Independence for Puerto Rico is an idea that has received increased attention recently …in the states.
A recent article at NBC News urges independence for the U.S. territory. “That Puerto Rico has to wait on Congress, in which it can’t vote, to have the possibility of determining the form of government it wants is just the strongest statement of why separation is needed,” explains the author, Luisita Lopez Torregrosa.
According to a 2017 profile in the Fordham Observer, Torregrosa spent part of her childhood in Puerto Rico but left at the age of 14 and lives in New York.
In a cover article for The Atlantic in November 2022, author Jaquira Diaz describes an expansive vision of independence. “Those, like me, who argue for sovereignty are not simply asking the United States to ‘free Puerto Rico’,” she writes. “A return of sovereignty to the Puerto Rican people would require a U.S. commitment to a policy of reparations designed to provide independence and security—a policy that acknowledges and begins to address generations of environmental destruction, economic dislocation, and human-rights violations.”
“Reparations would have to cover many areas, large and small: paying for the repair of the power grid; liquidating $70 billion in debt; undergirding Puerto Rico’s pension funds; and expanding the health-care system. It wouldn’t end there, and many arrangements would have to be worked out, encompassing knotty issues involving citizenship and trade relations. The process would be complex, imperfect, messy. The point is that self-determination for Puerto Ricans necessitates not just cutting them loose, but also restoring what has been taken and otherwise making amends.”
Diaz was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Miami as a child.
These two writers, neither of whom appears to live in Puerto Rico, share a common narrative. Their position is easy to articulate from the comfort of a home office in a place where democratic freedoms are a given, and where access to prized U.S. citizenship is not at risk. But it’s a theoretical position for the authors, who have the luxury of taking it from afar.
Easy to say when you live in a state
Independence has never gotten more than 5% of any vote on political status in Puerto Rico. No Independence Party candidate has ever won a race for governor or resident commissioner. In fact, the Independence Party on the Island is too small to be considered among Puerto Rico’s major political parties. Their results are equivalent, numerically, to the popularity in mainland politics of the Green Party or the Libertarians.
“If the people of Puerto Rico want to be independent, that means there is no special treatment and no special benefits,” said Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) in a recent hearing.
Rep, Bruce Westerman (R-AR) agreed, saying, “The people of Puerto Rico should understand what choosing independence or sovereignty entails: that is, separation from the U.S. federal system and the related benefits.”
People living in the states can support a romanticized independence, confident that they will not directly experience any of the losses it would entail.
It is true that Puerto Rico lives with inequality and injustice daily. It is also true that Puerto Ricans have a history of injustice to look back on.
When considering recent disaster support, however, it is worth noting that the United States federal government is not providing support for the Dominican Republic or Cuba as it has for Puerto Rico, imperfect as that implementation has been. Imagining that the U.S. government will treat a sovereign Puerto Rico better than the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is simply not a gamble that 95% of the people on the ground in Puerto Rico appear willing to take.
As a state, Puerto Rico would be on an equal footing with all other states, fully protected by the U.S. Constitution. FEMA resources would apply. Medicaid funding and nutrition assistance would increase automatically during periods of increased need, such as in the aftermath of hurricanes. The many Puerto Ricans serving in the U.S. military would be able to vote for their Commander in Chief. The dignity of equal treatment and equal rights would be a constant presence. These improvements would be impactful and tangible, and especially noticeable to people who don’t already have them.
Updated February 19, 2023