The status question is Puerto Rico’s daily bread and butter. Each morning on their way to work, Boricuas turn on their radios to hear pundits and politicians rant away about the benefits of statehood, commonwealth or independence. In the evening, they turn on the news to hear a continuation of said discussion. Though the debate may include reference to the poor economy, high import rates, welfare, and federal funding, almost always the status comes back around. Finally, every four years voters are rallied to the polls by political parties who attempt to convert election after election into a status referendum. Meanwhile, the local economy remains weak and the population is kept pacified and afloat with welfare dollars and federal transfers.
One particular aspect of Puerto Rican politics is that it’s political parties are not necessarily defined by leftist or rightist ideology. Both of the major parties have liberal and conservative wings. Throughout history governors from both parties have increased the role of the state in the private economy, privatized, and increased welfare. There are progressive Democrat estadistas that clamor for universal healthcare and there are conservative populares that wave the banner of privatization. It’s not too uncommon to find an independentista that hails free trade and market globalization. What pools each of these diverse crowd into their respective parties is nothing more then an allegiance to a particular status model. If Puerto Rico was ever to become a state or an independent republic, it would be amusing to see how its politicians would scramble to find their place within the traditional left versus right party system.
And though a blue, red or green flag might make Puerto Ricans’ hearts pump a little bit faster and their pace speed up on the way to the polling booth, on the macro level not much new is happening. Puerto Rico is no closer to statehood or independence than it was four, 10, or even 30 years ago. In fact, aside from increasing Puerto Rico’s local governing powers, the 60-year-old Commonwealth Constitution altered in no way the legal relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Since then, no amount of U.N. resolutions, presidential tasks forces, or lawsuits in the federal courts have changed anything.
There have been pro-statehood U.S. presidents, congressmen, governors, and even mayors, as if it really made a difference whether or not your municipios was estadista or popular made a difference on the status. Despite what looked to be an impressive win by the statehooders in the 2012 status referendum, factoring in the blank protest votes that were emitted, estadista numbers have remained fairly the same for almost five decades. Meanwhile, politicians continue to make false promises on the status, rising to power not through policy proposals or their capacity as administrators, but whether or not they want Puerto Rico to become a state. Even popular candidates – with their borrowed votes from the independentistas – win based on their ability to prevent an estadista from winning.
Meanwhile, the island depends almost entirely on imports, has few local industries, a weak local economy, and depends ridiculously on federal transfers. Interestingly enough, many estadista politicians cheer on Puerto Rico’s economic and social dependency on the U.S., citing it as yet another reason why Puerto Rico needs to become a state. Ironically, this is the primary reason that congressman do not want to extend statehood to Puerto Rico: statehood is simply too expensive. This is also the same reason why Puerto Ricans are scared to vote to become an independent republic. At the moment, Puerto Ricans are floating around in a sort of comfortable purgatory, waiting around for something to happen, either scared or impotent to do anything about it. And though Puerto Ricans have long cited its economic dependence as an impediment to independence, only now are estadistas taking note that it likewise crushes their chance to obtain statehood.
So what can be done about it? Well first, Puerto Ricans need to stop electing politicians based solely on who is the most estadista or anti-estadista. The politician that claims that they will obtain statehood or that Puerto Rico is in imminent danger of becoming a state is playing with voters’ emotions. The electorate needs to acknowledge that their preferred status options are ends and not means. Statehood is not around the corner, and even if it was, would do little to alter the quality of Puerto Rico’s politicians and the laws that they produce. Neither statehood, commonwealth, or independence are magic wands that will fix the island’s problems.
Not only have many Puerto Ricans grown comfortable, passive, or convenient, but the U.S. as well seems to be perfectly happy with the current Commonwealth status. Those who want an authentic change in status must shake things up, but not with pep rally marches, petitions, or booby-trapped referendums. In order to rock the boat, Puerto Ricans need to hit the imperialists where it hurts: the economy. They need to buy local, decrease and diversify imports, increase local produce, redirect incentives from multi-national sweatshops and bigboxes to small and medium businesses, and ultimately, wane off welfare. Sadly, many estadista leaders that are the first to block any effort meant to promote economic self-sufficiency. But at the end of the day, it will not be until the island can stand on it’s own two feet economically that residents and federal congressmen can freely select between options free from desperation or fear.
Luis Gallardo Rivera, M.P.A., J.D. is a legislator for the Municipality of Aguas Buenas in Puerto Rico. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Municipal Legislators of Puerto Rico and teaches courses in public administration for the University of Phoenix. @LuisGallardoPR