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Hurricane Maria’s Effects on Puerto Rico’s Political Status

Puerto Rico’s political status has had a significant impact on recovery efforts on the Island. Without the political power of a State, Puerto Rico is still struggling to restore basic services months after the 2017 hurricane season. With the 2018 hurricane season on the horizon, the territory is still living with the outdated and dilapidated infrastructure that is the legacy of the Island’s status as an unincorporated territory.

But Hurricane Maria and the slow recovery have also had some effect on the Island’s political status — or at least on the possible future.

3.5 million U.S. citizens

People born in Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Nonetheless, as recently as last year most Americans in the States didn’t know this. Social media reactions to the devastation of Hurricane Maria made it clear that many Americans didn’t realize that the United States owns and has responsibility for Puerto Rico.

Headlines and news stories quickly began to include the information that 3.5 million U.S. citizens live in Puerto Rico. As other Americans came to understand the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, support for statehood for Puerto Rico increased.

Support for statehood has been the majority position in Puerto Rico at least since 2012, when the majority of voters who chose a viable political status in the referendum chose statehood. There is also a small Independence Party in Puerto Rico.

The status quo

There are also some in Puerto Rico who are satisfied with the current status quo. Puerto Rico, as an unincorporated territory of the United States, is subject to U.S. federal laws and to the “plenary power” of Congress. However, Puerto Rico has no voting members of the House of Representatives and no senators. Residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections. Puerto Rico is not equal with States in matters like Medicaid funding or tax credits.

Since the 1950s, some political leaders in Puerto Rico have held out hope for an “enhanced commonwealth” or some other unique relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. Most recently, San Juan Mayor Cruz has been calling to “work together to transform that relationship into one that is dignified and one that is mutually beneficial.”

This lack of specificity is typical of “commonwealth” rhetoric. However, all three branches of the U.S. government have repeatedly rejected all attempts to forge a new or improved “commonwealth.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, many leaders in Puerto Rico have expressed dissatisfaction with the current political status, saying that the slow recovery efforts prove that it “doesn’t work.” Cruz and some others have also discussed a Free Associated State status, a form of independence with a treaty of cooperation between the United States and Puerto Rico.

It remains to be seen whether increased awareness of Puerto Rico’s position across the nation may lead to resolution of Puerto Rico’s status at last.


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