A Tiny Step Toward Statehood for Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is closer than it has ever been to becoming the 51st American state — which is to say, not very close at all.

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Puerto Rico is closer than it has ever been to becoming the 51st American state — which is to say, still not very close at all. The recent spending bill, which President Obama signed on Friday, set aside $2.5 million for Puerto Rico hold a referendum to determine its "future political status."According to The Hill, the pro-statehood movement sees that as the first major victory since the territory's August 2012 constitutional referendum when, for the first time in history, a small majority of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood over independence or the current status. And now, with the blessing of the federal government, they have a chance to vote, along with funds to educate people on the different status options.

And while this is good news for the statehood movement, it's probably the only bit of good news they'll have for a while, as long as Republicans, along with a sizable contingent of anti-statehood Puerto Ricans, have anything to say about it.

The governor problem

The most powerful anti-statehood Puerto Rican is Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the governor of the territory. In June, during an interview with CNN en español, Garcia Padilla said statehood "would turn Puerto Rico into a ghetto, a entire country turned into a Latin American ghetto." His party, the Popular Democratic Party, advocates an "enhanced" commonwealth status, which might allow the territory to conduct its own foreign affairs. That option, as The Hill points out, isn't feasible, since U.S. territories aren't allowed to conduct their own foreign policy.

The local support problem

As members of PDP, along with some congressional Republicans, are quick to point out, the 2012 referendum wasn't a landslide victory for statehood. In fact, last week the party's secretary of federal affairs, José A. Hernández-Mayoral, went so far as to accuse the "pro-statehood party" of using misleading language on the ballots in an op-ed submitted to The Hill. (Soberano means sovereign):

To discourage some commonwealth voters, the ballot did not use the Spanish term for Commonwealth, "Estado Libre Asociado," to identify that option in the first question. ... Commonwealth supporters have always advocated for amendments to the compact and "Estado Libre Asociado Soberano" is a term that some have used as a reference to that aspiration. They do not seek a change of status, only improvements to the current one in ways that do not alter its nature. With malice aforethought, the use of the terms "the current status" in the first question and "Estado Libre Asociado Soberano" in the second was designed to bewilder the Commonwealth voter.

His argument is that more Puerto Ricans would have voted for the enhanced commonwealth status (over statehood) if the the pro-statehood movement hadn't maliciously sought to "bewilder" voters. 
As Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's Democratic (non-voting) U.S. House representative, argued in a November letter to The Washington Times, Puerto Ricans pay $3.5 billion in taxes but cannot advocate for federal funds by voting in Congress. It also has to borrow heavily. At the same time, as The Economist noted in October, the territory pays no federal income taxes on local earnings. Also, interest payments on local debts can't be taxed by the federal government, which is appealing to investors and also allows them to borrow money at lower interest rates.

The Republican problem

The referendum vote doesn't change anything. It would simply allow the territory to petition Congress for statehood. In other words, they'd be asking a Republican-led House and possibly even a Republican-led Senate to let in another blue state. As The Economist put it:

Exit polls showed that last year Barack Obama won 83% of the presidential vote among Puerto Ricans living on the mainland. Adding two Democratic-leaning senators, five representatives and seven presidential electoral votes would be a political nightmare for the GOP.

With a population 3.6 million, Puerto Rico would demand as many representatives as states like Iowa, Kansas and Nevada. So even after Puerto Rico decides what's best for itself, the real challenge will be proving to congressional Republicans that there's something in it for them.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.