by the voters. But Congress can delay approval of the joint resolution. José Fuentes Agostini, former attorney general of Puerto Rico, testified in the April 2021 hearings that H.R. 2070 “proposes a new process with no accountability and no end date. H.R. 2070 provides no explicit guidance on constitutional parameters.” Columbia law professor Ponsa Kraus claims, albeit without evidence, that the bill is an attempt “to delay, and therefore, defeat an offer of statehood, while resuscitating some version of the discredited commonwealth option.” Nonetheless, it is conceivable that statehood may emerge as the preferred option. And this possibility, remote as it may be, sustains the PNP’s listless statehood movement.
While the PNP will continue its quest to convince Congress that statehood is a historical inevitability, it wants to hedge its bets. The party has built a nexus of corporate lobbyists and issue-specific advocacy organizations, and has used a Commonwealth executive agency to promote statehood. The Intercept, El Nuevo Día and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo have reported on the network of right-wing lobbying firms hired by PNP-affiliated advocacy groups to foster private capital accumulation in Puerto Rico. The firms push for fiscal policies and legislation, including PROMESA, to protect U.S. bondholders, and devise schemes to enhance the profitability of corporations setting up operations in Puerto Rico. Some of these firms have been hired to manage the privatization of government-owned resources and facilities, or as journalist Ed Morales describes, the “move to gut public goods for private profit.”
The Revolving Door of Statehood Advocacy
Former prominent PNP officials run statehood advocacy organizations. Kenneth D. McClintock, who served as president of the PNP-controlled Senate from 2005 to 2008, was also president of the Puerto Rico Equality Forum (PREF). The PREF “carries out research and educational activities related to equality for Puerto Rico, including efforts paid by registered lobbyists at the federal level.” McClintock, who is a paid consultant for the PREF, closed the organization after the congressional delegation was elected in May 2021. He was hired by Politank in 2021 as a senior public advisor. Politank describes itself “as a boutique bipartisan government affairs and consulting firm.” In 2018 the firm was hired by hedge funds to work on “the extraction of debt” from Puerto Rico. Francisco Domenech, Resident Commissioner González’s former campaign manager, is the managing director of Politank.
The Puerto Rico Statehood Council (PRSC) is a Washington, D.C.-based “civil liberties advocacy” organization that educates the general public and “federal policy makers” about the constitutional rights of “U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico,” and advocates for their constitutional rights. In 2018 the PRSC raised $817,000 in revenues, an increase from the previous year of 35.3 percent. The increased revenue coincided with the introduction of H.R. 6246: the Puerto Rican Admission Act of 2018. In the following legislative session, the PREF and the PRSC lobbied for H.R. 4901, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act.
The PREF paid Akin Gump Straus Hauer & Feld $320,000 in 2019 to lobby for H.R. 4901, while the PRSC paid Akin Gump and Navigators Global $2,050,000 to lobby for the same measure. Akin Gump is a leading international law firm with extensive policy and legal work on Puerto Rico-U.S. relations. In addition to the PREF and PRSC lobbying expenditures, the Commonwealth government spent almost $5 million between 2018 and 2020 to lobby the federal government for increased appropriations, disaster relief, and support for Medicare/Medicaid issues. The government has contracts worth millions with U.S.-owned consulting firms. In April 2021, Pierluisi awarded ICF, a global consulting and digital services firm a $46 million contract to “support long-term disaster recovery.”
The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) is an executive agency of the Commonwealth charged “representing and advancing the interests of the Government of Puerto Rico.” PRFAA officials are routinely hired as senior managers for statehood advocacy organizations. José Fuentes Agostini, chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, hired George Laws Garcia, the former interim executive director of the PRFAA, as the council’s executive director. Fuentes Agostini was the secretary of justice under PNP governor Pedro Rosselló. He was also a member of Donald Trump’s campaign and serves on the Hispanic Advisory Committee of the Republican Party.
Martín E. Rivera was director of government affairs at PRFAA until February 2021, when he was appointed executive director of the National Puerto Rican Equality Coalition, another PNP-fronted public advocacy organization created in April 2021. Anthony Carrillo Filomeno, director of the Florida office of the PRFAA, endorsed the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act of 2021 as “the right step to ensure the political equality of the 3.2 million American citizens on the island.”
The PNP also recruits leadership from the Republican far right. In 2017 Gov. Rosselló appointed Carlos R. Mercader as executive director of PRFAA. Before this appointment, Mercader was executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
The PNP funds civic organizations to educate the American public about Puerto Rico. The PRSC launched the PR51st initiative “to build a national movement in support of equal rights for U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico through statehood.” PR51st is the largest statehood advocacy group and relies primarily on social media to promote statehood. Another group, the Puerto Rico Star Project, describes itself as a “nonprofit organization that creates awareness about Puerto Rico’s colonial status and educates the public about statehood.” After the November 2020 elections, PR51st spearheaded a coalition of non-profit organizations which wrote to President-elect Biden and the incoming Democratic congressional leadership, urging them to accept the results of the 2020 Puerto Rican plebiscite.
Resident Commissioner González, who was one of the chairs of Latinos for Trump and is president of the Puerto Rican Republican Party, is a key figure in the coalition. González sits at the center of a web of lobbying firms and corporations with interests in Puerto Rico. In 2019 and 2020, U.S. firms contributed $1.44 million to González’s reelection campaign. Among her contributors was O’Neill & Borges, which has the largest bankruptcy restructuring and insolvency practice in Puerto Rico. The firm’s legal counsel contracts with the Financial Oversight and Management Board.
Another important contributor was top-ranked international law firm King & Spalding. In 2019 the firm was hired to advise the Puerto Rico Power Authority on a $1.5 billion fuel supply and conversion of two liquefied natural gas plants. Politank, where McClintock is a principal, was a contributor to González’s first campaign for resident commissioner. Between 2016 and 2018 McClintock donated $1.25 million to her PAC. Fuentes Agostini, chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, donated $1 million to the resident commissioner’s campaign. In 2020 González contracted Key Integrated Solutions for over $816,000 for an unspecified purpose. This well-connected Puerto Rican marketing and advertising firm has been involved in controversial government contracts. González also contributed $101,000 to Winred. Winred describes itself as “the #1 fundraising technology used by conservatives” and was endorsed by President Trump. In the 2019-20 campaign cycle, WinRed PAC, a small-donor fundraiser, raised a staggering $2.24 billion dollars.
PNP officials have taken jobs in firms with business interests in Puerto Rico after leaving government. Most prominently among them is former PNP governor Luis Fortuño (2009-2013), who is now a partner in the influential white-shoe firm Stepstoe & Johnson. He is the firm’s legal and financial advisor on Puerto Rican affairs. One of Stepstoe’s clients is Assured Guaranty, which represents the interests of Puerto Rican municipal bondholders. Fortuño, a darling of the Tea Party and a self-proclaimed conservative Republican, spoke at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference where he celebrated the punitive austerity program he imposed while governor. Gov. Pedro Pierluisi took a position as a capital member at O’Neill & Borges after he stepped down in 2016 as Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner.
New Progressive Party Policies
The New Progressive Party knows that Congress will neither act on statehood nor categorically reject it, so the PNP believes it’s in a win-win situation. As long as Congress fails to act, the PNP will continue to campaign for statehood. If Congress grants Puerto Rico statehood, the PNP believes its political future is assured. The PNP leadership assumes its party is ideally positioned to govern the new state of Puerto Rico since it would have delivered on its promise of statehood. But this outcome is uncertain. Popular support for the PNP has steadily declined. The PNP has a tarnished reputation due to its long-standing record of corruption, its mismanagement of the post-Hurricane María crisis, the punitive austerity measures it has imposed, and its destructive environmental policies. Its deteriorating support explains the urgency with which the PNP is pushing for statehood.
Gov. Pierluisi has enacted policies that only serve to further erode his party’s popular support. Pierluisi dismissed the legislature’s opposition and spent millions on what many consider the absurd congressional delegation. Pierluisi went along with the Junta’s order to privatize the island’s electrical grid. He continues to ignore widespread demonstrations led by the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union against the contract with LUMA Energy LLC, and disregarded a 43-0 House vote against the deal. Pierluisi agreed with the Junta’s order to siphon $750 million from Puerto Rico’s stressed budget “to create a reserve fund” for LUMA, a corporation that “was created especially for Puerto Rico.”
Pierluisi provoked further popular displeasure for reneging on a pledge to prioritize the reduction of child poverty. He arbitrarily reduced the $5.5 million listed as “budgetary priority” to $1.2 million and blamed the Junta for slashing relief for the 57 percent of children who live below poverty.
In July 2021, hundreds of Puerto Ricans occupied a stretch of public beach that is a protected turtle sanctuary, when the owners of an exclusive condominium complex started construction on a luxury pool. The well-connected owners obtained a waiver to build on the sanctuary, and hundreds of heavily armed police were dispatched to guard the constructed site.
Protests, marches and demonstrations against Pierluisi are happening throughout the archipelago. The Governor has flagrantly disregarded the people’s rightful indignation and shrugs off the notion that he may suffer the same fate as the despised Rosselló.
The PNP has discovered that while the road to statehood is interminable, it is paved with gold. While the PNP will likely fail to convince Congress to make Puerto Rico a state, fortunes are being spent on trying to do so. Corporations and individuals are enriched, careers are built, the false dream of Puerto Rican statehood is sustained, and voters will continue to support the PNP. If the PNP controls the governorship and has enough votes in the legislature to prevent overriding a governor’s veto, it will continue to deploy the resources of the colonial state to foster the statehood fantasy.
The PNP has always claimed that attaining civil rights for Puerto Ricans is the heart of its mission. Four decades ago, Romero Barceló wrote that “certainly the most fundamental argument on behalf of statehood concerns the rights of citizenship.” Indeed, U.S. citizens living in the colony cannot vote for the president of the United States, and can’t elect representatives and senators to represent them in Washington. Nonetheless, Puerto Ricans enjoy all the civil rights accorded to the citizens of a democracy. These rights are enshrined in the Commonwealth’s Constitution.
But the exercise of civil rights cannot protect the citizenry from the assault against their fundamental human rights which is the consequence of a brutal neoliberal agenda imposed by the colonial state. The PNP has a history of imposing austerity policies and abetting the despoliation of the environment to protect and enhance foreign capital accumulation. The resulting economic inequality and insecurity, combined with the widening impoverishment of the population, constitute human rights violations at the most fundamental level in terms of access to food, education, health, work, and liberty–and in fact, Section 20 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth recognizes the existence of these rights and the responsibility of the state to safeguard them.
But these rights are elusive to a growing number of Puerto Ricans living on the socioeconomic edge. Imposing statehood on Puerto Rico will not protect its people from a colonial state committed to the advance of capital at their expense. The irony in all of this is that the PNP is enacting policies that are alienating the very population it needs to retain control of the colonial state, which is indispensable for the party to sustain the illusion that statehood is attainable.
Pedro Cabán is professor and former chair of Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latino Studies at the University of Albany. His research is on the political economy of colonialism with a focus on Puerto Rico, U.S. Latina/o political engagement, and race and ethnic studies in higher education. He is the author of Constructing a Colonial People, the United States and Puerto Rico (Westview Press, 1999). In addition to academic publications, Professor Cabán has published essays on Puerto Rico in Jacobin, Dissent, NACLA, Current History, New Politics, and The Conversation.