When it comes to Puerto Rican statehood, what can Boston Boricuas expect?
The topic of Puerto Rico’s status is one that divides islanders and mainlanders alike. But the desire for something more for “La Isla de Encanta” unites everyone.
For more than a century, the island has been an unincorporated United States territory, the most populous of all US territories with more than 3.4 million people. There are another 5.2 million self-identifying Puerto Ricans on the US mainland, with Massachusetts home to over 266,000. Mass Puerto Ricans are a proud people and have strong opinions about the island despite the nearly 1,700-mile separation.
On June 11, the Puerto Rican government held the latest in a series of controversial nonbinding referendums. The result: 97 percent of voters chose statehood.
The catch is in the turnout. Only 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots, in a place where local elections typically yield over 80 percent voter turnout. Several political parties urged supporters to boycott the vote largely because Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration pushed for a referendum before the feds backed it.
US media outlets have nevertheless written extensively about the supposed “landslide” referendum vote for statehood, without keeping in mind the complexity of Puerto Rican politics and the low voter turnout. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican Bostonians watch with concern—and with the resigned sentiment that vote or no vote, Congress will do nothing. Because it has a history of holding Puerto Rico at arm’s length.
After spending more than 400 years as a Spanish colony, Puerto Rico was ceded to the US following the Spanish-American War under the 1898 Treaty of Paris.
When the US government wanted more manpower for World War I in 1917, Woodrow Wilson turned to the island—where several thousand men had already volunteered for the US Army—and granted Puerto Ricans citizenship under the Jones Act. More men joined the armed forces, and the US government got their bodies. The Jones Act gave Congress total power to control legislative actions for the island, be they related to finances, defense, or immigration management. Puerto Rico self-governs but doesn’t have much of a voice in Washington. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections, have only one non-voting delegate to Congress, and have no senators or congresspeople.
Representation is a sore point for Puerto Ricans, especially for veterans. Tony Molina is the head of the Puerto Rican Veteran Monument Square Association in Boston and the first Puerto Rican wounded in the Vietnam War. As someone who has served in the military, and actively seeks to honor other Boricuas who have served in the US Army, he finds the territorial status to be insulting.
He told DigBoston, “You can fight for your country, but you can’t vote for the commander in chief of the Armed Forces. If I sacrifice my life, I have the right to vote on who is the next commander in chief.” Molina was wounded by sniper fire in Vietnam and says that more Puerto Ricans are killed in action per capita than are soldiers from any US state.
TANKED ECONOMY, MINIMAL CLEANUP
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s economy is completely intertwined with American business interests. The result has been a downward spiral, especially since the end of the federal tax incentives offered to manufacturing companies by Congress. The 30-year policy created a bubble where pharmaceutical manufacturing encompassed more than 50 percent of all manufacturing on the island. But the tax breaks ended in 2006, and people began losing their jobs.
Unemployment is still over 11 percent, and the US Census Bureau reports that the unemployment rate for youth under the age of 25 is at 41 percent. Academics who study the subject say that more than 10,000 people are fleeing the island every year for economic opportunity in the US, creating the largest migration in several decades.
Many people believe that the dire economic situation is tied to the relationship between the US and its territory. Angel Carrasquillo, 56, is a Puerto Rican who has lived in Boston most of his life. He spoke with DigBoston at his South End cafe, Mana Escondido, about his pro-statehood position and family back on the island, where some have had to shut down small businesses during the economic crisis. Escondido said there’s no real disability program—just social security. He calls it “the elderly struggle.” “The quality of health insurance is bad,” he adds, and “the copayments are high.” Carrasquillo believes statehood would benefit Puerto Rico’s economy and says it is about time Uncle Sam pays it forward. “The US has used Puerto Rico for its benefits,” Escondido says. “Now it’s struggling, and the government is turning its back.”
How did it get this bad? For one thing, the Puerto Rican government took out debt in the form of municipal bonds to cover budget shortfalls. Because the bond debt was tax exempt and promised high returns, hedge funds and investors bought the debt … but now expect a higher payback. Typically, a state in this situation would file for bankruptcy. Yet because Puerto Rico is a territory, it’s not that simple.
The administration of President Barack Obama implemented a short-term solution, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, in 2015 to set the pause button for allowing Puerto Rico’s creditors to sue the island for unpaid monies. But then the Obama administration also appointed a fiscal review board that would ostensibly help restructure the territory’s $120 billion debt. The board has since proposed massive social and educational program cuts, and even recommended lowering the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $4.25 for islanders 25 and under, much to the outrage of Puerto Rican youth.
As the Puerto Rican government finds itself cornered, islanders are the ones who suffer increasingly dire circumstances, leaving their relatives in the US helpless to do much besides send money.
Associate Professor Amílcar Barreto is the director of the International Affairs master’s program at Northeastern University and has studied Puerto Rican culture and politics. He thinks that despite the acute financial straits Puerto Ricans face, Congress will do little.
“My guess, based off of what Congress has done in the past, is them thinking, ‘Oh, you had a [vote]. Nice. Next issue.’” According to Barreto, Congress “paved the way” for economic decline by removing tax incentives, but isn’t taking responsibility for the aftermath.
In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice rejected the original version of the statehood ballot language, which did not include the island’s current status as a Commonwealth as an option, asking for postponement of the vote until changes were edited in. But the Rosselló administration went ahead anyway, raising questions of validity.
Congress holds the power to create the 51st state, but there is little political will to do so. Felix G. Arroyo is the chief of Health and Human Services in Boston, and a second-generation Puerto Rican American. Asked if he believes Congress will act, the answer was a very strong “No.”
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in the role these [votes] take.” He pointed out that with statehood, Puerto Rico’s newly allotted congressmen and senators would most likely be Democratic, and that “there’s no way a Republican [Congress and president] would bring in a state that could tip the scales.”
Rosselló has been touting the results of the referendum in Washington to half-empty press rooms. Although almost half a million of his constituents pulled for statehood, the vast majority of eligible Puerto Ricans stayed at home. His party, the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), intends to create a commission to push Congress to validate the referendum results.
Back in Boston, Felix G. Arroyo’s father, Felix D. Arroyo, a former Boston City Councilor and the first Latino to serve in that body, is pro-independence. Raised in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, he told DigBoston, “I believe Puerto Rico should be its own country in friendship with the United States.” Asked to explain further, he described the role that US colonization has played in Puerto Rican trade and economics.
“They have the obligation to help and make a functioning economy,” Felix D. Arroyo said. “Puerto Rico has been reliant on Congress’ trade and foreign policy decisions since 1917 … The US has had PR as a territory for over a hundred years. Even if 100 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood, I don’t see Congress giving that.
“It’s a disaster that the US has washed its hands of while emptying the pockets of Puerto Ricans.”
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.