Puerto Rico’s continued fight for independence | #students | #parents

It was a scene of mass chaos: fires burning in trash cans, tear gas surrounding protestors and chants of “Ricky, renuncia!” echoing in the streets late into the night.

In one of the largest demonstrations in the island’s history, 100,000 to 500,000 Puerto Ricans lined the narrow, cobblestone streets of Old San Juan in mass protest against former Governor Ricardo Rosselló, calling for his resignation. The uproar, originally sparked by leaked private chats and an uncovered stockpile of supplies hidden during Hurricane Maria, is not just a temporary grievance with one elected official over corruption or deceit. Rather, it is a culmination of a decades-long frustration by Puerto Ricans over how the country is run, asking the age-old question: What is Puerto Rico?

The island is currently considered an “unincorporated territory.” The U.S. won it in 1898 after the Spanish-American War and granted its people citizenship in 1917 under the Jones-Shafroth Act.

Many, like Rosselló and his allies in the island’s New Progressive Party, vie for statehood and their views seem to be reciprocated by a majority of the island. In a Puerto Rican Statehood Referendum back in November 2020,  52.34% of voters favored statehood. However, the referendum only accounted for 23% of the island’s voters (with turnout normally totaling around 75-85%), causing many secessionists to call out its inaccuracy and stoking the flames of an already tense debate. 

“A colony is incompatible with democracy, it’s incompatible with full citizenship and we should all be able to enjoy the right to vote for our leaders,” New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said. She, along with New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and New York Representative Nydia Velázquez, introduced the Puerto Rican Self-Determination Act back in 2020. If passed, it would allow the island’s citizens to ultimately determine its status as a state, its own country or anything in between for the first time in its history.

The bill is an example of the United States’ current view on Puerto Rico. It has support from abroad with two out of three Democrats and a majority of mainlanders favoring Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state. 

For Puerto Ricans, this also means they will finally be able to participate in electoral elections as well as have proper representation in legislative office. Currently, the island hosts non-voting representatives and are only able to choose their own governor. 

The youth also seem to be equally split on the issue.

“I want Puerto Rico to become a state so the people can reap the eventual benefits our government said they would receive,” Angelica Berrios, a Puerto Rican psychology major at Stony Brook University, said.

Admitting the tiny Caribbean island as a state is a move that could completely shift the balance of power in American politics by potentially adding more Democratic seats in both the Senate and House, a plus most blue politicians can’t overlook.

Puerto Ricans also view the option as long-awaited support for their growing economic crisis. 

Most of its debt came from multiple sources, but the most infamous reason is the ongoing Jones Act. The Act, issued in 1917, prohibits foreign ships from moving goods to the island, making transporting them more expensive than it should be and sheltering Puerto Rico from global competition. 

With a $72 billion dollar debt on its hands and 43.1% of the population in poverty, the island is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even former Governor Alejandro García Padilla has said it is “unpayable” as of 2015. 

Coupled with the economic hardships from Hurricane Maria and COVID, the island’s economy has only grown worse. Due to its commonwealth status, Puerto Rico is unable to declare bankruptcy, effectively trapping them in their cycle of debt. 

“We pay federal taxes and business taxes to the U.S., yet we had basically no help from the president during the hurricane,” Stony Brook health science student Orkeidia Velez explained.

To combat this, the United States passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act in 2016, which created the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) for Puerto Rico in an attempt to lessen the debt, but it only served to raise taxes and cut necessary spending in the long run. 

“It’s come to the point where the U.S. has left us vulnerable without their aid,” Puerto Rican Colgate student Valeria Carrión Benítez said. “Statehood could possibly allow us to come a step closer to being regarded as first-class citizens.” 

Republicans see their debt as an incentive not to grant the island statehood, as the U.S. would have to take on the brunt of it if they so choose unless they find a way to balance their budget like any other state. This economic weight, along with a potential tipping of governmental scales by Democrats, has caused major pushback by Senate Republicans.

“Because right now there isn’t any other territory that might come in to balance Puerto Rico in terms of size and partisanship, it is not likely that Puerto Rico will be admitted to the Union,” Carlos Vargas-Ramos, director of CUNY Hunter’s Puerto Rican Studies’ Public Policy, Development, Media and External Relations, said.

Secessionists, however, have come to agree with them for their own personal reasons.

But it’s not just personal vendettas that secessionists look to. They also look towards current policies. Despite being privy to welfare as a U.S. commonwealth and contributing to social programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), their access to such services is unequal even though most islanders use it to survive. 

Some of their hesitance for statehood comes from decades of injustices by the United States. Events such as the Ponce Massacre, where peaceful protesters were gunned down by police, and the Gag Law, which outlawed any display of the Puerto Rican flag, defined a generation of distrustful Puerto Ricans in the early 20th century. It carried on well into the 1980s with the release of “Carpetas,” which was a decades-long surveillance effort by the FBI against Puerto Rican nationalists totaling over 1.8 million pages.

In many cases, people with carpetas could be jailed, fired or have their life completely ruined even if they weren’t involved in any leftist movements.

“We have never been respected in the eyes of the U.S. We have been exploited and killed simply for being Puerto Rican,” Claudia Cecilia, a content creator for the Instagram page ‘freedomforpuertorico,’ said. “My heart bleeds for the freedom of our land and our people.”

“I think that the U.S. tries to seem like they want to help PR [Puerto Rico] but they do a very half-assed job at that,” Stony Brook computer science student Angela Velasquez said. “Considering the instability of architecture and structures there due to earthquakes and hurricanes, America has done the bare minimum.”

Some don’t see the issue as black and white. Instead, they opt to take a more middle-ground approach through remaining a commonwealth. 

Many, like Velez, say they aren’t financially stable enough to become independent. They also want to keep their culture pure of any “Americanization” and avoid statehood altogether. Their main argument is in favor of an “enhanced commonwealth,” one where Congress grants Puerto Rican citizens the right to vote for president, opens the island to more competitive trade and calls for a Bill of Rights to be added to the Puerto Rican Constitution.

Though it isn’t under the most comfortable of circumstances, it’s better than any alternative.

Top academics say the bill is useless, believing there are only two options for Puerto Rico: statehood or secession. Not only are they the only two major options presented on the congressional floor, but they are also the simplest to debate, especially within an already divided government. 

“Those proportions have not changed,” Dr. Vargas-Ramos explained. “There has been a change in the questions asked, and when all status options are presented, you are going to have results similar to the one we had in 1993 where none of the above won.”

Whatever the choice is, the debate over Puerto Rico’s status may continue for longer than many think. 

“I would love to see my island thriving completely,” Velez lamented. “But I’m not too sure.”

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