Category: History

by Amy Thornbury

Arguments in Favor of Statehood

The pro-American Coalition . . . regards the island
as a maiden long wooed by a fickle suitor, who, after
declaring his intentions by granting American
citizenship, has consistently avoided fixing the
date for the final ceremony.
-- correspondent Harwood Hull, 1936

Since 1952, one premise of the statehood movement has been that the current status, Commonwealth, is unacceptable because it perpetuates colonialism under a non-colonial myth, and further, that attempts to improve it (as experience has shown) cannot succeed. Nearly every islander objects to the current Commonwealth status on the grounds that it is a euphemism for "colony," a status which affords Puerto Rico little dignity or political rights, and, as mentioned earlier, is seen as the preserver of Puerto Rico's dependency problem. Rexach Benítez, a PNP convert since his 1975 defection from the PPD, argues that 'the structure that would be necessary for [Commonwealth's] culmination does not fit the U. S. political or constitutional system. They [PPD supporters] are seeking all the powers of a republic without the responsibilities of a republic, and all the rights of a state without being a state. In terms of rights, this relationship would be more advantageous than the federal relationship of the states, and this is a political impossibility.'
The arguments for Commonwealth are refuted by estadistas on a number of grounds, as the following discussion illustrates. The first argument is based on the economic advantages of Commonwealth, namely that Commonwealth preserves the federal tax exemption of Section 936 and, prior to 1981, was able to attract industries by offering lower wages than the prevailing minimum wage. Estadistas respond that the U. S. Congress has the authority to revoke Section 936 at any time, and almost did so in 1985. In addition, the minimum wage argument no longer applies, since Puerto Rico is subject to the same minimum wage legislation as the U. S. Commonwealth, then, bases its economic agenda on very shaky foundations. Another reason given for the retention of the Commonwealth status is its capacity to allow Puerto Rico a greater degree of automony; that is, if it is "improved" through legislation which would give Puerto Rico control over immigration, tariffs, shipping, treaty negotiation, and military presence, among other responsibilities. To this, estadistas reply that federal legislation applies to Puerto Rico in full, except where Puerto Rico is specifically exempted, so increased autonomy is unlikely. Furthermore, none of the proposed legislation to improve the Commonwealth has any teeth, so Puerto Rico is forced to lobby and request political favors from Congress as usual, whereas statehood can give Puerto Rico the legislative voice it needs to achieve greater autonomy and dignity. A final argument is that the Commonwealth will preserve Puerto Rican culture and identity, while statehood would destroy Puerto Rico's Latin background with complete Americanization. Estadistas respond that Puerto Rican culture can be preserved through studies and other efforts. Since Puerto Rico has not succumbed to complete Americanization in 90 years, why would statehood make any difference? Furthermore, a state of Hispanic origin would be helpful to the U. S. since by the 1980s there were already 20 million Hispanics on the mainland.
In addition, estadistas cite the following faults of Commonwealth status. First, Commonwealth perpetuates second-class citizenship since Puerto Ricans have no voting representation in Congress and are excluded from voting for the president, as well as other decision-making processes. Second, there is discrimination against Puerto Rico in federal transfer payments and Social Security in that the island received less aid than it would as a state. Third, Commonwealth sustains the division of the Puerto Rican people into three status categories, since it is not a definitive status of its own. Fourth, Puerto Ricans have paid a "blood tax" to the U. S. by serving in the U. S. armed forces (65,000 served in World War II alone) but are still not recognized as first-class citizens. Fifth, Commonwealth preserves a sense of inferiority, a lack of dignity in Puerto Rico.
In addition to remedying all of these faults, statehood supporters of today cite the following ways in which statehood would benefit Puerto Rico: (1) First-class citizenship would be achieved through active, voting representation in Congress in the form of two senators, eight or nine representatives, and the presidential vote; (2) Industrial investment would be more secure (since statehood is irreversible, the political future would be less risky); (3) All federal transfer payments would apply to Puerto Rico in full, bringing increased secondary effects as these work their way through the economy; and (4) American businessmen and tourists would be made more aware of Puerto Rico as an attractive destination, like Hawaii, bringing more construction and growth to the island.
* * *
Economic Arguments
Opponents of statehood insist that statehood, with its imposition of federal income taxes, would spell doom for Puerto Rico's economy. Estadistas strongly refute this claim, citing the increase in federal appropriations and representation in matters of trade that would accompany statehood. For example, statehood would end the exemption of Puerto Rico from Supplementary Security Income (SSI) and the ceilings imposed on Medicaid, AFDC, and Title XX of the Social Security Act. Currently, Puerto Rico's only recourse to gain legislation which is favorable to it is through lobbying: "In this sense," former U. S. Ambassador in Latin America Richard Bloomfield writes, "the island's relationship to the federal goverment is more analogous to that of Chrysler, Lockheed, or Penn Central than to a state of the Union." Furthermore, with the 1986 revisions in the federal tax code, Puerto Ricans would most likely pay substantially less in taxes under statehood than they currently pay to their local government.
While Commonwealth is built around Section 936 and immediate investment incentives, it is on shaky, temporary ground, whereas statehood would provide certain future economic security to investors. True, statehood would mean the end to Section 936, but it would be in both parties' best interests to negotiate a period of economic adjustment sufficient to guarantee Puerto Rico's prosperity (and tax-paying ability). "Congress has ample authority and power to implement the necessary and appropriate economic measures that would permit the smooth transition from commonwealth status to full-fledged state," and, further, has shown a consistent trend of admitting new states under very generous economic provisions, such as tax-deferral, increased maritime boundaries, and so on. Statehood, as one observer has pointed out, is the only status alternative that offers the "orderly withdrawal of [tax] exemptions rather than their sudden loss," although independentistas have plans which include a 25-year transitional treaty with the U. S. rather than a "sudden" economic change. Similarly, estadistas plan to ask Congress for a 20-year period of gradual imposition of federal taxes. Former governor Luis A. Ferré (1968-1972) cites special federal programs, such as the Appalachian Deprived Zone Investment Initiative, which show the U. S. government's commitment to help underprivileged states. The subject, however, is widely debated, even among statehood supporters themselves, who are divided into those who want statehood now and those who, fearing the economic consequences, would prefer statehood "later."
The U. S. helped Puerto Rico's educational resources grow tremendously, as the following figures illustrate: In 1898, there were just 22,265 students enrolled on the island out of a population of 950,000; by 1936, that figure jumped to 250,000 out of a population of about 1.5 million. Enrollment in universities on the island today has increased eleven-fold since the 1950s, with 135,000 students attending the University of Puerto Rico in 1982. This dramatic increase in schooling (presumably) aided the economy by providing a more intelligent labor pool. A physical infrastructure was developed, as well. For example, road construction increased dramatically, from 275 km of constructed roads in 1898 to 1,859 km in 1934, and a sanitation system was organized for the first time under U. S. rule.
Hence, association with the U. S. is desired by most Puerto Ricans for obvious reasons. But the relationship also appeals to the U. S. The tax incentives and low wages have been long-standing attractions to U. S. investors, although these are changing today. Further, as unemployment in the U. S. declines below the "natural" rate (4 to 6%) in many states, it is increasingly difficult for employers to find qualified labor. Puerto Rico may become one of the few places which offers a surplus of labor. Unemployment is not normally viewed as a benefit, but by the year 2000, some predict, Puerto Rico will offer an area of still increasing population and relatively low wage rates, in direct contrast to the mainland. Its warm climate and strategic position as a link to Latin American markets are also increasingly important aspects. As mentioned earlier, the island also has strategic military importance to the U. S. Yet, evidently, none of these benefits have been sufficiently attractive to the U. S. to "force" statehood on Puerto Rico, an act which Puerto Ricans feel is entirely possible, since Congress holds ultimate authority over the island's fate. Only if national security were threatened -- for example, if there was a strong possibility of a communist takeover of the island (which, currently, there is not, since the PIP rejects the Cuban revolutionary model, and the PSP (Partido Socialsta Puertorriqueño ) is too small and alienated to carry out a Cuban-style revolution)-- would the U. S. be likely to force statehood in order to halt independence.
* * *
Cultural Arguments
Contrary to what many Puerto Ricans believe, there is nothing in the U. S. Constitution which specifies any cultural requirements for new states. This is proved by the admission of New Mexico, Hawaii, and Louisiana, for example, where cultural and linguistic preservation were constitutionally guaranteed. New Mexico, incidentally, is the only existing officially bilingual state in the Union. As such, it should be noted, it is regularly considered foreign. Puerto Rican attorney Nélida Jiménez-Velázquez makes the case for retaining Puerto Rico's cultural identity if it were to become a state by pointing out that: (1) conditions for admission must be those which Congress can constitutionally enforce, directly or indirectly; (2) Congress cannot pass legislation which would hinder the new state's sovereignty or its cultural heritage (as proved in the 1910 Supreme Court case, Coyle v. Oklahoma ); (3) the adoption of a language provision in a state's constitution will dismantle any contrary statement made in the state's enabling act; (4) the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee freedom of language used in educational systems, public or private, as a fundamental right; and (5) the Equal Protection clause guarantees Spanish as a right to Puerto Ricans since they are American citizens.
Upon its admission to the Union in 1812, Louisiana was required to adopt the English language. Later, the Supreme Court ruled that '. . . when a new State is admitted into the Union, it is so admitted with all of the powers of sovereignty and jurisdiction which pertain to the original States, and that such powers may not be constitutionally diminished, impaired or shorn away, by any conditions embraced in the act under which the new State came into the Union . . . .' Thus, the equal footing clause in the Constitution guarantees that new states shall have the right to determine their own laws, just as any other state, within the frame of the federal Constitution. "In essence both language and culture are a patrimony reserved to the States and to the people themselves", concludes the Puerto Rican attorney mentioned above.
Based on this evidence, Puerto Rico has the authority to adopt Spanish as its official language and to retain its own Olympic Games identity, for example. But would this be practical? After all, it would practically constitute a civil war, state competing against states. Moreover, knowing that Puerto Rico would be likely to retain only Spanish, would Congress admit the island, since communications would be severely limited, especially between an English-speaking U. S. President and the 3.2 million Puerto Rican voters? On the other hand, what would happen if the U. S. refused -- for the first time ever -- to admit a state? Would the U. S. be foolish not to admit a Hispanic state when there are over 20 million Hispanics on the mainland, soon to be the largest minority in the U. S.? Is the U. S. as ethnically diverse and tolerant as it professes to be, or would the admission of a Spanish-speaking state be simply too much for the great American "melting pot" to withstand?
* * *
Moral and Political Arguments
As a state, Puerto Rico would gain crucial legislative representation that would transform it from a lobbiest to a full-voiced state. As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico is voiceless in the most important stage of the legislative process, the committee stage, unless the Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico has friends on the committees. In 1897, Spain granted Puerto Rico a Charter of Autonomy which gave the island sixteen representatives and three senators in the Spanish Parliament. From the statehood effort's earliest moments, the cry for increased representation through admission to the Union has been raised.
Statehood is seen by many as the only legitimate decolonization option for Puerto Rico. Luis Dávila and Nélida Jiménez sum up the situation concisely:

". . . the process of admitting states into the Union is essentially a system of
decolonization which offers complete political and social equality to the citizens
living in the territorial possessions. . . . There being no constitutional, legal,
or historic impediments to Puerto Rico's admission into the Union, the people
of the island can legitimately demand admission as an inalienable right inherent
in their American citizenship and in their right to equal protection. . . . Statehood
will [be] . . . the beginning of a long struggle to achieve a better standard of living
and provide more equality and justice for all of its citizens.
This passage shows one of the most frequently cited arguments of estadistas today: that statehood is an "inalienable" right of Puerto Ricans as U. S. citizens, and if a majority of Puerto Ricans petitioned the U. S. for admission, it could not be denied, since to deny a group of U. S. citizens statehood would be tantamount to familial disowning.
PNP followers support statehood in part because they believe that the Common-wealth perpetuates "geographical discrimination"; that is, while a resident of a state, a Puerto Rican has full rights of citizenship, including full electoral rights. But when a Puerto Rican, or for that matter, any U. S. citizen, moves to Puerto Rico, he or she loses some rights of citizenship, not only electoral rights but also equal representation in Congress and equal treatment under federal programs.
Besides matters of equal representation and treatment, Puerto Rico would benefit from statehood by retaining common defense with the U. S. The U. S. military forces have always protected Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico needs them in the future, as well. Statehood would guarantee the continuation of this relationship.
All of these arguments weigh in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico. The fact that Puerto Rico lingers in an ambiguous colonial status today may be attributed in part to ignorance about statehood guidelines on both the mainland and the island. The crucial element, however, is what the Puerto Ricans decide they want for themselves. One reporter for The Wall Street Journal urged readers not to judge Puerto Rico for the Puerto Ricans. "If after all these years with us Puerto Rico wants to be a state, we should welcome it. To assume that we cannot -- that we have become too ungenerous to absorb anything new or too weak to defend the authority of majority rule in Puerto Rico -- would say something very sad indeed about the nation we've allowed ourselves to become." Thus, a moral element is added to the confusion of Puerto Rico's status: Puerto Rico must decide what status it wants, and the U. S. must respect majority rule, no matter what the outcome, or it will violate the principles of democracy upon which it was founded. Of course, Puerto Ricans must know what their real choices are; that is, the transitional periods for each alternative that are acceptable to the U. S. must be specified in advance of a status plebiscite. In Ferré's opinion, such a plebiscite must be held "as soon as possible," and "anything over 51% is a majority." He believes that Puerto Ricans will choose statehood, and once this is accomplished, he claims that congressional support will carry the act through with the backing of supporters such as Vice-President George Bush and Senator Daniel Inoye (D-Hawaii).

Harwood Hull, "Better Times for Puerto Rico," Current History, 43 (January , 1936): 371.

His argument is cited in Perusse, p. 95.

Interview with Antonio Roig, December 5, 1987.

Interview with Ferré, December 7, 1987.

Heine provides this information on pp. 255-56.

See ibid., pp. 189-91, and Carr, p. 152.

Carr, p. 425, note 21. Carr points out, of course, that these facts do not receive the same enthusiasm in Congress as they do in Puerto Rico, especially as Congress faces the largest budget deficit ever.

Richard Bloomfield, ed., Puerto Rico: The Search for a National Policy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1985), p. 28.

Grupo de Investigadores Puertorriqueños, p. 1359.

From Ramos Díaz's chapter in Bloomfield, p. 164.

Cited in Perusse, p. 93.

12 Heine and García-Passalacqua, p. 33.

Cong. Rec., 74th Congress, 2nd sess., June 1, 1936, p. 8565.

These conclusions are drawn from Bertram Finn's chapter, "The Economic Implications of Statehood," in Heine, especially, pp. 185-86.

New Mexico Magazine devotes a whole page of each monthly issue to a feature entiltled "One of Our Fifty Is Missing." It publishes letters from New Mexican readers who describe instances of being treated as "foreigners" in the U. S. For example, one man's prescription from New Mexico was refused for refill by a pharmacy he took it to in Florida which claimed it could not honor "foreign" prescriptions. See New Mexico Magazine (October, 1987), 84.

See chapter by Nelida Jiménez-Velazquez, pp. 1476-77 in Grupo de Investigadores Puertorriquenõs.

The Supreme Court's words are cited in ibid., p. 1453.

Ibid, p. 1454. Italics in original.

Heine, p. 260.

Perusse makes this argument on p. 72.

WSJ, October 18, 1979, 16: 1.

Interview with Ferré, December 7, 1987.

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