Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D–Ariz.), chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, was pissed.
The prominent progressive had just left a July 26 committee meeting on the Puerto Rico Status Act, a legislative compromise negotiated by the territory’s nonvoting House member, Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón of the New Progressive Party (PNP). The bill would allow Puerto Rico to conduct a binding referendum on the island’s status.
It was supposed to be a momentous day for Grijalva, a longtime supporter of Puerto Rican statehood. Instead, he and the bill’s other backers were handed a surprising defeat. Although Grijalva’s committee had approved the bill earlier that week, it was stalled by amendments, keeping it from advancing before the end of the summer session. His fellow progressives were to blame.
Reps. Chuy García (D–Ill.) and Rashida Tlaib (D–Mich.) joined Republicans on the committee to keep the bill from reaching the House floor. “Puerto Ricans deserve a formal and accessible legislative hearing on a bill of such importance wherein members of the Puerto Rican community and interested stakeholders have an opportunity to contribute their perspectives,” García tweeted after the markup, echoing the demands of some diaspora activists for a longer legislative runway leading to a vote for self-determination.
With the recess approaching, Grijalva worried that the delay would kill the bill’s momentum, leaving Puerto Rico’s status unchanged and critical issues affecting the island unresolved. “This isn’t about process.” he told Pablo Manríquez, a reporter for the digital media outlet Latino Rebels. “It’s about protecting the status quo.”
Months later, nothing had changed, and the situation on the island remained troubling. Despite its attractively low tax rate, Puerto Rico has struggled under its current leadership, and its relationship with the federal government has deteriorated. Five years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, the commonwealth’s government is still working to rebuild and to pay off its overwhelming public debt. Officials at all levels of Puerto Rico’s government are facing corruption charges amid a massive federal crackdown.
For many, the territory’s challenges have only reinforced its second-class status. “At this point, it is pretty much a fact that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States,” says Joaquin Villanueva, a geography professor at Gustavus Adolphus College and the author of a forthcoming book on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.
How to end that colonial status has dominated island politics for the last two centuries. Politicians from Puerto Rico’s two major political parties, the PNP and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), have caucused nationally with both Democrats and Republicans. The PNP is more of a big tent than the PPD, which skews more Democratic. The main issue that separates them is statehood.
New Progressives like González favor statehood. Populars favor remaining a commonwealth, although some support increased autonomy and a “free compact” agreement with the United States, similar to what Micronesia currently enjoys. A smaller party, the Puerto Rico Independence Party, backs total independence, although it never enjoys enough support to shape the debate.
The PNP has seen its momentum stall recently amid corruption scandals, causing the party’s vote shares to decline during the last few election cycles. Experts on Puerto Rican politics believe statehood nevertheless would prevail in a referendum, given the movement’s growth during the last three decades. “In Puerto Rico, the statehood movement grows organically, despite the [PNP],” says Bloomfield College historian Harry Franqui-Rivera. In a nonbinding 2020 referendum, the most recent of six such ballot questions since 1967, about 53 percent of voters favored statehood.
But that means nothing without federal backing. Historically, Congress has ignored statehood referendums. Yet experts believe a binding vote is possible now, given Puerto Rico’s diminishing role in U.S. military strategy. “The military bases are gone,” says Antonio Sotomayor, a historian at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, “and that might be [enough] for the military to say, ‘We don’t care. It’s up to Congress.'”
Gonzalez’s bill would offer Puerto Ricans three options: independence, statehood, or free association, which would grant Puerto Rico the ability to conduct its own foreign affairs and fully govern its internal affairs, while still relying on the U.S. for military defense. Many Republicans and the PPD oppose any referendum that excludes the option of remaining a commonwealth. But González and her congressional allies emphatically reject that approach. “A real decolonization process cannot include an option to stay a colony,” González tweeted in June.
Some Republicans worry that Puerto Rican statehood would give Democrats two safe seats in the Senate. But unlike in the District of Columbia, another statehood candidate that overwhelmingly votes Democratic, electoral politics in Puerto Rico would be competitive. González, elected in a territorywide vote, caucuses with Republicans. Many of the island’s recent governors also have caucused with Republicans and backed Republican presidential candidates, including former President Donald Trump.
Opposition in Congress also comes from the left. Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D–N.Y.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.), both Puerto Rican, are the main backers of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, a bill supported by diaspora activists and by progressives like Garcia and Tlaib. The bill would create a commission charged with designing self-determination options in conjunction with a constituent assembly elected by Puerto Rican residents.
Villanueva believes a constituent assembly would better represent voices often ignored in status conversations. “You have a group of politicians and economic elites that have traditionally made decisions on behalf of the people,” he explains. “So the poor, the marginalized, racially subjugated folks, the ones that live in public housing or marginalized communities—we seldom hear them.” He also sees a constituent assembly as a way to include the diaspora in the process.
Critics think the bill gives Puerto Ricans too little say in the island’s self-determination and Congress too many avenues to sabotage the process. They also note a certain paternalism among diaspora politicians living in the United States. “A lot of people in the diaspora who I’ve been in conversation with,” Franqui-Rivera says, “tell me, ‘Oh, Puerto Ricans don’t know that they’re colonized.’ Are you kidding me? They live there.”
That tension spills over into the question of who should participate in a status debate. More than 6 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland, nearly double the number of Puerto Ricans on the island. Many in the diaspora want to vote in a status referendum, while some on the island oppose their participation. A recent survey found that 62 percent of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. support statehood.
The issue also raises important questions about the future of Puerto Rican culture and how the island can preserve its identity if it becomes a state. The commonwealth, for example, has its own Olympic committee and sends a delegation to the events. The games and recent Puerto Rican wins there have fueled national pride, making the Olympics a salient point that statehood advocates must contend with.
“Some say we don’t need that kind of pageantry, that we need rice and beans on our table,” Sotomayor says. “But for so many people, spiritually, the way that national identity works, that’s what they need. It provides something to feel good about, and that should not be underestimated in the decolonization conversation.”