U.S. congressional lawmakers have begun the process of drafting legislation to allow Puerto Ricans to determine their territorial status, highlighting potential implications for the island’s ability to fully participate in the democratic process.
Last month, congressional legislators announced that they have begun developing the Puerto Rican Status Act, a fusion of two pieces of rival legislation regarding independence and statehood, respectively. The bill, once drafted, would allow Puerto Ricans to vote in 2023 on whether they would prefer independence, statehood, or a modified form of independence “that retains certain links to the U.S.”
Notably absent from these options is a continuation of Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory in which citizens are only symbolically represented by a nonvoting member of Congress and are unable to vote for President. If passed, the Puerto Rican Status Act would permanently alter the trajectory of electoral politics in Puerto Rico, bolstering representative democracy in an era when it is desperately needed.
This crucial opportunity emerges at a time when Puerto Rico’s relations with the U.S. federal government have become increasingly contentious, particularly in the wake of recent natural disasters. For context, in 2016, Congress formed Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability (PROMESA), in response to Governor Alejandro Padilla’s declaration of bankruptcy the previous year. In doing so, Congress essentially took fiscal responsibility away from the Puerto Rican government, further limiting the control Puerto Rico had over its own affairs. This action violates political theorist Robert Dahl’s concept of democracy as a government’s ability “continuing responsiveness” to its citizens’ preferences. Dahl elaborates on this, asserting that citizens must be able to formulate and communicate their preferences to one another, as well as a government that ideally takes their desires into equal consideration. In the complete absence of a democratic system, and without the ability to communicate their grievances to a government receptive to their preferences, many Puerto Ricans have expressed that they feel like second-class citizens.
When disaster struck in 2017 with the advent of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, devastation tore across the island, yet the authority over disaster relief aid rested in the hands of former president Trump and FEMA, rather than Puerto Rican municipalities. FEMA’s budget remained stretched thin, federal willpower to assist proved to be weak, and it was difficult to quickly transport emergency services and supplies from the mainland to impacted areas. As days and weeks turned into months, Puerto Ricans continued to lack access to basic needs and the infrastructure that they needed in order to rebuild. Consequently, the recovery process was much longer than it should have been, and Puerto Ricans were left in the dark, both literally and figuratively, by a government that they did not have any electoral say in.
While it is not yet clear when Congress will introduce the bill—or whether or not the bill would pass, for that matter—it is becoming increasingly clear that Puerto Ricans must be able to have a voice in the government they are at the mercy of. Democracies erode when significant groups of people are not represented, and it’s up to Puerto Ricans to decide whether they would prefer full electoral representation through statehood, full power over their own affairs through independence, or a hybrid model that retains connections with the mainland yet still weakens colonialism’s vicious grip.
3. Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.