When President Trump was in Puerto Rico to show his support after Hurricane Maria, he was captured on video shooting paper towels into a crowd of storm survivors as if he was playing a game of basketball. It was a clear example of the total disrespect that Trump feels for the island and its 3 million people, who are U.S. citizens.
That disrespect has fueled another drive for leaders of Puerto Rico to push for U.S. statehood, which would solve a lot of its problems.
Trump pretended he was shooting a basketball, but in reality he totally dropped the ball when it came to assistance with storm recovery. Many in the island don’t have electricity or water or medical care. To say that the Trump administration has neglected to help the citizens of Puerto Rico would be an understatement.
This has led Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his New Progressive Party to call for statehood as the solution to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis. But his opponents are not in favor of the status quo — what they want is greater autonomy from the United States, and many are now calling for independence.
In short, nobody on Puerto Rico is happy with what’s going on now. The lack of effective response and recovery efforts have heightened the feelings that they have been abandoned, and that they are second-class citizens, at best.
The U.S. Congress has set up a federal control board, and on April 18th, control board members approved new austerity measures for Puerto Rico which have been rejected by Gov. Rosselló.
The measures included:
- a 10 percent average cut to a pension system facing nearly $50 billion in liabilities,
- the closure of prisons,
- consolidation of dozens of state agencies,
- significant reductions in government subsidies to Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities and its largest public university,
- cutting sick leave and vacation pay by half and
- eliminating Christmas bonuses.
Gov. Rossello disagrees with the proposals, saying the board doesn’t have the power to implement any austerity measures.
“Our position has always been clear: issues that are not in line with my government’s public policy will not be carried out. Period,” Rossello said.
Sociologist Hector Cordero-Guzmán of the City University of New York summarized the situation as follows: “The colonialism is raw right now,” he said.
Puerto Rico was acquired in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and its status ever since has been in limbo. Despite U.S. citizenship Puerto Ricans have no say in national politics — they have no member in Congress and can’t vote for president. Yet Puerto Rico is still subject to the governance of the U.S. Congress, which seems to care very little about it.
“The relationship needs to adapt to modern times,” said Carlos “Charlie” Delgado, secretary general of the Popular Democratic Party. “It’s unacceptable, democratically speaking, to have a foreign country control another country’s government via a board of unelected leaders. That is not a democracy.”
Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González holds a nonvoting role representing the territory in the U.S. House of Representatives. She said the response to Hurricane Maria has been devastating: “Ask yourself, if New Jersey or Connecticut had been without power for six months, what would have happened? This is about spotlighting inequities and helping Congress understand why we are treated differently.”
González said she will file a bill with Congress petitioning for statehood. She is hoping the millions of Puerto Ricans on the mainland will provide support for her measure, but there is little chance the bill would pass.
“Granting statehood means granting seven seats to the Democrats,” University of Connecticut professor Charles Venator Santiago said. “Statehood has been dead for decades.”
Former governor Pedro Rosselló — the current governor’s father — said there is a chance for statehood though.
“We feel that a lot of the discussion about unequal treatment in response to the hurricane are merely the symptoms of a condition with a root cause: the fundamental limitation of civil rights,” he said. “As long as the U.S. has under its jurisdiction areas that, by law, do not participate fully with other citizens, the United States is not a republic. It’s an empire.”
As the people of Puerto Rico continue to suffer due to the devastation from Hurricane Maria, many continue to dream of statehood. Absent that, the right thing for Congress and President Trump to do is help them more and treat them like real people and give them the respect that U.S. citizens deserve.
I am a lifelong Democrat with a passion for social justice and progressive issues. I have degrees in writing, economics and law from the University of Iowa.