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An island that’s endured hurricanes, a pandemic and economic upheaval now increasingly wants political equality, and federal legislation and lawsuits offer different paths to get it

People carry a giant Puerto Rican flag at an Oct. 15 protest in San Juan against LUMA Energy, which took over the U.S. territory's fragile power grid this summer. Rolling blackouts in the fall have fuelled anger at public institutions on an island still coping with the after effects of Hurricane Maria in 2017.RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

At a community centre in the working-class Hill Brothers neighbourhood of San Juan, Carmen Villanueva Castro lists all the ways she and her neighbours have worked to fill the gaps left by government in this corner of Puerto Rico’s capital.

When Hurricane Maria uprooted trees, destroyed houses and knocked out electricity in 2017, Hill Brothers’ residents cleared the streets of detritus. When COVID-19 threw people out of work last year, they gathered food to cook collective meals. When trash isn’t removed from a nearby creek, they clean it up.

“If we are a territory of the United States, we should have the same rights and the same quality of life as people on the mainland,” Ms. Villanueva, 60, says on a warm, humid autumn evening, as she sits amid boxes of masks and hand sanitizer to distribute to senior citizens. “There’s definitely a lot that Puerto Rico can offer, but what’s holding us back is this relationship we have with the United States.”

That relationship constitutes one of the world’s most unusual political statuses, particularly two decades into the 21st century. Ceded by Spain to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico has remained an unincorporated territory ever since. Unlike American states, whose powers are delineated by the U.S. Constitution, Puerto Rico’s are delegated by the federal government.

Washington has used this sovereignty over the island to treat it very differently from the mainland.

While Puerto Ricans hold U.S. citizenship and elect a local government, they cannot vote in presidential elections and have only one, non-voting representative in Congress. They also face more stringent caps on federal Medicaid and food stamp funding than states do. Following the devastation of Maria, which knocked out Puerto Rico’s power grid for months, the U.S. government withheld some relief funds for four years. A lengthy recession and financial crisis have triggered two decades of outmigration, and prompted Washington to appoint a fiscal control board to impose austerity on San Juan.

Now, momentum is growing to revisit the status question. One bill before Congress would grant Puerto Rico statehood. A rival piece of legislation would see Puerto Ricans elect a constitutional convention that would draft several options to be put to a referendum. A series of legal actions, meanwhile, are challenging the Insular Cases, a string of racist, century-old U.S. Supreme Court decisions that codified the federal government’s colonial control over the island.

Puerto Ricans have different ideas about their ideal political future. Many favour immediate accession to the union. Some prefer independence. Others support free association, in which Puerto Rico would maintain a relationship with the U.S. but would have the sovereignty to negotiate the terms, rather than relying on Washington to grant authority by statute.

There is broad agreement, however, that something needs to change.

“It should be a relationship based on mutual respect,” Ms. Villanueva says. “But we are not receiving any.”

Puerto Ricans place shoes at the legislature building in June of 2018 to honour victims of Hurricane Maria, which hit the island nine months earlier. One sign reads 'genocide' in Spanish.Alvin Baez/Reuters

Two potential paths

For Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia, there is only one solution. His pro-statehood activism began as a university student in the late 1970s and has been a connecting thread in his long political career. Now 62, he contends the push is gaining momentum.

“It makes no sense to treat American citizens differently depending on where they choose to reside,” he says in his office at La Fortaleza, the blue 1500s mansion that has housed Puerto Rico’s governors since the Spanish era. “The end result is that anybody who is displeased with the way the federal government is treating them for nutritional assistance, health coverage or dealing with disabilities, they can hop on a plane and move to Florida or Texas or New York, and automatically, they get those services.”

He supports the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, a congressional bill that would swiftly make the island a state. His position, he says, was bolstered by a referendum last year in which 53 per cent of those who cast ballots voted for statehood.

For all the U.S. government’s faults, he argues that Puerto Rico still gets more – in social security pension payments, hurricane relief and other social spending – than it would if it tried to go it alone. Independence would also lead to a further exodus of residents, he contends, while holding a constitutional convention would only prolong the process of change.

The attention Hurricanes Irma and Maria focused on the island has helped shift the narrative nationally, he says.

“Now they realize, hey, we’re American citizens, and they didn’t like the way that the federal government was responding to us when we went through those hurricanes,” Mr. Pierluisi says. “Being part of America is something extraordinary. The U.S. may have its defects but, to me, it is the best country in the world.”

Puerto Rico's Governor Pedro Pierluisi.Gabriella N. Baez/Reuters

Still, he’s realistic about the hurdles. For one, congressional Republicans fear Puerto Rican statehood would automatically guarantee additional seats to Democrats, who are more popular with Latino voters. For another, statehood would mean Puerto Ricans would need to pay federal income tax, which they currently do not.

But the Governor contends there are enough socially conservative Catholics on the island to make the Republicans competitive here. And he says an increase in business investment in the event of statehood would provide the economic lift needed to cushion the added taxes.

Other Puerto Ricans, however, say it’s not clear statehood is the most popular choice for the island’s future. For one, last year’s referendum had a turnout of only 55 per cent. And it only asked voters whether they supported statehood, without mentioning other potential status options. For another, the U.S. federal government has never defined exactly what the terms of Puerto Rico entering the union would be.

Many support a different piece of federal legislation, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. Backed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the act would see Puerto Ricans elect a constitutional convention and Congress appoint a negotiating team that would define several potential political statuses for the island. These would then be put to Puerto Ricans for a referendum.

This bill’s supporters contend it is the most democratic process, and also gives Puerto Ricans a better idea what they are voting on. Congress would have to agree on the exact terms of statehood, independence and free association before people voted.

“The redefinition of the relationship with the United States is probably the most consequential decision in Puerto Rico’s history, and I think that decision should be under a fair process,” Jose Bernardo Marquez Reyes, a 29-year-old Puerto Rican legislator, says in a coffee shop in San Juan’s hip Santurce neighbourhood. “Right now, the discussion has been mainly a local discussion without really knowing what the United States position is going to be regarding those decolonization options.”

At top, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes part in 2019's National Puerto Rican Day parade in New York; two years later, at bottom, people protest against a debt-adjustment plan outside a federal court building in San Juan.Craig Ruttle and Carlos Giusti/The Associated Press

A recession and a junta

Even before the hurricanes, Puerto Rico was suffering economically.

Between 1996 and 2006, the federal government abolished corporate tax breaks that incentivized business investment on the island, causing U.S. companies to leave and triggering a lengthy recession. Since 2000, about 900,000 residents have decamped for the mainland, pushing the population from more than 3.6 million to fewer than 2.8 million today.

Washington has also long restricted its social spending in Puerto Rico. The island is guaranteed only about one-quarter the amount of federal Medicaid funding it would receive if it were a state, for instance, forcing San Juan to cover the shortfall. Political gridlock on the island, meanwhile, stalled proposed reforms to government spending.

In 2016, after Puerto Rico nearly defaulted on its debt, the federal government created the Financial Oversight and Management Board, better known in English as the “fiscal control board” or in Spanish as “la junta.” Primarily made up of bankers, the board is tasked with overseeing a restructuring of the island’s finances. It has earned widespread ire from Puerto Ricans for pushing cuts to health care, education and pension payments. To many, it is the most glaring example of Washington imposing its will.

“The only language they speak is the language of reductions,” retiree Sonia Palacios, 71, says in an interview at the Capitolio, the island’s white marble legislature building, where she is testifying at a Senate committee hearing on the cuts.

Ms. Palacios spent 42 years climbing the ranks of Puerto Rico’s public sector. She started as a social worker at the Oso Blanco prison and finished as a prosecutor. Her pension has already been cut by 11.5 per cent, and the fiscal control board demanded a further 8.5 per cent reduction this year before backing down in the face of public outcry.

“I never thought that at my age I would have to be fighting for what I have worked toward all my life,” she says. “We have a right to our pensions. We are not the group responsible for this crisis.”

Aníbal Acevedo Vilá campaigns for governor in 2004.Ana Martinez/Reuters

The junta has even changed the minds of some Puerto Ricans who previously favoured the status quo.

Anibal Acevedo Vila, a former governor who supported keeping the island’s current status while in office during the 2000s, recounts a conversation with then-senator Hillary Clinton to illustrate how much the ground has shifted.

It was late 2005, and the White House had issued a controversial report saying the federal government could do anything it wanted with Puerto Rico, including selling it to another country, without the permission of Puerto Ricans.

Mr. Acevedo, who happened to be in Washington at the time meeting with members of Congress, asked Ms. Clinton if she believed the task force was correct. Yes, she confirmed, it was. He was angry at the time, he says, but the fiscal control board has effectively proven her right.

“I told her ‘are you telling me that you believe Congress has the power to pass a law tomorrow saying I’m no longer governor of Puerto Rico?’ Hillary Clinton told me ‘we will never do that, but yes, we do have that power,’” he recounts at his law office near San Juan’s university district. “I was really mad at her. But, years later, I have to say she told me the truth.”

Mr. Acevedo now backs Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s bill, and personally supports a compact of free association, a type of arrangement the U.S. already has with three countries in the South Pacific. He doesn’t believe statehood would work. For one, he contends the U.S. would never accept a state where Spanish is the working language of government, schools and courts. For another, he believes Puerto Ricans would be crushed by the requirement of paying federal income tax. And he favours keeping the markers of Puerto Rico’s distinct identity; its own Olympic team and basketball league, for example.

“Either Puerto Rico is assimilated, we lose that identity and we become part of the melting pot. Or the U.S. decides to be a multinational state, and that’s not what they are,” he says. “Could you imagine a congressman from Missouri coming to Puerto Rico, the 51st state, having a car accident and being tried in court in Spanish?”

Mr. Acevedo measures the island’s lost opportunities in the friends and family members, many of them young professionals, he has watched leave over the last decade. One of his nephews decamped to Connecticut so his wife could pursue her career in aerospace engineering. Mr. Acevedo’s daughter lives in Los Angeles.

As for the junta’s implication that Puerto Rico can’t manage its own affairs, people here point to the COVID-19 pandemic, which the island has handled better than most U.S. states. Its COVID-19 death rate is relatively low – 967 per million, compared to 2,456 for the U.S. overall – while its 70 per cent fully-vaccinated rate puts it on par with top-vaccinated states such as Massachusetts and New York.

The central reason is that Puerto Rico’s government has had the political will to do things most state authorities have refused. This last summer, for instance, Mr. Pierluisi made vaccination mandatory for bar and restaurant patrons.

Parents Abraham Rivera Berrios and Gladys Fuentes Lozada sit at bedside and hold hands with their son, Emanuel Rivera Fuentes, at his home in the San Juan suburb of Toa Alta. The younger Mr. Rivera needs constant care due to cerebral palsy and other disabilities.Alvin Baez/Reuters

Constitutionally still a colony

In the spring of 2019, Abraham Rivera Berrios went to a federal government office in Toa Alta, the San Juan suburb where he lives, to apply for Supplemental Security Income for his son, Emanuel Rivera Fuentes. The younger Mr. Rivera, 35, is confined to his bed by cerebral palsy and a series of other medical conditions.

The elder Mr. Rivera hoped SSI, which offers up to US$794 a month to severely disabled Americans, would help purchase his son a bed lifter, a new wheelchair and physiotherapy.

But staff at the office rebuffed Mr. Rivera: the U.S. doesn’t pay SSI to anyone living in Puerto Rico. “I felt disappointed, frustrated, discriminated against, as a parent of any child with special conditions would,” says Mr. Rivera, 70.

Now, the younger Mr. Rivera has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the estimated 300,000 Puerto Ricans who would be eligible for SSI if they lived on the U.S. mainland. The U.S. Supreme Court is already weighing a different case brought by another Puerto Rico resident, Jose Vaello Madero, on the same topic.

These legal actions shine a spotlight on the Insular Cases. Written in 1901, they effectively decided the constitutional status of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish-American War. Their central ruling was that the U.S. Constitution did not fully apply in these territories, and therefore the U.S. government had absolute power over them. In justifying this decision, one justice wrote that the territories were “inhabited by alien races” who couldn’t govern themselves “according to Anglo-Saxon principles.”

Many Puerto Ricans are less interested at this point in fixing the relationship with the United States than in severing it completely.

“Puerto Rico will lose its language, its culture,” Rafael Rodriguez, a 79-year-old retired roofer, says on the sidelines of a Sunday afternoon salsa dance party at the foot of Old San Juan’s city walls. “We can do it ourselves. We can have everything.”

A man takes pictures at San Juan's Condado lagoon as buildings lie dark during a blackout.Carlos Giusti/The Associated Press

Much of Puerto Rico sits at an intersection between two worlds. It has a lower per capita income than any U.S. state, but is wealthier than any Latin American country. Its economy is dominated by manufacturing, in contrast with those of its tourism-dependent Caribbean neighbours. San Juan is a vibrant metropolis but everywhere – from the 16th-century old city to the waterfront high-rises of Condado to the bank towers of Hato Rey – storefronts, apartment buildings and office blocks sit vacant.

Ms. Villanueva, for her part, favours independence, but she doesn’t believe it’s likely to happen. In any event, she considers political status a secondary question. More immediate are the needs for health care and other public services, whatever arrangement can provide them.

She’s lived in Hill Brothers her whole life, raising two children here as a single mother. Her earliest activism came at 16, she recalls, when she laid down on the street as part of a protest to turn a government-owned warehouse into a basketball court and community space.

In the aftermath of Maria, she and her neighbours burned candles and shared generators for months to deal with the power outages. They cooked meals together, and picked bananas and breadfruit, which grow wild in the neighbourhood. Residents of new subdivisions lacking these mature fruit trees, she says, would come to Hill Brothers to share in the bounty.

It was only the latest time people had to fend for themselves in a history of colonial mistreatment, which she lists off this evening: a program of forced sterilization from the 1930s to the 1960s; the testing of Agent Orange in the 1950s and ‘60s; the Jones Act, a law requiring only U.S. ships carry freight between U.S. ports, which drives up the costs of trade for Puerto Rico with the mainland.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is happy to avail itself of the most talented Puerto Ricans. She points to Antonia Novello, the first woman to serve as surgeon-general, and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

“The problem is not the status itself. It’s the way the relationship has been built throughout the years,” Ms. Villanueva says. “They have used our natural resources and our demographic resources, our people, they have really stripped us of everything we had, and now that there is nothing else to give, they are essentially throwing us away.”


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