It can be hard for observers to understand why Americans living in the 50 States can see Puerto Rico experiencing grave hardship and look away. After all, these are fellow U.S. citizens, people who serve in the U.S. military, a territory of — and therefore the responsibility of — the United States.
One of the causes of this strange disconnect is very simple: Americans living in the States don’t all know that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, whose people are U.S. citizens by birth.
Studies have found that Americans who have this information are more likely to favor support for Puerto Rico than people who don’t know that Puerto Ricans are citizens.
A poll conducted in 2016 found that more than half of Americans surveyed didn’t know that Puerto Rico is inhabited by U.S. citizens. In September 2017, just weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, just over half — 54% — had that information.
Governor Rossello has estimated that current numbers are much higher, perhaps as high as 85%. The sad reason for this good news is that Puerto Rico, and the fact that people born in Puerto Rico are citizens, has been in the news.
Puerto Rico is facing the 2018 hurricane season without real recovery from the 2017 hurricane season. Headlines continue to refer to the difference between the federal response to Puerto Rico’s needs and those of the States affected by hurricanes last fall. A new study estimating deaths from Hurricane Maria nearer 5,000 than the official 64 has brought Puerto Rico back into the headlines this week.
The result has been greater awareness of Puerto Rico’s political status as a territory. Understanding of that strange and powerless position has led to new discussion of statehood.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), for example, was inspired by the slow recovery to move from a noncommital position on Puerto Rico’s status to a clear endorsement of statehood.
“They’re still dealing with unreliable power and a lack of clean water, and this is completely unacceptable. Can you imagine anybody on the mainland, in Texas or in Florida, almost nine months after the hurricane and still putting up with no electricity? I have always supported self-determination and equal treatment for all U.S. citizens.Now with the poor treatment by this administration, it seems to me that statehood is the answer.”
Alfonso Aguilar, a member of Puerto Rico’s shadow delegation to Congress, was quoted as saying that support for statehood is increasing in Puerto Rico, as well. Statehood has been the winning option in the past two plebiscites, leading to Puerto Rico’s official request for statehood earlier this year.
However, there have been holdouts. Desire for a special “enhanced commonwealth” option which has been rejected repeatedly by the U.S. government has led to anti-statehood efforts on the Island. The response to Hurricane Maria has made it clear to many “commonwealth” supporters that these hopes are unrealistic, and that Puerto Rico would be better off with the powers and rights of a State.
“It’s been a long road for supporters of Puerto Rican statehood,” an AP news story concluded, “but with the renewed focus on the island following the tragedy of Hurricane Maria they appear to be making progress.”