Small, discrete, and lurking below the United States, something threatens us to put down our American flags …
… and replace them with new ones. That small something is the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, which could become the flag’s fifty-first star following a vote on statehood this November.
The concept is familiar. Puerto Rico conducted statehood polls in 1967, 1993, and 1998. Most recently, in 1998, 46.5% of residents voted for statehood, with other options including independence (2.5%), remaining a territory (0.1%), and “none of the above” (50.3%). This year, there will be two questions. The first will ask residents if they want Puerto Rico to remain a U.S. territory. The second will pose three alternatives: independence, becoming a nation in free association with the United States, and statehood.
Puerto Rico was incorporated as a United States territory in 1917. Residents qualify as U.S. citizens but cannot vote for President or elect voting congressional representatives (the territory currently has one nonvoting delegate).
Why does Puerto Rico choose to be a United States territory but forego representation? The answer lies in the fact that Puerto Ricans receive annually over four billion dollars in federal subsidies—nearly half of the territory’s budget expenditure figure—without having to pay income taxes. With statehood, Puerto Rico would continue to receive substantial federal support by virtue of becoming the nation’s poorest state. Puerto Rico’s current unemployment rate is an alarming 13.7% while its GDP per capita of $16,000 lags behind Mississippi’s current last-place figure of approximately $21,000. Statehood would ensure continued federal aid, but would also require Puerto Ricans to pay income taxes—an unattractive option for many residents. Although some experts speculate a closer connection between Puerto Rico and the United States could be mutually beneficial, others believe that independence and open trade is a more attractive option.
Thus, the biggest obstacle to Puerto Rican statehood may be Puerto Ricans themselves. The idea of statehood has gained increasing support from both parties on Capitol Hill. Although some may be surprised by Republican support for integrating a territory that diverges culturally from Middle America, skeptics may look to Puerto Rican Republican Governor Luis Fortuño’s recent comments that “[t]here are only three Hispanic governors in the country. All of us are Republican.”
A Puerto Rican statehood process would require federal cooperation, but Republican nominee Mitt Romney has already expressed his support for a statehood initiative, while the GOP platform “supports the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine.” Several pundits have described the territory as socially conservative and economically liberal, thus maintaining the congressional balance of power. Some Republicans feel that Puerto Rico can trend conservative, and this sentiment is affirmed by Washington, D.C.’s desire to enter statehood as a complementary pair.
What would Puerto Rican statehood mean? For the United States, it would mean a new star on the flag, a new political constituency and a potential area of compromise between Democrats and Republicans. For Puerto Ricans, the relationship is more complicated; meaning we are unlikely to witness a pro-statehood vote this November. The mere possibility of a new state, however, is novel, intriguing, and offers hope that the United States’ sociopolitical structure will expand in a literal and metaphorical sense. Looking forward, this expansion could deliver oft-overlooked Caribbean regional issues–particularly in nearby Cuba and Haiti–to the forefront of American politics.