Is the U.S. Dragging Its Feet on Statehood for Puerto Rico?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the view of this reader, Alberto C. Medina:

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether Puerto Ricans do or should want statehood, because it’s fundamental but ultimately secondary to whether the United States is conceivably willing to grant it. To use an analogy, Puerto Rico is basically a diner at a restaurant, trying to decide what to order. The steak may be on the menu, but is it really an option if the chef is going to decline to cook it?

There is zero evidence to suggest that the U.S. will even seriously consider making Puerto Rico the 51st state in the foreseeable future. Any statements to the contrary by U.S. leaders, past and present, have been blatant attempts to either mollify political allies or to attract support from Puerto Ricans on the mainland. There’s a reason exactly zero out of the multiple status plebiscites over the decades have been legally binding. And now, during the current crisis, the U.S. Congress has balked at even extending bankruptcy protection to Puerto Rico—a relatively uncontroversial move that 99 percent of Americans would never care about or even know about, and it doesn’t cost the U.S. government anything.

On what basis, then, can one think that the U.S. would consider statehood, which is a “concession” several orders of magnitude greater? It’s a deeply unpopular idea; there’s been limited polling, but a 2012 survey found only 21 percent of Americans would support it. And that’s before everything that would inevitably follow a statehood proposal: the hedge funds and large corporations who enjoy lucrative tax exemptions under the current territorial status lobbying congressmen in favor of the status quo. The inevitable Fox News campaign to paint Puerto Rico—accurately!—as a dirt-poor, Spanish-speaking, brown-skinned would-be state that would be a drain on federal coffers. All this at a time when nativism, economic nationalism, and white identity politics are growing political forces in America.

I understand why no politician would state all of the above, and that the local “limbo” described in your earlier note lets U.S. leaders get away with the platitude of “respecting whatever Puerto Ricans ultimately decide.” But the very economic and political dependence (not to mention decades-long repression of independence movements) created by the U.S. is at the root cause of that paralysis.

The conversation about Puerto Rico’s status must shift to what the United States is willing or unwilling to do. Until then, Puerto Rico shamefully, unconstitutionally, remains a colony, lacking the tools to dig itself out, and lacking any leverage over the U.S. government as it mostly sits idly by.

Disagree with that assessment? Drop us an email.