Things That Matter

As Puerto Rico Votes To Become The 51st State, Here’s What Happens Next

The relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico has long been contentious, ever since the Spanish-American War in 1898. Since then, the Caribbean island has been in a strange limbo position between a ‘U.S. Territory’ and unofficially as the world’s oldest colony.

Although they’re U.S. citizens in name and passport, Puerto Rican’s who live in Puerto Rico cannot vote for president, don’t have voting representation in Congress, and have been saddled with a fiscal oversight board (PROMESA) in order to repay its debts—forcing austerity on residents suffering a 23% unemployment rate and a much higher rate of poverty than the incorporated states.

But this week, on Election Day, Puerto Ricans voted—for the sixth time since 1967—on whether they prefer the ongoing territorial status, or to become a U.S. state and the results are in: it’s pro-statehood.

Last week, Puerto Ricans voted to support U.S. statehood.

As Puerto Ricans voted on Tuesday for their local leaders, there was another decision they had to make: Whether or not the island territory should be admitted as the newest U.S. state. Although it’s a non-binding referendum and not expected to change Puerto Rico’s status anytime soon, it was still seen as a barometer of Puerto Ricans’ appetite for statehood.

So far, with most of the votes counted, residents narrowly favored statehood with 52% of the vote while about 47% of voters were against it, according to the election commission’s website.

Although the U.S. mainland still sees Puerto Rico as a commonwealth, many Puerto Ricans, including the island’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, a Republican, say the island is constantly treated as a colony.

“Sometimes it’s a little bit ironic that the beacon of democracy in the world, which is the United States, is fighting for equality and fighting for democracy and yet you get it in your own backyard — the oldest colony, with more than 120 years without allowing Puerto Rican’s to vote for president, to vote in Congress or to even have federal laws apply equally to American citizens on the island,” said González, who was reelected as commissioner last Tuesday.

But what’s next? There are many obstacles standing in the way.

Even though President-Elect Joe Biden is a backer of statehood, as are top Democrats in the House and Senate and some Florida Republicans, it’s unclear how much of a priority Puerto Rico would be if Democrats take control of both the White House and Congress. The drive is complicated by a separate but often-paired push for statehood for the District of Columbia.

“It is unlikely that the question of Puerto Rico as a state will be taken up by the Congress,” says political scientist and researcher Carlos Vargas Ramos, in an interview with ABC News.

Aside from being a nonbinding referendum, Ramos said voter turnout in this referendum could still be an issue for Congress. As of September 2020, there were around 2.3 million eligible voters on the island, according to the election commission’s website. From those eligible voters, nearly 1.2 million people answered the statehood plebiscite.

“It’s gonna be difficult for advocates of statehood to argue that this is a clear mandate to push for statehood, particularly when you have a Congress that is reluctant to take up the question,” added Vargas Ramos.

Puerto Rican statehood would create consequences far beyond the island.

Credit: Alejandro Granadillo / Getty Images

Although the referendum only dealt with Puerto Rico’s future, it could have ramifications far beyond the territory. Puerto Rican statehood would mean Americans on the island could vote in presidential elections, have quick access to federal aid in crises and gain full representation in Congress.

“Puerto Ricans get treated in many ways like second-class citizens,” U.S. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), who has introduced his own bill setting forth a process of admission for the island, said in an interview with ABC News.

In Congress, statehood for Puerto Rico would result in two new senators and four representatives to the House. If the District of Columbia gains statehood at the same time, that would mean another two senators and one additional House member.

The decision could even have implications for travelers to the island.

Right now, about 95 percent of visitors to Puerto Rico come from the U.S., but many in the tourism industry would like to see more international visitors from Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Currently, citizens of the whole of nearby Latin America and the Caribbean require a visa to enter the U.S., and thus Puerto Rico.

And thanks to the pandemic the island has suffered huge losses in tourism dollars. Thelack of control that Puerto Rico has over its own travel regulations means that the industry will have to wait quite a while to make up for that loss, while the U.S. at large continues to be an undesirable destination for international travelers.

The matter is complicated by the Jones Act of 1920, which requires that all goods come to Puerto Rico through the U.S. If this were finally overturned, it would allow direct trade with other nations and decrease the prices of food and other items sold on the island. Right now, travelers looking to the Caribbean can go to the Dominican Republic much more affordably.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty, one thing is clear: things need to change.

The relationship between the U.S. and its Puerto Rican territory has long been one of violence; independence movements and even the flag have been made illegal in the past by the U.S. This reality is often hidden from travelers, but should be acknowledged and respected.

But where the island goes from here is not a cut-and-dry question, as deep ties have developed over the more than 100 years of colonialism that would require years of change, whether sovereignty were won or statehood were decided upon. 

That moment might be coming: Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is now trying to push the Puerto Rican Self-Determination Act of 2020, which would form a status convention made up of Puerto Rican voters who would be tasked with deciding upon a long-term solution. In the meantime, travelers should remember that sun, sand, and rum don’t tell the whole story—and that the future of the archipelago should be determined by Puerto Ricans.

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