Should Puerto Rico become the 51st state in the union? A movement is growing for the territory to become a fully-represented member of the United States, which has significant financial and electoral implications.
Accuracy In Media Executive Director Gus Portela also serves as senior council to the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. As a native of the Caribbean island, he has written extensively on the topic. The following is an interview with Mr. Portela in which he shares his thoughts on Puerto Rico becoming a state, the issues involved in the significant move, and the benefits as a whole to both the island and to the United States.
DW: Puerto Rican statehood has been an issue that has been debated back and forth for a few years now, but has not garnered serious attention. In your perspective, why should Puerto Rico become the 51st state?
GP: I would argue that since the hurricanes last year, it has gained more traction more than ever before. Prior to that, Americans knew about Puerto Rico, but didn’t know enough to form an opinion on statehood.
Since the hurricanes, more people know about it and know more about the situation in the region. Puerto Rico’s status is still looming in that it has been afforded a lot of independence, but is also part of the United States, but not quite a state.
I believe that now is a good time for the movement toward statehood to grow.
To get into statehood, as in what are the benefits, it doesn’t just benefit Puerto Rico, but also the United States as well. The citizens are American, by birth, and giving them statehood would certainly help them.
As for the whole country, it helps the bottom line. There’s an estimate that came up by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that Puerto Rico would bring in an extra seven to ten billion dollars to the U.S. Treasury’s bottom line.
That is a huge amount of new taxpayer money for the United States.
Another benefit is that an open Puerto Rico would attract new investors that would help spur economic activity. In my opinion, that would also help lift the island out of poverty.
Just to touch on that, about 41% of the populace lives at the poverty line. The unemployment is astronomically higher than actual states at about 10%.
Competition, as far as business, would truly benefit Puerto Rico, especially with its unique location [which] would attract businesses and create new jobs, causing the unemployment rate to drop.
Those are perfect reasons economically why Puerto Rico should become a state.
DW: My understanding is that Puerto Ricans can vote in certain federal elections, they pay taxes to the U.S. government, and they can serve in the military. Is that all correct?
GP: That is all true.
DW: It seems like they are already citizens just without an official status.
GP: Yes, the Jones Act of 1917 gave Puerto Ricans citizenship.
DW: Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, there is an argument by those who oppose statehood that because the poverty rate is so high that Puerto Rico could become a welfare state. What are your thoughts on that criticism?
GP: I completely disagree with that. I think that the new investments coming from businesses would really counter the amount of people who are on welfare. The new economic growth would move people out of welfare lines, if you will.
With the amount of investments and the natural advantage it has as a Caribbean island, this allows it to have access to more imports and exports in general as a state that could spur economic activity.
DW: Where do the inhabitants of Puerto Rico stand on the issue of statehood?
GP: It has been interesting. Over the last 50 years, there have been a number of different referendums and each time more Puerto Ricans support statehood. It started with a very narrow victory for the current status. The second time, that narrow victory became even narrower. Finally, 2012 saw over 60% of the population vote for statehood. In the 2017 referendum, it received over 90% support, though a group of status quo supporters did try to boycott the referendum, which could have skewed the results slightly. Even with that, the majority still supported the referendum.
DW: Puerto Rico’s status is officially known as an unorganized territory. Do you think that the transition from that status to statehood will be smooth?
GP: The biggest question on both sides of the debate is about the debt that the island has. How would the United States manage it? Since it is not a state, it does not have the benefit of filing chapter nine bankruptcy or giving them the ability to restructure their debt to make payments on them. That being said, they recently negotiated a deal to help them with their debt through their oversight committee to help them make payments on it. In my mind, this negates the debt issue and gives them more flexibility on the issue on whether the United States would have to absorb it or not.
DW: Any final thoughts?
GP: When it comes to Puerto Rico, hurricane relief is still a big deal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association just released their forecast for 2018 and it shows the hurricane season will be a little tougher.
There is a huge need for relief, especially with the possibility of a worse season.