Puerto Rico Wants To Be 51st U.S. State – But Is There Much Thrill On Capitol Hill?

Jun 12, 2017

Puerto Ricans want to become America’s 51st state. But right now it's doubtful America – at least President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress – feels the same way.

In a non-binding referendum on Sunday in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 97 percent of those who voted chose statehood over the two other options: remaining a U.S. territory or becoming an independent country.

“Commonwealth status is not working,” says statehood supporter Jan Carlo Pérez, a teacher and father of two in the southeastern town of Patillas, Puerto Rico. Like most statehooders, he says being a commonwealth saddles Puerto Rico with too many political and economic disadvantages – while statehood, he argues, "makes us equal in rights with the rest of the U.S. citizens.”

READ MORE: Puerto Rico Governor: Florida Diaspora Will Be 'Critical' to Statehood Effort

Puerto Ricans themselves are U.S. citizens. But the more than 3 million Puerto Ricans who live on the island cannot vote in U.S. elections and don’t have voting representatives in Congress.

Statehood would change that – and Pérez hopes it will also help Puerto Rico dig out of the epic debt crisis that has wrecked its economy. That disaster has pushed hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to leave the island and live on the U.S. mainland – especially Florida.

Today we have an isolationist President. Trump wants to withdraw from the world, and I'm not sure in that vision of America Puerto Rico can participate right now. –Gretchen Sierra-Zorita

“All prices are going up – electricity, water. A lot of people, especially with young kids, have emigrated to the U.S. But I stayed. I believe in my island.”

Still, Pérez says he has a hard time believing Sunday’s victory will actually result in statehood for Puerto Rico. The U.S. Congress has the final say. And it may be harder to convince Congress to make Puerto Rico a state when turnout in the referendum was only 23 percent.

That weak vote was due largely to a boycott by supporters of both commonwealth status and independence. But turnout was also lower than expected among statehood backers.

Even so, Democratic U.S. Representative Darren Soto of Orlando – who last year became the first Puerto Rican to be elected to Congress from Florida – says the plebiscite result will be enough to get the statehood legislation process started.

“We have an American system," says Soto, "and it’s about who goes and votes – who shows up and is counted.”

Soto was in Puerto Rico for Sunday’s vote – and he points out the turnout was similar to the 1946 referendum that led to Alaska becoming the 49th state. As a result, he says the Puerto Rico statehood discussion will begin in the House Natural Resources Committee he sits on.

I-4 CORRIDOR INFLUENTIAL

And, he adds, the lobbying efforts of the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida will be “critical.”

“It’s no secret Congress last term was not super-excited about passing a [debt restructuring] bill to help out Puerto Rico," says Soto. "But when you started looking at how we’re an influential vote in the I-4 Corridor in Florida, and can help in deciding presidential elections...with statehood I believe you’ll see a similar push.”

But other Puerto Ricans aren’t as hopeful about statehood passing in Washington.

“I think it’s unlikely," says Puerto Rico native Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, spokesperson for the activist group the National Puerto Rican Agenda.

A struggling San Juan jewelry store owner ponders Puerto Rico's bankruptcy crisis last year.
Credit Ricardo Arduengo / AP

Sierra-Zorita notes President Trump has said he backs self-determination for Puerto Rico. But she warns his support for statehood, and its backing among Republicans, are tepid at best.

A century ago, she says, when the U.S. made Puerto Rico a commonwealth, "America was in an expansionist mode. Today we’re completely different – we have an isolationist President.

“President Trump wants to withdraw from the world; there’s a significant number of people that back him. And I’m not sure in that vision of America Puerto Rico can participate right now.”

Sierra-Zorita adds that’s especially true when the island is currently a bankrupt basket case – and when it appears most voters in Puerto Rico would lean Democrat. But she also argues statehood could more wealth on the island...and therefore more Republicans.

Most Puerto Ricans "might be default Democrats right now because they don’t have access to the largesse of corporate America.”

Puerto Rico’s political status is indeed an economic issue at bottom. So if Congress doesn’t grant Puerto Rico statehood, what then is its long-term solution for the island’s financial dysfunction? Or is it content to keep watching Puerto Rico hemorrhage its people to the U.S. mainland?

“That would be very sad,” says San Juan attorney Francisco González, who campaigned for statehood in Puerto Rico’s first status referendum in 1967. (It failed.) Recently he’s watched his two children and seven grandchildren move to Florida and Minnesota for lack of economic opportunity on the island.

“We have 320,000 homes idle in Puerto Rico that are not being used.," says González. "Instead of moving Puerto Ricans to the States, let’s move a state to Puerto Rico.”

Besides, says González: the U.S. has never turned down a statehood request from a territory.