Ill-informed Consent, the Question of Statehood for Puerto Rico
by DCDave

In the wake of the passage by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 4 of a bill that would nudge Puerto Rico toward becoming the 51st state, I gave a call to a Washington friend of mine and asked him, out of the blue, what he thought of the idea of statehood for the island. It was meant to be a bit of a test. This is a man who has written two outstanding books on public policy and for quite a long time has been on the board of a foundation that gives out money for high-minded causes. He is, in short, a well-connected political liberal who is better informed on important public issues than almost anyone I know.

"Well, I must say I don't know enough to have an opinion," was his response.

"How refreshing!" I thought. How nice it would be if TV pundits like Nina Totenberg or Fred Barnes or our entire host of opinion molders in the American press would adhere to the rule of withholding opinion when they lack sufficient information!

He went on to add that all he knew was that when his dad was down in Puerto Rico in the early part of the century working on a project to map the ocean floor he told him about encountering a great deal of anti-American sentiment.

"He got the impression that they hated us," he said, and the Marine guards told him that they had to shoot one or two of them from time to time.

"That must have been a long time ago," I responded, because that sort of thing doesn't go on anymore. The U.S. military presence has greatly diminished, and outward nationalist, anti-American sentiment has diminished as well, but a strong sense of nationhood still persists among the people and probably always will, regardless of recent indications that almost half the people favor statehood, and both the current elected governor and lone non-voting Congressional representative are pushing for it.

I dare say that my friend's knowledge of Puerto Rico is hardly less than that of the members of Congress who just voted on a bill, crafted in conjunction with strong pro-statehood elements on the island, that is designed to grease the skids toward that political status objective. Most are ripe to believe whatever they are told by one or another of the partisan groups who come up to lobby them. Never wanting to admit to ourselves that we were no less colonialists than the European powers when we acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico in our "splendid little war" with Spain a century ago, we have virtually shut the fact out of our minds--and our institutions. Unlike the British, we have no colonial office, and never had one. Puerto Rico, under the War Department until 1934 when it was transferred to the Department of Interior, now falls under...nothing. To show everyone that it is nothing more than a "freely associated state," as the commonwealth status that went into effect in 1952 is called in Spanish, Puerto Rico, unlike the remaining territories, has been removed from the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. Members of Congress now have nowhere to turn for objective expertise on the island within the executive branch.

And here's how bad things have become. A couple of years ago, in my Washington capacity as business coordinator for the Puerto Rico governor's office, I received one of many routine inquiries about some manner of business on the island, this time, from a man from Iowa.

"I called the U.S. State Department," he told me, "and asked for the Puerto Rico desk. Would you believe that they told me they don't handle Puerto Rico because it's a state?"

"When did that happen?" he asked them.

"I don't know," came the reply, "but here's the number for the state office in Washington," and that's how the man ended up talking to me.

The situation is not a great deal better in the halls of academia. When I accepted the job to work in the research office of Puerto Rico's Economic Development Administration in San Juan, I was teaching economics in college in North Carolina. One of my colleagues, with an office across the hall, was a recent distinguished product of the outstanding Tulane University Ph.D. program in Latin American history, raised as the son of missionaries to Peru and later to Honduras. I asked him what he might be able to tell me to expect in Puerto Rico.

"I don't know," came the response, "I haven't studied a thing about Puerto Rico." In college Latin American programs, he said, Puerto Rico is thought of as part of the United States, so they don't cover it. But then those studying U.S. history don't study it either, because they think of it as belonging to Latin America.

Stalled Economic Convergence

Actually, up until the late 60s, as long as this "Poorhouse of the Caribbean" was regarded as a giant social problem, a variety of U.S. social scientists, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, etc. did write a good deal about the island. The most famous work is probably La Vida, the sensationalized, sex-saturated look by anthropologist Oscar Lewis at the absolutely lowest social class he could find on the island. Much more substantial and scholarly was The Modernization of Puerto Rico by Henry Wells, a book that provided many of the attributed insights of the Latin Americanist, Lawrence Harrison, for his very influential 1988 work, Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind. With the success of the "Operation Bootstrap" industrialization program, however, the social scientists seemed to have lost interest in Puerto Rico. They thought, one may assume, that Puerto Rico was well on its way to becoming pretty much like the rest of the United States. If that's what they thought, they were wrong.

Gross national product per capita in Puerto Rico in 1951 was a mere 16.5 percent of U.S. GNP per capita. By 1971 it had reached 35.0 percent of U.S. per capita GNP. Full convergence, at least up to the level of the poorest states, it seemed, would just be a matter of time. It hasn't happened. In 1996, Puerto Rico's per capita GNP was back down to 28.6 percent of U.S. GNP per capita. Another development has also loomed big upon the scene, the coming of massive federal largesse. As late as 1965, federal expenditures on the island were only 15.6 percent of personal income. Now they are 34.5 percent of personal income. Food stamps (converted to a Nutrition Assistance block grant in 1983) are the big one. In the two years in which Puerto Rico began to be treated like a state in the food stamp program, 1974-1976, federal funds jumped from 22.6 to 36.4 percent of total personal income.

Meanwhile, the industrialization program, whose success took the wind out of the sails of the independence movement and caused a general toning down of the eternal Puerto Rico debate over political status, is now pretty much dead in the water. From the beginning it had been built upon the arrangement by which U.S. companies excused from paying Puerto Rico taxes on profits earned in Puerto Rico didn't have to make them up with U.S. taxes. Puerto Rico used that arrangement to lure U.S. manufacturers to the island. In the beginning they were mainly low-wage, labor-intensive companies without extraordinarily high profits, so the tax cost to the U.S. was tolerable. But with lowered tariffs and increased quotas and growing foreign competition, many of the low-wage companies left Puerto Rico and they were replaced by high-profit companies like pharmaceuticals who found that they could shelter huge amounts of taxes by making only their most profitable products on the island. The U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Congress began to chop away at the tax benefits until, in 1995, they eliminated them completely for any new companies.

As "Bootstrap" has waned, the old status debate has once again waxed. In fact, there are some who attribute Puerto Rico's relative economic decline to the death grip that two quintessential status politicians, pro-commonwealth Rafael Hernandez Colon (Popular Democratic Party or PDP) and pro-statehood Carlos Romero Barcelo (New Progressive Party or NPP) have had on the island's politics for the last quarter century. Hernandez Colon first became governor in 1973. Romero was mayor of the capital city, San Juan, at the time. Hernandez Colon lasted one term as governor and was replaced by Romero, who lasted two, though in his second term the legislature was controlled by the PDP. Hernandez Colon, who lost very narrowly to Romero in 1980, defeated him in 1984 and won again in 1988 against NPP Resident Commissioner Baltasar Corrada del Rio..

After his easy reelection, apparently bored with the dirty work of actually governing, a common ailment of Puerto Rican political leaders, Hernandez Colon proceeded to make an absolute wreck of his 1989-1992 term. He surprised almost everyone by announcing in his inaugural address that he would attempt to get improvements in Washington in the commonwealth arrangement, an attempt that subsequently failed miserably, and when he wasn't in Washington on his quixotic quest, it seemed that most of the rest of the time he was practically incommunicado in Europe on ill-defined affairs of state. His popularity plummeted and with it that of his party. He was forced into retirement.

In 1992 the PDP put up for governor Victoria "Melo" Munoz, the daughter of the late party patriarch and island legend, Luis Munoz Marin; and the NPP, tired of losing with Romero, ran the photogenic political novice, pediatrician Pedro Rossello, who had lost to the not particularly well-liked incumbent Jaime Fuster in his only previous race, that for Resident Commissioner in 1988. Romero, by this time twice governor and three times a candidate for the position, took a back seat as Resident Commissioner candidate this time, while Hernandez Colon was safely out of the way in self-exile in Spain. Rossello and the NPP won a crushing victory over the PDP, gaining a huge majority in both houses of the legislature as well as a majority of the mayorships.

Rossello mistook the voters rebuke of the PDP for their misgovernment as an endorsement of statehood and immediately called for a plebiscite. The vote took place in November of 1993 with commonwealth getting 48.6 percent of the vote, statehood 46.3, and independence 4.4.

Rossello and Romero, with the economy for the time being holding up reasonably well on the coattails of the U.S. economy and with the PDP still struggling and virtually leaderless, won again in 1996 and promptly began to focus their attention on getting U.S. sanctions for a new plebiscite that they would stand a better chance of winning.

Against this background of growing welfare dependency, a huge economic gap versus the U.S. that has been widening, and a return to extreme political contentiousness in which the statehooders for the moment have the upper hand, the U.S. Congress, in its wisdom, weighed in with strongly statehooder-influenced legislation. As one might expect under the circumstances, it could hardly have been better devised to ensure that Puerto Ricans would soon produce a bare majority for statehood, after which the Congress would be obligated expeditiously, and in all likelihood favorably, to act upon the matter.

Misleading Public Opinion

Could the 209 Congressmen who voted for this bill--or the 208 who voted against it for that matter--really have known what they were doing? Do they really know enough to offer an informed opinion, much less a vote? And where could people like my well-meaning friend go to learn enough to have such an opinion? The American press would hardly be a help because, up to now, this important legislation has generally been treated as a big secret. The little that has been written could only be characterized as a case of the blind leading the blind. Take, for instance, the March 30, 1998, lead "TRB from Washington" column in the very influential New Republic, written by Charles Lane. The column is entitled "Admit It," and apparently Lane would sooner have our nation take the drastic step of making Puerto Rico the 51st state than admit how little he knows or understands of the issue. On the key economic, political, and cultural questions he shows himself to be clueless, but that does not stop him from confidently telling us what we should think. Let's take each category in turn:


What would Puerto Rican statehood really change? Economically, not much. Opponents point to widespread poverty and welfare dependence among the island's 3.8 million inhabitants, who are U. S. citizens and are therefore eligible for food stamps and the like. Critics note that, for complicated legal reasons, Puerto Rico's poor would be entitled to even more under statehood. However, this would be offset by an increase in tax revenues; under the commonwealth arrangement, Puerto Ricans don't pay federal income tax. On balance, the General Accounting Office says, statehood would cost the U.S. $3 billion or $4 billion per year, hardly enough to bust the federal budget.

The fact that Puerto Ricans are U. S. citizens, which they have been since 1917, has nothing whatever to do with the federal programs in which they are permitted to participate. Every time an appropriation--or any other piece of legislation for that matter--comes along the Congress has a choice of including Puerto Rico and the territories among their definition of the United States or not. Since the early 70s they have taken to routinely counting Puerto Rico in; before that they did not. This policy shift seems to have been made with as little thought behind it as what now seems to have gone into H.R. 856. But Puerto Rico has been consciously left out of one very big program, Supplemental Security Income for Aged, Disabled, and Blind (SSI). Because poverty, in addition to the other factors is a primary determinant for eligibility, Puerto Rico would get over $1 billion annually from that program alone if it were a state. Puerto Rico is also capped in Nutrition Assistance (which replaced Food Stamps in 1983), Aid to Families and Dependent Children, and Medicaid, and receives grants by a different formula than the states in several lesser programs. That's why the costs would go up.

Lane says these would be "offset" by the taxes Puerto Rico would pay, but then in the very next sentence he reveals that he should have really said "partially offset" because, "on balance" the new cost would be what he treats as the mere pittance of $3 to $4 billion annually. Never mind the legitimate resentment that this would engender among the residents of the current 50 states and never mind the fact that the figure would doubtless climb with each passing year and never mind the complete dependence on the federal dole that it would insure for Puerto Rico for the foreseeable future.

And while idleness in Puerto Rico would be much more greatly rewarded than now under statehood, gainful work would be increasingly penalized. The IRS would get to mine the same narrow income tax base that is now thoroughly mined by the insular government. Puerto Rico's income taxes are higher than federal taxes. Though they could be deducted from federal obligations, the two together would constitute a crushing burden. Puerto Rico also has excise taxes on gasoline, tobacco, and alcoholic beverages that would be combined with new federal ones. If Puerto Rico were to bring its income and excise taxes into line with those of the typical state, its bloated government would have to shrink drastically. The new federal dollars coming in would go not to the Puerto Rico government but mainly to individuals. In fact, over $300 million that now goes to the Commonwealth government would be cut off. That is the $100+ million that is annually collected in U. S. customs and turned over to Puerto Rico and the $200+ million that is collected on Puerto Rican rum in the U. S. and rebated to Puerto Rico under the commonwealth arrangement. However you cut it, the first thing the new state of Puerto Rico would face would be a fiscal crisis. Holders of Puerto Rico government bonds ought already to be feeling a bit nervous at the prospect.

Finally, though Congress has now eliminated the corporate tax sparing arrangement that lured the U. S. manufacturers whose investments now support the lion's share of Puerto Rico's economy not supported by federal transfer payments, corporations receiving tax breaks from Puerto Rico can still defer them as they could were the investment in a foreign country. That possibility would be removed when Puerto Rico became a state and Puerto Rico would be deprived of its last remaining major industrial incentive.


Statehood would result in only two major changes. The first is that it would create six new seats in the House of Representatives and two new seats in the Senate. In the recent debate, some Republicans fretted about creating so much new legislative power for liberal Puerto Rican Democrats, who would presumably use their clout to advocate ever-expanding welfare benefits for the folks back home---and for minorities on the mainland.

But would they really? Puerto Rico has a highly developed political culture, with a vigorous two-party system and a strong strain of social conservatism. Although the commonwealth currently has strict gun-registration laws, it also permits school prayer and provided government vouchers for kids to attend private school. Anyway, safe liberal Puerto Rican Democratic House districts already exist--on the mainland. Representative Nydia Velazquez--a liberal Democrat who opposed the statehood bill--owes her seat to the creation of a majority-Latino congressional district in New York City in 1992 (a bit of racial gerrymandering, by the way, that was approved by the Bush administration's civil rights division).

The country would get two new Senators out of Puerto Rico statehood, but the six Puerto Rican Representatives would come out of the hides of the other states. The law now limits the total of voting Representatives in the House to 435, regardless of how many states there are. One can't help wondering if he were not mistaken about this simple fact Mr. Lane would have written an editorial opposing statehood.

He is right that there is a good deal of social conservatism among the Puerto Rican populace, but it does not translate very well into fiscally-conservative political representation. You see, the two-party system in Puerto Rico is not Republican and Democrat, it is New Progressive Party (NPP) and Popular Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP is very close to the liberal Democratic wing of the national Democratic party, and the NPP is very close to...organized labor and the Democrats. What separates them is their position on political status, with the NPP for statehood and the PDP for commonwealth. Neither in recent years has seen a federal appropriation for any sort of social program that it didn't like. And why wouldn't they like them? Most of the programs are based on need, and that stacks the deck for Puerto Rico with its 58.9 percent of the population living below the official federal poverty level.

It is true that there is a national Democratic and national Republican Party in Puerto Rico, but they are invisible in local politics, existing only to influence the choice for presidential candidates at the national party conventions. Republican candidates for president usually pay lip service to statehood for Puerto Rico because that is what they have to do to get the Puerto Rican delegates. It does not mean that the rank and file of the NPP, which Puerto Rican "Republicans" tend most often to be for tactical reasons, care in the least for the policies of the real Republicans. Interestingly, the last two NPP governors as well as the last two NPP resident commissioners--and this takes us from 1977 to the present--have declared themselves to be Democrats. So, too, of course, have all PDP governors and resident commissioners over the period.

Yes, for what it is worth there are currently three Puerto Rican Representatives in the House, and they are probably safe for liberal Democrats, though not necessarily for Puerto Rican ones. With Puerto Rican statehood that number would triple. With such heavy dependence on federal programs throughout the island for the foreseeable future, it is virtually inconceivable that anyone wanting to get elected or to stay in office in Puerto Rico would not vote the fiscal-liberal line consistently.

Now let us look at the interesting case of Rep. Velazquez. Pigs would fly before she would have supported H.R. 856. She voted against the Puerto Rico statehood bill not because she doesn't like the idea of greater representation by more liberal Puerto Ricans but because she is first and foremost a member of Puerto Rico's PDP, the commonwealth party. They, in effect, put her where she is. She was sent to New York from Puerto Rico by Governor Hernandez Colon to head up his government's office there. She then parlayed the prominence of that position into a successful run for Congress after the gerrymandering that Mr. Lane speaks of. At the time Ms. Velazquez headed the New York office the NPP leaders were quite critical of the money and manpower put into that office, claiming that the Populares were "playing the republic" as is their wont, what with their expensive New York "consulate." (Puerto Rico has had for many years a large separate industrial promotion office in New York and several other cities around the country and abroad.). But when the pro-statehood NPP came back into power in 1993, they not only beefed up this New York civic affairs office, they greatly expanded their Washington office and opened up several new offices around the country, wherever there are large concentrations of Puerto Ricans. Virtually the only purpose of these offices is to wield influence with the local Puerto Rican communities and to enhance their power and influence in the larger United States. With the same party likely to be in power should Puerto Rico become a state, one can't think of any reason why they might be inclined to shrink back from this heavy-handed influence wielding.. One is also hard pressed to think of any parallels, either domestic or foreign, past or present, for such a network of intra-national "consulates."


The second major change statehood would bring about is the creation of America's first non-English-speaking state. Proponents tend not to emphasize the disquieting fact that three-quarters of Puerto Ricans speak only Spanish, but there is no denying it. To some degree, Puerto Rico would indeed be "another Quebec"--a "distinct society" whose claims for official recognition of its language could lay the basis for wider efforts to make America, like Canada, a bilingual country.
It all depends on how we go about adding Puerto Rico to the union. Statehood could go sour only if its advocates allow the more extreme forms of modern multiculturalism to define the terms of the island's accession--i.e., if statehood is treated as an opportunity to enshrine group rights as opposed to individual ones. If, on the other hand, the statehood legislation is written to provide for a reasonable degree of linguistic accommodation by Puerto Ricans--widespread English instruction in the schools, the use of English for government business on the island--and if Puerto Ricans know, in advance, that this is what they will be voting for, then there should be little danger that Puerto Rican statehood will become the opening act of America's balkanization, much less of its conversion into a republica latina.
Over the years, the salsa-dancing mainland has become a little bit more Latin, but Puerto Rico has become a lot more "American." Pro-statehood sentiment has been steadily growing, as measured by the nonbinding plebiscites periodically taken on the island. If the island's inhabitants vote to give up a little bit more of their cultural sovereignty in return for the blessings of full membership in the American political community, there's little reason to turn them away.

What a dreamer! Yes, Puerto Rico has become more "American," but so, too, has Japan, for goodness sakes! But a cruise ship tourist can walk up from the dock in Old San Juan to the Puerto Rico-government-run Museo del Indio (Museum of the Indian) and find there not a single explanation of anything in English. There are probably few tourist attractions anywhere so disdainful of the world language of tourism. Mr. Lane is also careful not to tell us--Is it that he does not know?--that statehood is yet to win even a plurality in Puerto Rico, much less a majority in the plebiscites. He also probably does not know that the last time the PDP was in power, 1985-1992, it eliminated English as one of the two official languages (the NPP has since restored it), and that for the first half century of U. S. control of the island a great effort was made to make Puerto Ricans into English speakers. Legions of native English speakers were sent down as teachers in the public schools, and the textbooks were in English, but with the coming of greater self-government in the 1950s the effort was abandoned.

Not even the strongest statehood advocate wants or expects to become more "Americanized" upon becoming a state. Romero has written in his book, Statehood Is for the Poor, that "our language and our culture are not negotiable." Contrary to Mr. Lane's expectations, H..R. 856, which Romero and the statehood theoretician's helped craft, in a section entitled "Official Language," carves that position into law. In fact, it even goes so far as to make it appear to any discerning voter that Spanish would be in greater jeopardy under the existing commonwealth arrangement than under statehood. So, yes, the voters of Puerto Rico have been told what they would be voting on. They would definitely be voting quite explicitly to become a Quebec-like state of the United States, though the Spanish-Caribbean insular culture of Puerto Rico is probably further removed from the dominant Anglo culture of the United States than is French culture from the rest of Canada. And since that is what they would be voting to approve, by Mr. Lane's own logic, there is indeed very great danger that "Puerto Rican statehood (would) become the opening act of America's balkanization...."

With all the danger signals flashing and with an unpublicized national Gallup poll showing that only 30 percent of Americans favor making Puerto Rico a state, a majority of the House of Representatives, with opinion molders like The New Republic urging them on, would plunge ahead. That old American spirit of ignorant optimism has a familiar ring:

While this delectable island has been of great value to Spain, it is likely to be vastly more important to the United States, merely on account, if for no other reason, of its contiguity. Such perishable products as bananas and other fruits of the tropics, green cocoanuts, etc., the raising of which is always profitable, can be brought to our ports on swift steamers and will find a ready sale. In fact, it will not take many years to show the wisdom of annexing this tropical territory to the United States and bringing it under the protecting wing of the American eagle. --Frederick Ober, Puerto Rico and its Resources, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899), p. 44.

It has been a century now since the United States swallowed "this delectable island." The wisdom of its having done so is yet to be shown. The attempt to digest it once and for all by making it a state is of similarly questionable wisdom.

David Martin
April 20, 1998

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