From where I sit, this latest attempt to shape the fate of an island territory that has been a U.S. colonial possession since 1898 already looks doomed to fail — unless some radical new tactics are adopted.
Recent history indicates that political theater doesn’t work. A string of plebiscites (in 2012, 2017 and 2020) has indeed shown that a majority of Puerto Ricans seem to be for statehood. Why haven’t we seen a change?
One reason is that the votes have never been binding. In other words, the plebiscites didn’t have the legal authority to force anyone (especially in Congress) to act. Another reason is that opponents of statehood in Puerto Rico have done an effective job in raising doubts about whether there is actually a mandate for statehood. Amid the infighting, Washington has remained committed to maintaining Puerto Rico’s colonial status quo — the 2016 bipartisan fiscal control board selected by President Barack Obama being one of the most recent clear examples.
Which brings us to the current push in Congress. It might play well with the 33 percent of voters who supported Pierluisi’s bid for governor, but it already feels like another recycled, empty attempt. Politely pleading for the United States to act on Puerto Rico has never worked. If the pro-statehood movement wants to achieve its goals, it should first connect its struggle to the broader fight for racial and social justice.
A majority of Americans may support statehood, but they must also understand the string of historical discriminatory policies that have alienated so many Puerto Ricans from the idea of statehood. Many of the injustices we see today in the United States are the direct legacy of colonialism and imperialism. Puerto Rico is part of that painful history. A movement that calls for the U.S. government to recognize its crimes and offer reparations for 123 years of colonial abuses could offer a path to heal the past.
Puerto Ricans on the island lack full political rights — they live under conditions that would not be tolerated in any state. Fed up, in 2019 thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets to protest the corruption of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration. The protest movement was effective and inspiring. Where are the mobilizations now for statehood? Pierluisi and his allies like to compare their statehood campaign to the civil rights movement, but they don’t seem to understand what people risked to expose the racism and cruelty of the state. People conducted acts of civil disobedience and some even died for the noble cause of civil rights. Many Puerto Rican statehood proponents don’t seem willing to sacrifice much, especially if it hurts their political standing.
Another significant reason statehood efforts have stalled has been a lack of engagement with Puerto Ricans who oppose the idea, both on the island and in the diaspora.
Pierluisi and other statehood supporters might have a better shot if they reach out to statehood opponents in Congress, particularly Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), two legislators of Puerto Rican descent who seem poised to reintroduce a new self-determination bill calling for a binding convention to explore all status options except for the current commonwealth one. Their bill is not perfect and yes, it does seem aimed at the 47 percent of Puerto Ricans who didn’t choose statehood in November. But ignoring them means ignoring two of the most popular Puerto Rican leaders in Washington right now. All sides should be sitting at the same table arguing their case. Instead it all feels diluted and ineffective.
Something bold needs to happen because it’s clear that the window for Puerto Rico statehood is already starting to close. While President Biden has said that he personally supports statehood, his position has always been to establish a “fair and binding process.” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has already said he won’t support any statehood bill. Senators like Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have also said that there are not enough votes for statehood. On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged his “Senate colleagues to keep an open mind” in the face of mounting opposition to statehood. Meanwhile, Pierluisi seems fine with trusting a legislative process that won’t result in anything.
If statehood is the most critical issue for Puerto Ricans, the United States and the world need to see it. But statehood advocates lack urgency, grass-roots organization, a clear narrative and a united front. Only the power of a true popular movement will send the message to Congress to act with moral obligation, as opposed to doing what it has always done.