The past few years have not been good for the party amid hurricanes, mounting debt issues, ongoing corruption scandals that even caused a sitting pro-statehood governor to resign, earthquakes and now a global pandemic. So the calculus seems to be: Let’s dangle the illusion of a yes or no statehood plebiscite (nonbinding) that is already dead on arrival?
Vázquez was never elected to the position, having taken over the post after Ricardo Rosselló resigned last year because of massive protests against his administration. She and her Republican administration need a “winning” issue. If statehood is the liquor, Puerto Rico’s current pro-statehood leaders are all alcoholics.
Vázquez claimed that the vote had the blessing of the federal government, but a White House statement was blunt: “The first priority for all Puerto Rico leaders should be getting their financial house in order.” The Trump administration is just not that into Puerto Rico, even with a local government led by Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said several times that a statehood vote in the Senate is just a pipe dream, claiming that it would lead to “socialism.”
Furthermore, Democrats are not standing behind the statehood cause either. Even if Trump were to lose in November, former vice president Joe Biden’s comments about Puerto Rico’s political future have been vague at best. “I will engage Puerto Ricans — including representatives of every status option — in a process of self-determination, listening and developing federal legislation that outlines a fair path forward. Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans throughout our nation make the United States strong,” Biden wrote last year.
So what are Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood leaders to do? A 2017 pre-hurricane nonbinding plebiscite got 97 percent support for statehood, but turnout was dismally low. Then a “shadow Congress” (which included baseball Hall of Famer Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez) went to Washington, but there was no real movement. Now Vázquez and her Republican allies face the possibility of not only losing in the general elections but also getting much less than the 97 percent of support, because there is a new “No to Statehood” alliance that will actively campaign against the plebiscite. This coming November, there will be plenty of incentive to vote “no” and punish the Vázquez administration, which in essence is just an extension of Rosselló’s debacle. Even prominent figures such as the urbano artist Bad Bunny are jumping into the fray against her leadership.
Sadly, these futile political stunts at status politics have only hurt Puerto Rico. Statehood leaders on the island tell their followers that Washington is listening and ready to act, but it didn’t happen in 2012, when statehood won under a controversial plebiscite, and it didn’t happen in 2017 when the PNP insisted that the 97 percent was a legitimate outcome, even though the U.S. Justice Department chose to not validate the vote.
The proposed 2020 plebiscite will follow the same path because the current PNP leadership has refused to unite different views and voices, including those of progressive pro-statehooders, about what it means to truly decolonize Puerto Rico. Instead of taking the lazy route and announcing a nonbinding vote with as many political teeth as a Twitter poll, the current Republican leadership could have done the harder work and pushed for a binding vote that would be validated by opposing views on the island, the United States and, yes, even the world.
But this is Puerto Rico, where the long view is always blinded by immediate political self-interest. There is a dignity in fighting for your people and, yes, the list of historic injustices against Puerto Ricans, who are seen as second-class U.S. citizens, is very long. But demanding rights takes organizing and mobilizing a mass movement. People in Puerto Rico have mostly organized against corruption, ineffective political leaders and a deep distrust in the colonial system and a desire to change it all. If there were ever a disconnect between voters and political parties, it’s this one.
Which is why the PNP keeps clinging to a status playbook that has failed them for decades.
This should be about creating a real alternative to end the status quo. Instead, like the polite colonialists that we are, leaders like Vázquez and her crew make demands for equality as if they are ordering at a fine restaurant. Imagine if Puerto Ricans stopped following that same old playbook, relying on elections that go nowhere, and instead just began to work together to put the needs of the island first.
Polite and empty political gestures don’t earn attention or respect. Maybe after the pandemic, Puerto Rico will revive the mass street movement to send a clear message. But Vázquez and her allies perhaps fear, rightly, that such demonstrations won’t be in favor of statehood but against her administration. That just means Puerto Rico will not become a state of the Union anytime soon.