Why Do Americans Want Puerto Rico to Join Their Decaying Democracy? (OPINION)

Jul 5, 2022
5:47 PM

Three flags flying above Fort San Felipe del Morro (El Castillo San Felipe del Morro) in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, From left: the U.S. flag, the Cross of Burgundy —flag of the Spanish imperial army— and the Puerto Rican flag. (palestrina55/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Being a Puerto Rican that closely follows U.S. political commentary can be a mind-boggling, whiplash-inducing experience.

On days like two Fridays ago, when Roe v. Wade was overturned —or after Trump’s election, George Floyd’s murder, the January 6th uprising, the umpteenth mass shooting, and a hundred other shameful all-American moments— liberals and progressives explode with criticisms of their country.

The United States, they argue, is a racist and misogynist nation that is systematically hostile to women, people of color, and other so-called minorities. Its democratic institutions are fraying —if not outright failed— and one of its major political parties is in the grip of conspiracy-spreading theocrats and fascists. Children are regularly and senselessly murdered, while American leaders largely shrug and go about the business of securing campaign contributions.

In short, America is plagued by inequality, oppression, greed, and violence.

But then, in the very next sentence, many of these same pundits will advocate for Puerto Rico to become a state of that decaying union—which is a little like inviting people aboard the Titanic after it’s already hit the iceberg.

What gives? To my mind, there are three non-mutually exclusive reasons as to why this apparent contradiction manifests, and each of them should give pause about the prospect of Puerto Rican statehood.

The first and easiest explanation is that many American liberals want Puerto Rico to join the U.S. not despite the state of their union but because of it. For years now, they’ve been fantasizing about Puerto Rico potentially adding two senators and a handful of representatives to the Democratic side of the aisle as a quick fix to all that ails American democracy.

In their view, even if subconsciously, Puerto Ricans aren’t a people but a tool that can be wielded for partisan purposes. Puerto Rican inclusion isn’t a matter of fundamental rights, but a political stratagem to be deployed in desperate moments.

Or… In case of emergency, break glass and finish annexing the nation you invaded —and have kept under colonial subordination— for 125 years.

My “fellow Americans” will forgive me if that doesn’t exactly warm my heart.

A second explanation is that all this talk about the United States being an unequal, undemocratic country is just virtue-signaling bluster. During moments of anger or frustration, Americans vent and engage in hyperbole, but deep down they believe that the U.S. is a good or even great country that Puerto Rico would be fortunate to join.

Each of us can judge whether that’s actually the case. But, for my money, any American who fall in this category is doubly guilty. First, they badly underestimate the depth of the nation’s problems, and second, they respond to those problems with empty rhetoric even as they remain complacent and complicit.

If Puerto Ricans can’t take American liberals at their word when they criticize their own country, then their professions of support for statehood are equally meaningless.

The third explanation is perhaps the most insulting. Many Americans surely do believe that the United States is just as flawed, unequal, and dangerously undemocratic as they say—but they imagine that a free Puerto Rico would somehow be even worse.

If, deep down, they can’t fathom Puerto Ricans building a more fair and just society than the United States, shame on them. If they look at Puerto Rico and worry about a vulnerable population and a fledgling economy that would struggle under independence, double shame.

Their concern may be well-intentioned, but Americans who acknowledge their country’s oppressive past —and present— must also hold it responsible for the socioeconomic conditions in its largest colony, Puerto Rico.

No matter how well-meaning, the notion that Puerto Rico is so poor and weak that it must join the country under whose rule such conditions fester is a perverse and immoral idea.

Americans must decide what kind of country they believe the U.S. has been, is, and is likely to be, over the next years and decades. Is it a nation that promises prosperity and equality, where all people feel included and safe? Or is it a nation often inhospitable to people of color, where basic rights are constantly under threat and the very foundations of the republic are increasingly shaky?

It can hardly be both.

Americans who believe it’s the latter should speak clearly and honestly to Puerto Ricans about the state of their union and reflect on whether they can in good conscience urge the people of Puerto Rico to join it.

Or they can opt for another option: supporting the liberation of Puerto Rico—which, for a country that just celebrated its own independence on July 4th, would be the most freedom-loving thing that the United States has done in a long time.


Alberto Medina is a Puerto Rican writer and editor. Twitter: @AlbertoMedinaPR