By now, it is probable that everyone concerned about Puerto Rico’s status has seen , read about, and discussed John Oliver’s take on voting rights in U.S. territories.
Julio Ricardo Varela has taken a look at the comic’s point of view in the context of Puerto Rico’s history, with a thoughtful essay that begins with a reminder of the fundamental inequality between Puerto Rico and the states:
As US citizens, Puerto Ricans can fight on behalf of America in foreign wars, but they can’t vote for the president who sends them there. They pay taxes, but don’t have a representative in Congress who can vote on how to spend them. It’s definitively anti-American: modern-day taxation without representation.
There is a clear problem here, and it is the kind of problem that Americans usually respond to with the kind of emotional reaction engendered by Oliver’s video. But the essay goes on to point out that many people have written and spoken about the problem, without capturing the hearts and minds of the mainland.
Mainland Americans simply don’t care about Puerto Rico. To them, the island is little more than a West Side Story sideshow, or a weird economic experiment they don’t quite understand.
The lack of knowledge of mainland Americans on the subject of Puerto Rico is certainly part of the problem, but it shouldn’t be an excuse. Nor should the tactic of encouraging complexity be accepted. The vote in 2012 was clear (54% rejected continuing as a territory and 61% chose statehood from the viable options), but it has become mired in controversy that makes ordinary Americans decide that the whole thing must be more complicated than they realize, and decide that they shouldn’t interfere. It isn’t really that complicated.
This is not about the intricacies of sovereignty, or the unique fashion of politics in Puerto Rico and other US territories. This is about equality, pure and simple—a value any American would understand.
Once we acknowledge this, there is no defense for ignoring Puerto Rico’s demand for statehood. Andrés W. López of the Futuro Fund is quoted in the essay making a very firm declaration:
[T]he Obama administration has officially become the first administration in American history to confront a clear rejection of the territorial status quo from the people of Puerto Rico. The people have spoken, the promise is pending, and our crisis is urgent. The president can resolve it and make history.
After more than a century as a territory, Puerto Rico is now in a position to resolve its status and end the inequality.