While the world’s eyes on November 6th were on the United States’ election and the reelection of Barack Obama as president, very quietly, to the south of the U.S. mainland, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico held, on election day, an historic plebiscite on the very nature of its relationship to the U.S. which may well be putting Puerto Rico on the road to statehood.
First, some history ...
Puerto Rico was a possession of the Spanish Empire until 1898, when the United States stripped Spain of many of its colonies in an unmitigated act of aggression, an unapologetic war of conquest. Other war booty from the Spanish-American War included the Philippines, Guam, and (de facto, briefly) Cuba. Puerto Rico is still very much a U.S. colony. It has its own legislature, but Puerto Ricans, though U.S. citizens, have to move to one of the 50 states or D.C. if they want to have a say in who is president. They have one non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and send no senators to Washington.
Puerto Rico got its own constitution and commonwealth status in 1952, which made it less dependent, but there was still agitation for Puerto Rican independence, a cause which had been born in the days of Spanish rule and developed alongside the Cuban independence movement in the late 19th century. During the 1950s and ’60s, Puerto Rican nationalists became more militant and nationalist, and the U.S. responded in kind, using subversion and counterintelligence to suppress the separatist threat.
A 1967 referendum on the status of Puerto Rico presented three choices on the ballot: independence, statehood, or a continuation of Commonwealth status. The vote came out with only 0.6% for independence, 39% for statehood, and 60.4% to maintain the status quo. Though the small turnout for independence seemed almost inconceivable, and bolsters credible contentions that the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) interfered with the plebiscite, the results took the wind out of the sails of both the statehood and independence movements, which then, despite significant popular support, stalled for years.
Another vote, in 1991, was more modest in its aims, merely asking voters to approve a new constitution which guaranteed citizenship and language rights and pointed the way to a move away from colonialism, with a guarantee of the right to choose statehood or independence. Almost incredibly, this constitution was defeated 53% to 44.9%. This seems odd, since on the face of it the proposed constitution offered only guarantees and no losses or tradeoffs. One explanation is that many Puerto Ricans were confused by the overly complicated proposal and worried that their citizenship status would be degraded. Others, more reasonably, worried about language in the proposal calling for a choice between three alternatives, which raised the possibility that a choice between independence, statehood, and the status quo would split the dissatisfied-with-colonialism vote and actually postpone or eliminate the chances for statehood.
Sure enough, a three-choice referendum held anyway in 1993—drafted with the heavy participation of the U.S. Congress—created just such a split. A minority, 48.6%, wanted the status quo, while those wanting more autonomy found their votes split between those supporting statehood (46.3%) and those supporting independence (4.4%). Those most people wanting change were in the majority, the status quo was deemed the winner.
In 1998 there was a five-choice referendum, in which statehood proponents, again, fell just short of a majority, with 46.6%. Independence got 2.6%, while only 0.29% voted for “free association” (like what the former U.S. possessions in the western Pacific have: the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau). Commonwealth status, the status quo, got only 993 votes, not enough to be counted as above 0.0%. However, a whopping 50.5% chose “none of the above”—an expression of discontent, surely, but hardly a mandate for anything.
So this year Puerto Ricans were given a two-phase ballot. The first question was whether the voter was happy with the current territorial commonwealth status. Then, voters were asked to choose among statehood, independence, and Micronesian-style sovereign free association. Though the “no” votes for question one constituted a surprisingly small majority, 51.70% (to 44.04% who were satisfied), the second question, which voters could answer no matter how they replied to question one, was a clearer message: 61.13% for statehood, 33.33% for free association, and 5.54% for independence.
With such a mandate, does this mean Puerto Rico will now become the 51st state? Not really. States can join the union only with the approval of Congress. And since our two-party system favors parties moving to the political center and thus creating narrowly divided legislatures, this means that any admissions to the union will need to be negotiated between the two parties. This is an old pattern, going all the way back to the wrangling between slave states and free states as territories became states in the antebellum period. Similar considerations plagued the contentious admissions of Arizona and New Mexico, and in 1959 the admissions of Alaska and Hawaii were carried out more or less in tandem so that reliably-Democratic Hawaii and reliably-Republican Alaska would not disturb the balance of power in the Senate.
Something similar will be in play should Puerto Rican statehood come before the U.S. Congress. But the question is: which party dominates Puerto Rico, or, more to the point, which will dominate it in the future? If Puerto Rico is to be regarded as bringing the promise of two Republican senators, then Democrats would insist on, say, the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia being admitted simultaneously. Puerto Rico, for the moment, is a “red” (Republican) territory. Its governor is a conservative Republican and the center-right, pro-statehood, New Progressive Party (P.N.P.) overwhelmingly dominates both chambers of Puerto Rico’s territorial legislature. But does it need to be? And why is Puerto Rico Republican?
There are a few reasons for this. Although Puerto Rico has a strong and vigorous tradition of radical leftism, most Puerto Ricans also are Catholic and tend to be anti-abortion, many find Republican invocations of “family values” appealing, they are overrepresented in the military and thus find Republic rhetoric of patriotism and Republican-led foreign adventurism appealing, and, perhaps just as crucially, Puerto Ricans, like Cuban-Americans in Florida, identify strongly with the Cuban people’s resistance to the single-party dictatorship of Fidel Castro—an issue on which the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis lead many to regard John F. Kennedy as having failed Cuba (though that is less true of Cuban-Americans as time goes on).
But how strongly Republican is Puerto Rico likely to remain? Certainly it is not as certain to stay in the Republican column as D.C. is likely to stay in the Democratic one. This is connected to the larger question, plaguing the Republican Party currently, of whether American Latinos in the U.S. are likely to become more Democratic or more Republican, which demographics indicate will be a deciding factor in the future balance of power in the U.S., with Hispanics being decisive populations in swing states like Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and even North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin—with Texas and Arizona even possibly headed for swing-state status as Latino populations grow.
Puerto Ricans do not have everything in common with the Mexican-American and other Latin American groups that dominate the Hispanic population in the 50 states. For one thing, immigration is not as dominant issue for Puerto Ricans, since they are Americans, not immigrants. But a shared culture makes for many shared concerns. George W. Bush made inroads into the Latino vote in the 2000s, but these Republican gains were more or less erased (along with Republican appeal to American Indians) with the advent of Barack Obama in 2008. But is the Democratic surge for Obama an artifact of the appeal and romance of seeing a candidate of color? If the 2016 election features an Anglo for president on the Democratic ticket, and even possibly an Hispanic Republican such as Mark Rubio, could things flip again? This is what is at stake for the two parties as they contemplate, as they may soon do, Puerto Rican statehood.
Certainly, the 2012 election campaign does not bode well for Republican fortunes in Puerto Rico. For one thing, the long, drawn-out Republican primary campaign, where candidates struggled to appeal to the overwhelmingly-white right-wing base of the party, racist and xenophobic rhetoric surged. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum condescendingly lectured “black people” (or “blah people,” as Santorum later claimed he actually said) to get off welfare and work for a change. Candidates tried to outdo each other in how draconian they would be on undocumented immigrants—and Puerto Ricans, though this does not apply to them directly, could certainly detect the whiff of racism in many of those pronouncements. Santorum himself famously told Puerto Ricans that he would support their ambitions for statehood but only if they dropped Spanish as an official language—which Puerto Ricans found deeply offensive. Rick Perry (himself a sympathizer with independence for Texas) seconded that opinion.
|Oh. My. God. Think how close we came to having the Addams Family in the White House.|
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But those partition movements are non-starters, for various reasons. And the Guamanian statehood movement is not nearly as strong as the Puerto Rican one. More likely, then, mainland politicians will all say they support statehood for Puerto Rico, but Congress will do everything to avoid voting on it. This will, undoubtedly, lead to more bitterness and resentment in Puerto Rico, and may even in the longer term strengthen the independence movement. That’s my prediction anyway. I could be wrong.
More to the point, though: if Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state, what will that do to our flag? Huffington Post ran a piece on this question the other day, offering some proposals. Some of them look a bit silly ...
... or a lot silly ...
... as does this proposal, from another source, ...
... and some of them, though they make a certain amount of sense, for some reason make my eyes hurt ...
But this question has been tackled before. In fact, in an article earlier this year about proposals to make the constituent territories and republics of Siberia new U.S. states, I provided a link to the mathematician Skip Garibaldi’s attempt to come up with a formula for forming new star grids as new states join the union, and to a delightful online widget for generating flags for each number of states up to 100, keeping to a strict rule for more-or-less-nicely-shaped grids and sticking to either rows of equal length or rows of alternating lengths differing only by one star. Though, unfortunately, that link is now dead. However, this is the proposal that would probably prevail:
For the time being, though, Puerto Rico is likely to remain in a disenfranchised limbo. Puerto Rico has never gotten a good deal from the U.S. It deserves better.
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas. The book is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]