Will Puerto Rico ever become a state or an independent nation after Hurricane Fiona?

Will Puerto Rico ever become a state or an independent nation after Hurricane Fiona?

For the second time in five years, dramatic infrastructure collapse in Puerto Rico following a storm has raised questions about the Caribbean island's governmental standing as a U.S. territory whose citizens cannot vote for president or voting members of Congress.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, more than 1 million consumers were still without power, and over half of a major water authority's clients were without flowing water. According to detractors, the island's frail electricity grid and infrastructure are the result of a lack of political influence due to poor governmental representation.

Democrats in the House introduced a bill this year that would allow Puerto Rican citizens to vote for self-determination. Statehood or independence are two of the suggested reforms.

What is the legal standing of Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico, which the United States seized from Spain during the Spanish-American War in 1898, is a commonwealth, or self-governing state, subject to the authority of Congress. Residents have the right to vote in presidential primaries but not in general elections. The island has a nonvoting representative in Congress but no voting representatives or senators, as states do.

Residents in Washington, D.C., on the other hand, which has been touted as a contender for statehood, have no voting members of Congress but may vote for president. There are three electoral votes in the district.

Puerto Ricans have had the option to voice their opinions on the island's governmental status, through multiple nonbinding ballots on the island's relationship with the United States. In a 2020 ballot question regarding statehood, 52.3% of voters stated they supported Puerto Rico becoming a state. Between 1967 and 1998, a majority of Puerto Rican voters supported the island's continued status as a commonwealth. Others desired complete independence.

Will Puerto Rico ever become a state or an independent nation after Hurricane Fiona?
View of a destroyed bridge following Hurricane Fiona's impact on Villa Esperanza in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday, September 21, 2022. Alejandro Granillo, AP

What does the fact that Puerto Rico is not a state imply?

Puerto Ricans are still suffering with the fallout from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island five years ago this week. According to those in support of a change in status, this has exacerbated Hurricane Fiona recovery and serves as a new reminder of Puerto Rico's disadvantages under the existing administrative structure.

The island's failing power infrastructure has "become the poster child of the deterioration of the colonial system, its institutions, and a very vulnerable people," according to Cecilio Ortiz Garca, co-founder of the University of Puerto Rico's National Institute of Energy and Island Sustainability.

According to critics, the federal reaction to Maria was delayed in comparison to relief offered following previous disasters in U.S. states.

Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Puerto Rico's nonvoting congressional representative and a proponent of statehood, sees a "clear link" between Puerto Rico's political position and its deteriorating infrastructure.

"Puerto Rico, being a US territory, is subject to a slew of federal regulations. However, we do not have the same resources as a state "She told NPR about it. "And that implies that the island's economic status, with a 47% poverty rate, is worse than in any other state. Once Puerto Rico becomes a state, the island's economy will be able to return to normalcy, as it did for Hawaii and Alaska many years ago."

What steps are being taken to alter Puerto Rico's status?

Representatives and senators have submitted proposals in the current Congress that would allow Puerto Rico to reevaluate its relationship with the United States. Last year, at least one House bill was proposed that would grant Puerto Rico sovereignty.

Puerto Rican legislators and the island's Democratic governor, Pedro Pierluisi, were in Washington this week urging Congress to enact the Puerto Rico Status Act, which calls for a binding referendum on the island's status by Puerto Ricans in 2023.

Will Puerto Rico ever become a state or an independent nation after Hurricane Fiona?
On Tuesday, September 20, 2022, a man gathers donated water bottles for drinking after Hurricane Fiona devastated water supplies in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. Stephanie Rojas, AP

"It is time to put an end to colonialism in America." "It is time to dissolve Puerto Rico's territorial connection with the United States," Pierluisi stated in Washington.

What are the chances that Puerto Rico's status will change?

Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican, believes the self-determination law will be approved by Congress, noting passage by a congressional committee and the backing of certain Republicans. However, it confronts a high threshold in light of history and contemporary opposition.

The issue of Puerto Rican statehood exposes considerable partisan differences. Some Democratic activists have argued for granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., both of which are predicted to tilt Democratic politically, as a method of balancing what is perceived to be a Republican structural advantage in the Senate and the Electoral College.

Many Republicans are opposed to statehood, and others believe it is a Democratic tactic to strengthen the party's clout in Congress. Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate Republican leader, stated in 2020 that if he were the Senate majority leader, Puerto Rican statehood would not be granted.

In a 2020 interview, Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally spelled up the GOP's concerns: "They plan to create D.C. and Puerto Rico states and appoint four more Democratic senators. We'd never have the Senate back."

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