- Puerto Rico is set to vote Sunday on US statehood
- Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917
“United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell” explores the complex history of Puerto Rico and its relationship with the United States at 10p ET/PT Sunday on CNN.
When outsiders think of Puerto Rico, a couple of things probably come to mind: It’s a small island in the Caribbean. People mostly speak Spanish there. It’s not a US state but has American ties. They were the Sharks in “West Side Story.” (Wait, maybe they were the Jets?) But there’s so much more to know.
For starters, the Stars and Stripes might need an upgrade soon: Citizens of Puerto Rico vote Sunday on whether the US commonwealth should become a state.
Some Puerto Ricans are raring to cozy up with America to jump-start a flagging economy; meanwhile, plenty of residents would just as soon maintain the status quo, and others would prefer to break ties all together.
Momentum has been building for the island shaped like a postage stamp to join the union as the 51st state, so it’s probably smart to start reading up about America’s cousin to the south — its background, economic status and heritage.
Step back in time
It was eventually named Puerto Rico, which means “rich port” and became a Spanish colony for about 400 years.
The island came under US control in 1898 after the Spanish-American War.
What’s a commonwealth?
What’s the difference in between a commonwealth and a territory? Not too much, except that commonwealths have their own constitutions. Puerto Rican residents have been US citizens since 1917 (thanks to the Jones Act), so they receive many of the same benefits and protections, with just a few differences.
For one, they can truthfully say, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for them,” when discussing the US presidency. While voters can participate in primary elections, they can’t vote for president in the general election. In 2016, 75% of Puerto Ricans voted for Marco Rubio in the Republican primary (and nearly 14% for Donald Trump) versus Hillary Clinton’s 61% of the Democratic vote.
Puerto Rico has a nonvoting delegate in Washington, called a resident commissioner. Back home, Puerto Rico has its own governor and legislative body.
A definite plus to living on the island and one reason some might prefer things as they are: Puerto Ricans only have to pay federal income taxes on work they’ve done in the States, and not at home.
As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico gets US military protection and receives federal funding from the government for highways and social programs, just not as much as an official state gets.
Citizens pay into Social Security and have access to Medicare and Medicaid, but instead of being eligible for Supplemental Security Income assistance, low-income, elderly and blind or disabled people can get help from a similar program run by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Statehood, independence or somewhere in between
Options for Puerto Rico’s future include remaining a commonwealth, becoming a state, entering “free association” or becoming an independent nation. Free association is an official affiliation with the United States where Puerto Rico would still receive military assistance and funding.
In 2012, a referendum took place where, for the first time ever, the majority of voters chose statehood, but it didn’t go anywhere. (Some argued the results should have been considered a “no” since more than one-third of voters left the part about alternative status blank.)
“I think people just came to realize that the current relationship simply does not create the number of jobs that we need,” Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock said after that vote nearly five years ago.
On Sunday, a fifth vote is scheduled to take place. If the “ayes have it,” another vote follows in October. The next step would be a statute passed by Congress that would lay out the details of the transition process over the next few years, which would end with statehood. If Congress does not pass a statute, Puerto Rico’s status remains as it is.
It’s unlikely that the island will choose independence. In 2012, 6% of voters opted to cut ties with the United States.
“What people have to understand about the need for independence is that there’s a fear that’s been instilled on the people in Puerto Rico that if we were independent we couldn’t run our own country,” activist Rosa Clemente, the 2008 vice presidential nominee for the Green Party, told CNN’s W. Kamau Bell.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Plus, a lot of people moved away.
Statehood for Puerto Rico could help the island’s economy bounce back faster since more money would come in from federal spending on programs (but keep in mind the offset for federal revenue from individual and corporate taxes).
Fight or flight
On the flip side, some people and businesses see valuable financial benefits in moving to Puerto Rico. Two laws enacted in 2012 give tax breaks to nonresidents and tax exemptions on investments for residents.
The crossroads of the Caribbean
What it means to be Puerto Rican
Puerto Rico’s ethnic heritage is a blend of European, indigenous and African cultures. There’s no one way to describe how native Puerto Ricans look today, former Miss Puerto Rico Universe Ingrid Rivera told Kamau Bell. “You can see absolutely everything here.”
Having Puerto Rican roots is like belonging to a huge, close-knit family, and those members who achieve success on the international stage are a source of immense pride back home.
“(I)t really put me back in touch with my people, and I had a people. I had a people who knew all about me. I just didn’t know about them.”