Puerto Rico has struggled to be recognised by the United States for over one hundred years. Now, deep in debt due to an on-going financial crisis and still reeling from a devastating hurricane in 2017, the country is in its worse shape in recent history. An explosive protest movement has forced the resignation of its governor and showcased the people’s exhaustion with the political process, and a desire for sweeping change. How that change might come about, however, is uncertain.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, announced his resignation over Facebook earlier this week and will leave the position in August. The protests were triggered by the leak of 889 pages of private chats between Rosselló and some of his current and former officials on the app Telegram: the messages featured misogynistic and homophobic comments about public officials, celebrities and even civilians – including deprecating remarks about those who died following Hurricane Maria. They also revealed attempts by the administration to damage the reputations of political opponents. As a result, investigators are now looking into the messages for corruption and conflicts of interest.
“My only North Star has been the well-being of my island,” Rosselló said in his resignation messages – and it was something he had to fight to preserve. During his tenure, Hurricane Maria hit the island: the devastating storm that killed over 3,000 people and caused $90 billion in damage. He also had to take the reins of the ongoing financial crisis, including massive debt and lack of industry, which was then exacerbated by the storm. And, though he and his New Progressive party ran on a platform that he claimed would bring the country closer to US statehood, after two years, that seems as far away to being fulfilled as ever.
It comes with the territory
The status of Puerto Rico has been ill defined since the island was annexed from Spain by the United States during their war in 1898. Today, all Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but the 3.4 million people living there have no say in who becomes President, and can’t vote for a member of Congress. Over the years, Congress has granted Puerto Rico increasing autonomy, but without the boons of being a US state.
And they could do with those benefits: the last two decades have been some of the worst in its history. Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, which began in 2006, has left the country with a national debt of $74 billion and a 45% poverty rate. Hurricane Maria exacerbated the debt problem, as well as destroyed much of the infrastructure needed to pay it off. There are many, especially in Puerto Rican media, who say that US statehood would have prevented or significantly alleviated many of these problems.
Rosselló, in fact, explicitly blamed Trump for the deaths following Hurricane Maria. He attributes a perceived passivism from the mainland as down to a ‘territorial-colonialist’ attitude from the United States to the island. “As we revisit all that we have been through in the last year, one thing has not changed and remains the biggest impediment for Puerto Rico’s full and prosperous recovery: the inequalities Puerto Rico faces as the oldest, most populous colony in the world,” he wrote in the letter sent to Trump after the storm.
Despite this rhetoric from Rosselló, it’s difficult to determine whether US statehood is really popular among ordinary islanders. Puerto Ricans held a referendum in 2017 – the fifth in the island’s history – on whether to join the republic. It was almost unanimous: 97% voted in favour of US statehood. However, fewer than a quarter of registered voters turned out to vote. Some blame the wording of the referendum, which didn’t have an option to vote in favour of a better arrangement for Puerto Rico but not US statehood.
Perhaps more informative was a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post. The survey of 1,500 Puerto Rican households found that 48% of Puerto Ricans want US statehood, while 26% would rather remain a US territory, and 10% want full independence. The remaining 16% were unsure or declined to answer. This shows significant, if reluctant in places, support for independence.
Even if support really did reach 97%, it is unlikely that Puerto Rico’s attempts would be accepted by the US Congress in its current situation. The country has a tremendous national debt and skews heavily left. Allowing Puerto Rico to be a US state would mean clearing the debt immediately, as states are not allowed to have any, and its political skew would decrease the influence of the Republican Party in Congress, making it unlikely that a Republican senator would ever vote for the bill. Given that such a bill would need a supermajority to pass, the chance of US statehood looks like it is diminishing.
Rosselló’s resignation is a sign of the times. Granted, it’s hard to imagine any politician surviving such a scandal, especially one that revealed a remarkable disdain for the people he governed. But the people are also experiencing an anxiety over an unknown future. Puerto Rico is neither a US state nor sovereign nation, and because of their enormous debt and the on-going demands of rebuilding after Maria, a change in either direction seems unlikely. There is a sense that the small island is in limbo, with a lack of clarity about how to get out of it.