Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s only representative in the federal government, recently spoke to the New York University School of Law. His speech, “Shaping Puerto Rico’s Political and Economic Future,” addressed the practical consequences of the territorial status of Puerto Rico.
Being a territory, Puerto Rico is unable to take part in the political life of the country as States can. “435 of my colleagues,” Rep. Pierluisi pointed out, “cast votes on legislation that affects every aspect of my constituents’ lives.” Pierluisi himself can speak and introduce legislation, but cannot vote in Congress. There are no Senators from Puerto Rico, and residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections.
Further, Pierluisi informed his audience, Puerto Rico is not treated equally under federal grant and social welfare progams, nor given all the federal tax credits States enjoy. The people of Puerto Rico receive less than those living on the mainland, and the local government is expected to pay more of the costs of safety net programs than state governments.
Pierluisi pointed out that the result has been excessive borrowing by the Puerto Rican government, to the extent that the Island is too burdened with debt to be able to make the investments needed for the good of the people. Pierluisi went on to share some of the evidence of financial troubles in Puerto Rico, based on data from the past 45 years:
- Unemployment in Puerto Rico averages more than 15%, while on the mainland the average has been 6.5%.
- More than 60% of people of working age on the mainland are employed , but only 40% in Puerto Rico.
- The per capita gross national product in Puerto Rico has been about a third of that on the mainland.
The data is not based on the performance of one administration, but on almost a half century of information collected by the U.S. government. Rep. Pierluisi pointed out that it is implausible that the government of Puerto Rico should be consistently so much less able than the government of Mississippi or Montana. He then recapitulated the data on migration by the people of Puerto Rico who are leaving the Island for the mainland in unprecedented numbers.
“This Census data is like a dagger in the heart of any supporter of the status quo,” said Pierluisi.”Puerto Rico’s territory status has led to a dead end.”
The future options for Puerto Rico are these: statehood or independence. The option of statehood, Pierluisi pointed out, would give Puerto Rico more political power and economic opportunity, without requiring Puerto Ricans to give up U.S. citizenship for themselves or for their descendants.
What’s more, Puerto Rican voters already voted for statehood, in the 2012 plebiscite. In response, a new, Federally-sponsored plebiscite has been funded. “Not everyone realizes it yet,” Pierluisi remarked, “but this is the most important step that the federal government has ever taken to resolve the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status.” The speech continued with a listing of the recent and current steps taken toward statehood, and against it, in the Federal and insular governments.
Rep. Pierluisi concluded simply but stirringly:
I firmly hold the view that, to achieve its enormous potential, Puerto Rico must discard its status as a U.S. territory. History is clear. No people have ever prospered while being deprived of political and civil rights, and Puerto Rico is not — and will never be — an exception to that rule.