Commentary Rosa Bravo Originally published January 12, 2016
I am proud of my United States citizenship and I have long supported the idea of statehood for Puerto Rico. But at this point, even I have to admit that my home island becoming the 51st state seems like an in- creasingly remote possibility. I'm not pessimistic about statehood be- cause of the language difference, or the possibility of losing our "na- tional" Olympic team, or because of Puerto Rican voters' long runn- ing indecisiveness regarding the future of their island. I'm pessimis- tic about statehood because the one entity that could grant such a thing, the US Congress, will not let it happen. And with every day that passes, Congress feels less and less willing to admit Puerto Rico as a state.
And who can blame them? Puerto Rico's financial woes have made headlines regularly over the last several years. Holders of Puerto Rico bonds are bracing themselves for the worst, will billions of dollars yet to be lost. During the island's budget and debt debacles, some of Puerto Rico's seemingly intractable institutional corruption has been brought to light for the whole world to see. Puerto Ricans continue to leave the is- land for the mainland in droves. Puerto Rico is still much poorer than the poorest state in the union. Besides all of this, the US's incentives for hol- ding on to this Caribbean territory have largely disappeared.
During the 20th century, Puerto Rico's location made it a key to protec- ting the then US owned Panama Canal. After World War II, its strategic value appreciated further, as Cuba went communist and the US needed to pay close attention to the Caribbean and Central America. Puerto Rico was also a hub for manufacturing, as tax incentives and cheap labor yielded bi- llions in profits for American corporations. But those incentives are gone. The Cold War is long over, and whatever geopolitical challenges the US faces -- or expects to face in the near future -- are not present in the Ame- ricas, but rather in the Middle East and Asia. American businesses found labor cheaper than Puerto Rico's long ago, in Mexico, China, India...even right next door in the Dominican Republic. Plus, Congress took away many of the tax incentives.
The United States has taken plenty from Puerto Rico over the decades, including scores of lives lost by Puerto Rican soldiers in American wars. But now that they find they can't squeeze any more juice from their main Caribbean possession, they are probably asking themselves what the point is any longer. Sure, Puerto Ricans still pay plenty of taxes to Uncle Sam, even if we don't pay Federal Income Tax (although many of us do have to pay). American businesses still make billions in the island. But the old re- turn on investment is no longer there. Many a right-wing blowhard in DC will think "Why do we keep sending billions in federal funds into a black hole? Why do we even still have this island of latino freeloaders any lon- ger?". They look at Puerto Rico's super-corrupt elites and increasingly poor population and wonder whether it might not be time to cut their losses. Ne- vermind that that same corrupt elite grew initially under US auspices (Puer- to Rico had no self-rule at all until 1952, and even then it was severely li- mited) and that the US-favored colonial status is largely responsible for keeping Puerto Ricans trapped in poverty. Historical memories are short in Washington.
Will Congress suddenly be afflicted with an attack of conscience, and grant Puerto Rico statehood (provided a majority of us finally and with- out reservation ask for it)? Will they consider America's decades-long ill treatment and neglect of Puerto Rico and do the morally right thing, and say yes to admitting millions of US citizens into the union as equals? I wouldn't bet any money on it. While the statehood conversation would be taken a lot more seriously if at least 75% of Puerto Rican voters said yes to statehood (nope, 51% doesn't cut it and never will), it would still be a battle. Congress looks at the Puerto Rico of today and see millions of poor, Spanish-speaking welfare recipients. With Cuba opening, Puerto Rico is no longer the business-friendly Caribbean lab of the mid-century; it is a washed-up has-been, in their eyes. But they are beginning to acknowledge that the current colonial situation is no longer tenable. So what options are left? A sovereign, "associated republic", a la Marshall Islands or Palau. Or, of course, full independence. Either one would be seen in Washing- ton as cheaper and easier than maintaining the current status, or burdening itself with a "beggar" 51st state.
Congress may soon have the excuse that it wants to get rid of Puerto Ri- co. Independence may be coming sooner than any of us expect, whether we ask for it or not. The colonial master is getting anxious and is feeling increasingly eager to get rid of what it helped create. If you don't want to see that happen, it's time to start making some real noise for statehood. And not in Puerto Rico, where it won't matter what you say or who hears you. It is people and politicians in the mainland who need to hear our voi- ces. And do you have family or friends in the mainland US? Of course you do. Tell them to speak up and to always VOTE, and to let everyone know that they vote. We also need an organization that can promote statehood other than the New Progressive Party, which for decades has accomplished less than nothing in convincing Congress to seriously consider decoloniza- tion.
If we don't take the fight for statehood to another level, get ready to make some room for that Puerto Rico passport in your wallet. Because we're going to be on our own.
The opinions expressed in the preceding commentary do no necessarily reflect those of The Puerto Rico Monitor.