Being a US territory should mean somethingAll Out Politics, Commentary, Online Only, Section 4A, Top Highlights Thursday, November 2nd, 2017
All Out Politics
Imagine you live on an island in the Caribbean Sea. Your home is one of more than 7,000 islands in the immediate region. Your island is one of only 27 territories and sovereign nations into which a local galaxy of isles are politically organized.
You, your family, your friends, and most of your fellow islanders feel special in comparison to your Caribbean neighbors. Uniquely, your home island is a wholly owned territory of the United States of America. You may live offshore from the mainland, but still you are a U.S. citizen—a stakeholder, no less, in the world’s oldest democracy and the wealthiest society it has ever known.
You have family members who serve in the U.S. military. You may not get to vote in presidential elections, and the votes of your member of Congress may only be symbolic—not actually counting for against federal legislation—but as a Puerto Rican, you’re also a proud American.
That means something, or so you thought until recently. In the aftermath Hurricane Maria and in light of the American government’s response to a storm of biblical proportions, you struggle to believe that your American exceptionalism among Caribbean islands is of any material value now.
Last week, a month after the storm, Esquire published photographs shot in various locations across Puerto Rico that look more like an undeveloped nation following decades of a war and neglect than a lush jewel-in-the-crown of American territories cleaning up after a terrible hurricane. The worst image, of course, featured a clueless American president, flicking rolls of paper towels at American citizens who happen also to be Puerto Rican. Although the symbolic irony of President Trump’s impotent gesture seemed lost on him, it was not on Puerto Ricans still suffering without potable water four weeks into the “recovery” from Hurricane Maria.
The U.S. took Puerto Rico from Spain 99 years ago. In that time, your island has considered petitioning for statehood five times—most recently this year. The result was again that the vast majority who participated in the plebiscite voted for statehood.
Some say the reason Puerto Rico hasn’t launched an all-out campaign to attain statehood is because some leaders in your local government and within the business elite class want a non-existent status called “developed commonwealth.” According to pro-statehood lobbying group, PR51st, asking Washington to bestow developed commonwealth status on Puerto Rica is a non-starter for the federal government. PR51st’s website says becoming a so-called developed commonwealth would give Puerto Rico all of the benefits of statehood while sparing it many of the responsibilities—again, something that’s not offered by the U.S. Constitution.
Whatever the reason Puerto Rico remains a territory and not a state, one thing is clearer post-Maria than it was ever before: Unless and until Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state of the United States, your sumptuously tropical and subtropical home will remain an American territory with a special relationship to this country—but without a guarantee of being treated like a part of it the way a state is treated.
When the right set of political dynamics exist in Washington, D.C., there may be little difference between how your island experiences hurricane or other federal disaster relief, and how Florida might experience it. But, depending on twisting political winds, you might also get a suboptimal, non-state federal response.
It’s at least an interesting anecdote if not a significant cultural artifact that the nomenclature, “51st state of America” is an occasional descriptor of Puerto Rico along with another group of North Atlantic islands: The British Isles have been pejoratively called the 51st state of America—perhaps most famously by two U.K. punk bands, The Shakes and New Model Army.
The United States is proud of its special relationship with the United Kingdom—I think it’s time we get that way about our special relationship with you, my Puerto Rican-American friend. After all, you are already a fellow American. We share as much culture with you and nearly as much history as we do with the U.K.
To be U.S. territory should mean something. Is should be a place of high esteem to be universally recognized as the first candidate in line to be the next state of this Union. To be a U.S. territory should not mean being treated as second-class citizens. To the contrary, it should mean being the beneficiary of mindful, caring stewardship by the nation that holds you in possession. You should be valued, not begrudged.
Let’s not forget the geopolitical value of Puerto Rico. It’s not hard to think of five countries from China to Mexico that would love to call Puerto Rico their bilateral ally—if not their prized possession.
Your island may be “just a possession” belonging to a patron nation, but you’ve always thought if one had to live in a place with territorial, as opposed to nation-state, status, who wouldn’t want to be to a citizen of an American possession, like Puerto Rico? Given the United States’ unique position of wealth and power, living in one of our unincorporated territories, you’ve always assumed, comes with a strong and justified sense of being protected.
One would assume life in a U.S. territory would be a life of privilege and cherishment by the great nation that holds the title and deed, as it were, to your island home. Post-Hurricane Maria, you my fellow American, must be rethinking your assumptions.
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