Puerto Rico's Path To Statehood

In a letter to former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, President Obama (then a presidential candidate) expressed:

I will actively engage Congress and the Puerto Rican people in promoting this deliberative, open and unbiased process, that may include a constitutional convention or a plebiscite, and my Administration will adhere to a policy of strict neutrality on Puerto Rican status matters. My Administration will recognize all valid options to resolve the question of Puerto Rico's status, including commonwealth, statehood, and independence.

-Senator Barack Obama, February 12, 2008

Congressman Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, is taking Obama's statement to heart and is leading the effort to make Puerto Rico the 51st state with H.R. 2499, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009. Of course, Puerto Ricans may choose to continue as they are, a commonwealth, or opt for independence.

In a plebiscite held in 1998, all three options mentioned by Obama were defeated, with 50.3% of the people voting for a fourth option: "none of the above." Second in place was the statehood option with 46.7%, and Congressman Pierluisi saw a glimmer of hope in those results. His plan will require two visits to the polls. The first would be somewhat similar to the 1998 plebiscite: Puerto Ricans will determine whether they want the current status, or something else (essentially the "none of the above" option of 1998). If they choose "something else," they'll return to the polls to decide between statehood, independence, or a sovereign association with the US (a modified version of the current status, which can be ended at any time, unilaterally).

Requests to get Pierluisi's comments were unsuccessful. They were too busy; and understandably so -- on Wednesday the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees issues related to Puerto Rico, will review and vote on the bill.

If Puerto Rico's path to statehood can be compared to Hawaii's, one could deduce that a 51st state is imminent. Today, nearly all Puerto Ricans hold US citizenship and many wish to have full voting rights, key factors in Hawaii's successful admission into the Union. Just like Puerto Rico, Hawaii benefited from a territorial status (60 years), but a desire for change grew stronger as control was shifted from the few to the many.

Puerto Rico has benefited from a commonwealth status since 1952, although it has been a US territory since 1898. Like any state, Puerto Rico receives billions of dollars each year to support its federal, state and local programs. In 2008, over $13.5 billion were granted or paid to individuals in the island in the form of housing and nutritional assistance, Social Security and veterans benefits, as well as other programs. That same year, nearly $2.5 billion was dispersed to the Puerto Rican government. These amounts do not include those budgeted for federal entities and programs, such as the US Postal Service, Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense.

Because Puerto Rico residents and companies are exempt from most federal taxes, this relationship is largely one-sided. Many claim that Puerto Ricans, such as I, make up for this deficit by enlisting in the Armed Forces. Such reasoning would allow for the incorporated States to provide a fighting force in order to avoid adding to the national treasury.

Should Puerto Rico become a state, the US would find a substantial source of income: Federal taxes would be levied on the island residents, and US and foreign companies that remain after the switch will be bound by different tax laws.

Outside of having to pay federal taxes, it is not clear how this will affect the Puerto Rican people financially, particularly since the region is mired in poverty (in 2006 Puerto Rico's median household income was $17,6213, half of Mississippi's). Some argue more benefits are to be expected, but being that Puerto Rico residents already enjoy the same financial benefits as their US counterparts, this is not likely.

A result in favor of statehood is bound to alter the political map in the US, but, once again, it is not clear in which direction. Puerto Ricans are culturally conservative, but since becoming a commonwealth, whether to vote between conservative and liberal parties has not been an issue.

The process of self-determination endorsed by President Obama may create a neutral ground for his Administration, but it is bound to change history for all parties involved, whatever the outcome.