Many articles on Puerto Rico’s possible statehood make basic factual errors — so many, in fact, that we don’t even try to correct them all. These errors, however, are important, especially if they’re as widespread as they appear to be. Accordingly, we’ve chosen an example article to work with. We’re going to clarify the errors in this one article, and hope readers will extrapolate to the rest of the things they read.
Our example is “Puerto Rico Lobbies to Be 51st State… Again” by Jay Miller in New Mexico’s Rio Rancho Observer published in May, 2013.
Let’s have a look at Mr. Miller’s points:
- Puerto Rico has “a different culture.” As Mr. Miller, writing in New Mexico, is aware, the United States doesn’t have a single cohesive culture with which Puerto Rico would be incompatible. As Americans, we are proud of our diversity and of the richness of our culture, from the Cajuns of Louisiana to the Polynesian heritage of Hawaii, from California’s laid-back vibe to the frenetic pace of the Big Apple, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters… The point is, American culture is based on diversity. With millions of Puerto Ricans already living on the mainland, including Puerto Rico as the 51st state will be far less challenging than earlier additions were.
- Puerto Rico has “a different language.” English is one of the official languages of Puerto Rico. English is not the official language of the United States, as it happens, but it is the most commonly spoken language. Like Hawaii, Puerto Rico has a second official language; in this case, the other language is Spanish, currently spoken in about 20% of U.S. households. Bilingualism is the norm in the world, and is arguably a sign of better education than the monolingualism that may have been a source of pride for some Americans in previous eras, when the world seemed bigger and was less connected.
- Puerto Rico is too far from Washington, D.C. The distance is about 1560 miles. Los Angeles is 2668 miles from D.C. We assume Mr. Miller, whose Rio Rancho home is 1895 miles from D.C., was not speaking literally here, but we’ve seen other commentators claim that Puerto Rico is too far away from the United States, though it is nearer to the mainland than Hawaii.
- Puerto Rico is Democratic. We have pointed out before that the Republican Party has shown support for Puerto Rican statehood. It is true that the GOP has not been uniformly successful with the Hispanic vote. However, the Hispanic vote is already important in U.S. politics, and Republican issues with Hispanic Americans will not be solved by refusing to admit Puerto Rico to the Union. In fact, to the extent that the reason for the refusal is perceived to be prejudice against speakers of Spanish, doing so could seriously harm the GOP’s chances with Hispanic voters.
- Mr. Miller points out that Hawaii and Alaska were paired when they became states so that there would be one Republican and one Democratic state. However, Alaska was admitted with the expectation that it would vote Democratic, while Hawaii was expected to be Republican — and that’s not what happened. There is really no reason to assume that we know how Puerto Rico would vote.
- “Up until now, it was content with its present commonwealth status.” Puerto Rico is not satisfied with territorial status, which is what it actually has. Commonwealth is not a legal status; it’s simply part of the name of Puerto Rico, as it is part of the official name of Kentucky. While there are Puerto Ricans who would like a new kind of commonwealth, Congress has consistently said that this would be unconstitutional.
- “Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens receiving most U.S. benefits… ” This is another common view, and it is true that Puerto Rico receives some benefits, including food stamps, which always seems to be what commentators who write about this have in mind. But there are meaningful limits to U.S. benefits in Puerto Rico, and what about the right to vote in Presidential elections and have full voting representation in Congress?
- “but are not required to pay federal taxes.” Since roughly 47% of Americans on the mainland pay no federal income tax, the point about paying taxes seems moot. However, Puerto Ricans do pay federal taxes. A direct comparison will show that.
- Puerto Ricans “worry about losing their culture and identity.” Oregon did not become indistinguishable from Connecticut after it was admitted into the Union. North Dakota did not lose its differences from Virginia. Puerto Ricans living on the mainland continue to enjoy their heritage. In the United States, we teach our children to value diversity, not to try to become the same as everyone else. Indeed, that is a central part of American culture.
- Mr. Miller also says that it is “hard to prove mistreatment.” The United Nations has repeatedly asked the United States to resolve the issue of Puerto Rico’s status. This may not be a matter of “mistreatment;” the term really seems to have been chosen to imply that Puerto Rico is somehow being petty. However, Puerto Rico faces levels of violence and poverty and unemployment that can be directly traced to the island’s essentially colonial status.
Mr. Miller has not been as unpleasant about Puerto Rico as many others have, and we have no reason to think that he is not completely sincere in his belief that statehood is not the best choice for Puerto Rico. We are pleased that he recognizes that Puerto Rico is a territory, because there are plenty of writers who think it is a country.