Self-determination for Puerto Rico: A win for democracy, not Democrats

Both parties should embrace the right of Puerto Ricans to decide their own future

A Puerto Rican flag hangs from a window during the 116th Street Festival in East Harlem, N.Y., in June 2012. Support for self-determination for the Puerto Rican people should be bipartisan and principled, not transactional, Perriello and Claudio Betancourt write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A Puerto Rican flag hangs from a window during the 116th Street Festival in East Harlem, N.Y., in June 2012. Support for self-determination for the Puerto Rican people should be bipartisan and principled, not transactional, Perriello and Claudio Betancourt write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 12, 2021 at 1:57pm

House lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation that would make Puerto Rico a state. Later this month, Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are expected to introduce legislation that would create a process to determine the political status of Puerto Rico binding.

Whether Puerto Rico’s future is as a state or an independent nation, Congress’ commitment to self-determination reflects both the principles and, contrary to some conventional wisdom, the political interests of both the Democratic and Republican parties. 

The future of Puerto Rico has become caught up with whether to grant statehood to Washington, D.C. After all, the city of Washington lacks political representation and, as many Americans witnessed for the first time, its mayor lacked the executive authority to call up the National Guard when a violent mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. It was, perhaps, the most glaring example of a deficit of democracy imposed on our nation’s capital.

But attempts to link Puerto Rico’s status to D.C.’s quest for statehood all faded faster than the wave in a COVID-era stadium because those who care most about this issue — the people of Puerto Rico — made clear the dangers of seeing these two situations as two sides of the same coin.

In fact, the two issues are entirely different. A political compromise between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson created Washington. Puerto Rico, however, became an unincorporated territory in 1898, after the Spanish-American War, and ever since the U.S. government has imposed enormous restraints on the island’s economic and political life.

How so? In 1917, the U.S. gave Puerto Ricans citizenship, only to conscript them to fight in World War I. The Jones Act, which requires goods to be shipped to Puerto Rico on American-made ships, makes everything on the island much more expensive than they are in the continental U.S. and forces Puerto Ricans to import 80 percent of their food. Most recently, Puerto Ricans have been subject to the austerity economic policies imposed by the unelected Fiscal Oversight Board; its austerity policies have crushed the government’s ability to deliver essential services.

Puerto Ricans — not Congress — should be allowed to chart their political future, whether that’s statehood or independence. The U.S. government ought to act as an ally and an equal in the process, recognizing the nationhood of the Puerto Rican people and their right to self-determination. After all, past unbinding referendums have shown that Puerto Ricans are deeply divided on the island’s political status.

This is why supporting a process, instead of backing a specific solution, is the right approach. Process is as important as the outcome following years of imperialism and colonial dynamics that have suffocated a real debate on the issue.  

What’s more, Puerto Ricans are closely divided over the island’s future. This shatters another myth surrounding the politics of the debate: Statehood is not necessarily a quick way for Democrats to secure two Senate seats. 

First, the leaders of Puerto Rico’s statehood party, the New Progressive Party, largely identify as Republicans. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, is very conservative and supported President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. But the previous resident commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, joined the House Democratic Caucus even though he frequently sides with conservatives on issues like the island’s fiscal policy. Now Puerto Rico’s governor, Pierluisi recently said the island would be a “swing state.”

Second, while D.C. could become a new state in a matter of months, Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation would start a process that could take years but will result in a more democratic and inclusive process.

The bill provides real resources to the Puerto Rico legislature to conduct a constitutional status assembly, which would consist of elected representatives who support different outcomes. They would define the options and the specific terms before Puerto Ricans cast their votes. The bill would also fund the Puerto Rico State Commission on Elections to provide accurate information to Puerto Ricans about the options for resolving the island’s status before conducting a final plebiscite that would be ratified and carried out by the United States.

Support for self-determination should be bipartisan and principled, not transactional. The issue is not about Democrats — or Republicans — but about democracy. Both parties should embrace the Puerto Rican people’s right to self-determination as a shared commitment to end a centuries-old quest to decolonize this great island and its people.

Tom Perriello represented Virginia’s 5th District as a Democrat from 2009 to 2011. He is currently the executive director of Open Society-U.S., which supports efforts to advance equality, fairness, and justice with a focus on marginalized communities in the United States, including Puerto Rico.

Karina Claudio Betancourt is the director of Open Society’s Puerto Rico Project.