Over the past several weeks, the world has watched as Puerto Ricans—on the island, in the diaspora in the mainland United States, and around the world—took to the streets in incredible numbers to denounce the actions of Puerto Rico’s government leadership. The culmination of these protests occurred when Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced his resignation, effective August 2. What followed was constitutional turmoil on the island, with the appointment of former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi by Gov. Rosselló, additional public outcry, and Pierluisi’s eventual removal by unanimous Supreme Court ruling. The constitutional successor to Rosselló, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, was sworn in as governor on August 7, and tensions seem to have cooled.
The force with which Puerto Ricans showed up during this crisis should not go unnoticed. Puerto Rico has a strong and admirable culture of engagement; its residents are proud and compassionate, regularly participating in the political process. As Puerto Ricans demand a greater say over their own leaders, progressives should not lose sight of the powerlessness inherent in Puerto Rico’s relationship with the federal government. Puerto Ricans do not have voting representation in Congress and cannot vote for president in the general election, though they do participate in party primaries. Puerto Ricans still show up at high rates to vote in their local, quadrennial elections—at times, at a rate 50 percent higher than voters in the mainland United States. And despite all Puerto Rico has been through since the devastating hurricanes in 2017, its resilient people recently rose up against their government to demand accountability—and they got it.
At a time when tensions in Puerto Rico have reached an all-time high, progressives and federal policymakers are at an inflection point in their ongoing relationship. Despite efforts from mainland lawmakers and stakeholder groups, Puerto Rico was forced to live through a brutal initial recovery after Hurricane Maria and continues to endure abhorrent treatment by the Trump administration, which seems to relish in playing politics with people’s basic human needs and livelihoods.
The United States bears responsibility for much of Puerto Rico’s crisis
It has never been clearer that the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico has been the root cause of the injustice that the island residents have suffered, both during the storm recovery and for several decades before. At the end of the Spanish American War in 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico and seized control over the island from Spain through the Treaty of Paris. At the time of the invasion, Puerto Rico was already a nation in the sociological sense, although still under Spanish colonial domination. Even though Congress extended U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, it was only in 1952 that a very limited form of local self-government was afforded to Puerto Ricans. The local self-government is limited by the application of congressional and federal laws, regulations, actions, and federal court decisions. Despite possessing what is generally considered to be an advanced, democratic local constitution, it is that limited grant of self-rule that has now proven to be politically and practically bankrupt. In addition, colonialism is a form of racism, and the residents of this island continue to face exclusion, discrimination, and exploitation in many forms.
Puerto Rico faces a long road of recovery ahead, not only from the immediate impact of the devastating storms but also from a long-standing and ongoing economic crisis. The United States bears responsibility for much of this crisis, as it is a result of the country’s colonial relationship with Puerto Rico as well as a number of misguided federal policy decisions—including the phaseout of Section 936 of the U.S. tax code—that eliminated significant incentives for business investment in Puerto Rico, causing the island to spiral into economic collapse and resulting in a pattern of problematic fiscal decisions that made matters worse for decades to come.
Progressives and progressive institutions must support Puerto Rico’s right to decide its own future
Resolving Puerto Rico’s political status is the only way to begin to address the island’s significant economic crisis. Progressive institutions have traditionally remained neutral on the topic of the political status of Puerto Rico, despite being lobbied by advocates on all sides of the issue. As progressives find themselves in a new era of attacks on democracy and government institutions, they are also working to propose bold new policy agendas for future leaders to undo years of harm and build a strong, resilient future. Progressive institutions in the mainland United States should begin to take seriously the topic of the political status of Puerto Rico and build it into the larger policy discussions surrounding democratic values. It is time for progressives to firmly declare support for a fair and equitable process of self-determination to give the people of Puerto Rico agency to decide their future.
Puerto Rico has held five previous status plebiscites, or referendums, all of which were nonbinding and regarded as political exercises manipulated by the party in power—and in some cases, mainland U.S. politicians and U.S. corporate and other interests—to secure their desired outcome. It is for this reason that stakeholders must work across party lines to ensure this process remains free of undue political influence. In supporting self-determination for Puerto Rico, progressives must call on Congress to pass legislation that recognizes the right of Puerto Rico to its self-determination and to work in concert with the people of Puerto Rico to create an inclusive, open, and fair process by which all noncolonial and nonterritorial options are examined and considered as permanent solutions. Legislation must also include sufficient federal funding and encompass any regulations necessary to bring this process to final fruition, including provisions that clearly state that the outcome is binding and recognized by the U.S. government.
For too long, the Puerto Rican people have been denied the right to determine their own political future. Instead of empowering them, the United States has often treated Puerto Ricans in a fundamentally unfair and undemocratic manner. Puerto Rico is home to more than 3 million U.S. citizens and is a strong and vibrant society with its own unique culture, traditions, and vision for the future. The Puerto Rican people’s right to determine their own status in our democracy is long overdue.
Progressives and progressive institutions should take no other position on the political status of Puerto Rico than self-determination. And once the people of Puerto Rico have declared their intent through an inclusive and fair process, progressives should work to help the island and the federal government implement any changes so that Puerto Rico has the tools it needs to recover and rebuild toward a prosperous future.
Erin Cohan is the chief of staff and vice president at the Center for American Progress. She helped create the Center’s Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy Initiative, and she formerly served as director of intergovernmental affairs for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration under former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla.