2017 has been a disastrous year for Puerto Rico. Rocked by growing economic crisis and social unrest for decades, the repeated impacts of major Hurricanes Irma and Maria laid waste to the island’s infrastructure and people.
Before 2017’s unusually active Atlantic hurricane season, the conversation about Puerto Rico’s territorial status centered on issues of economics, the debt crisis and concerns over losing cultural identity, but the advent of a humanitarian crisis has thrust the debate into a new light of urgency.
The defense of Puerto Rico’s territorial status often asserts that — despite citizens’ ability to vote in primary elections — a lack of voting representation is an acceptable price to pay for exemption from federal personal income tax and other freedoms from federal government that Puerto Rico enjoys. Like other territories, Puerto Rico holds a primary election in the spring of each presidential election year. Then parties choose delegates to the Republican and Democratic national conventions, who vow to vote at that convention for winners of Puerto Rico’s primary. But that is their only participation in the process.
From the mainland, status quo advocates have argued that Puerto Rico’s state of financial crisis is not a burden the United States is prepared to handle. It was assumed that Puerto Rico had time to sort it out. It is nothing but tragic that this assumption was not found to be false until it was too late.
When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 cyclone on Sept. 20, almost the entire island lost access to drinking water and power. As a territorial commonwealth, Puerto Rico is supposedly entitled to the same FEMA aid as a full member state. In the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, it is stated that “the President may exercise any authority vested in him… with respect to an emergency when he determines that an emergency exists for which the primary responsibility for response rests with the United States.”
That seems to clearly encompass territories such as Puerto Rico. As it turns out, without the clout of voting representation, it may be harder than previously assumed to get FEMA aid fully mobilized.
The government’s response to the disaster is being criticized as inadequate and slow. Almost a month after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, power is still out for 80 percent of the island. At press time, a staggering 35 percent of households still are without access to safe drinking water. By the World Health Organization’s guidelines, drinking water delivered by FEMA has only accounted for 9 percent of the baseline amount required for survival. It is impossible to imagine such conditions in the wake of a storm here in Florida — it would be instantly recognizable as atrocious.
Nor can we imagine bearing the verbal abuse that Puerto Rico has endured in the wake of a catastrophic hurricane. The mayor of San Juan appeared on national television to beg for the lives of her people, pleading “We are dying here, and I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles… I am going to do what I never thought I would do. I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying.”
President Trump immediately attacked her by claiming she had been “told by democrats to be nasty to Trump.”
Almost every interaction with the Commander-in-Chief since has further solidified Puerto Ricans’ place in the United States as second-class citizens. During his visit to Puerto Rico, the hurricane was described as “not a real disaster like Katrina,” and he continued by saying that the official death count of 16 at the time of his visit was a “good news story” and a reason to be proud.
This, despite some estimates of the final death count reaching 450. With communication to many areas still cut off, and longer term implications of disease still unseen, the official death count already reached 45 by mid-October.
The president also accused Puerto Rico of “throwing the budget out of whack” and later claimed that Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them.” Once again, as residents of a hurricane-prone state, we can only imagine how insulting it would be to be spoken of in such a manner in the wake of a devastating hurricane.
Opponents to Puerto Rican statehood include advocates for Puerto Rican independence, who criticize the colonial nature of Puerto Rico’s territorial commonwealth status and chafe at the financial oversight board Washington has imposed on the territory recently in response to its crushing debt crisis. The aftermath of Maria has made apparent Puerto Rico’s need for federal aid in response to natural disasters, but the abysmal treatment of the territory in its time of need has also likely done much to nurture doubts about the sincerity of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.
Puerto Rico’s inability to pressure FEMA into providing appropriate aid is a sad result of the impotence that comes with a lack of access to democratic representation.
As President Trump attempts to distance Washington from its responsibility to its territories, going as far as to call the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands the “President of the Virgin Islands,” the question of whether U.S. territories can expect to receive the benefits they have been promised grows ever greater.
While the decision of statehood must ultimately remain in the hands of the Puerto Rican people, it is time for Puerto Rico to seriously pursue reaching a consensus on statehood, and for the rest of the United States to prepare to accept its decision.