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Puerto Rico’s Troubled Economy Linked to Status as U.S. Territory

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, the non-voting representative in Congress for the territory, linked Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory to its economic problems at a recent Columbia Law School speech.

“Puerto Rico’s status as a territory is the root cause of the crisis in Puerto Rico. Our status is not the only problem, but it is the underlying problem from which nearly all of our other problems emanate.”

Pierluisi recapped the history of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, and described the measures taken during the 20th century to provide more local control over government in Puerto Rico.

“Nevertheless,” he explained, “these measures have not altered Puerto Rico’s status. The island remains today what it was 117 years ago: a territory of the United States. Some of you may have heard Puerto Rico referred to as a ‘commonwealth.’ Don’t be confused by that word, which does not have any legal significance. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a territory, while the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are states.”

To be a territory, Pierluisi continued, is “to be deprived of political rights and equality under the law.”

The people of Puerto Rico, though they have held U.S. citizenship since 1917, cannot vote in presidential elections. They have no senators, and only one non-voting representative in the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court has declared that Puerto Rico can be treated differently from the States, and the territory receives less from the federal government in many areas.

“Apart from depriving my constituents of fundamental democratic rights that Americans living in the states take for granted,” said Pierluisi, “territory status has harmed every aspect of Puerto Rico’s economy and our quality of life.”

The billions lost because of the territory’s unequal treatment affect every aspect of the economy, and have led to the excessive debt that precipitated the current economic crisis. The lack of participation in U.S. democracy gives Puerto Rico less power over laws that affect the territory, and less access to the federal government.

“Does anyone really think,” Pierluisi continued, “that Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal performance has been so poor because the territory’s people and political leaders are not as capable or hardworking as their counterparts in, say, Mississippi or Montana?”

It is not that the people of Puerto Rico have failed, Pierluisi said, but that the political system — the territorial relationship — has failed the people of Puerto Rico.

Pierluisi went on to detail the benefits statehood would bring to Puerto Rico. Not all the benefits of statehood are economic, but history has shown that statehood lifts territories out of poverty.

“History is clear, the speech concluded. “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. The truth is simple. To succeed, Puerto Rico must be treated equally. And to be treated equally, Puerto Rico must become a state.”

Read the full speech.

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