Saturday, November 10, 2012

Puerto Rico Votes for Statehood—or at Least for Some Kind of Change

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.
When the primary campaign ended, and Mitt Romney shifted his rhetoric to try to appeal to Latinos as well, he seemed to hope that Latinos have a memory depth of about two weeks.  They don’t, and Obama this year claimed one of the largest shares of the Latino vote ever.

More news about idiot gringos.
If one feels that Puerto Rico is headed for being a Democratic constituency, then Congress may decide that Puerto Rico must be admitted in tandem with a 52nd state that would be reliably Republican, such as Guam, with its heavily military population, or American Samoa possibly (but not necessarily), or maybe even one of the proposals for a red state created through partition, like South California (the southern and inland Republican areas of what is otherwise solidly Democratic California) (as discussed in an article in this blog), or the State of Superior, which would hive off the Republican-dominated Upper Peninsula of currently-Democratic Michigan, and possibly the northern part of the swing state of Wisconsin as well.  (Another possibility, of course, would be to keep the number at 50 by jettisoning a state of the appropriate political orientation.  Texas is the candidate I proffer, and many Texans agree (with apologies to all the Texas I love: tell you what, we can attach Austin to Louisiana, with a narrow corridor connecting the two—or something like that).

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.]


  1. To act on the Puerto Rican referendum of November 6, 2012

  2. Dear Partner,


    Those who accept colonialism do not believe in justice for all! Now that we know that
    the political parties will not solve this problem; I invite you to join the non-violent protest to demand that the United States (US) decolonize Puerto Rico (PR) immediately. It will be on Monday, June 17, 2013 from 8 AM to 5 PM outside the United Nations (UN) visitor’s entrance located on 46th Street and First Avenue in New York City.

    The UN has determined that colonialism is a crime against humanity in 1960 under Resolution 1514 (XV). That’s why the UN celebrates every year a hearing about Puerto Rico decolonization. Every year the UN puts forth a resolution asking the US to decolonize PR. Despite 30 of these resolutions, PR is still the oldest and most populated colony in the world! It is obvious by now that the US is not going to decolonize PR just because the UN asks.

    Through education, we must create a domestic and international solidarity with this cause to pressure the US to do what historically she has refused to do. This is why we need everyone who also believes that colonialism is a crime against humanity to join the protest to demand compliance to international law!

    Puerto Rico has been a colony of the US for 114 years. The US’ intention is to keep PR a colony forever unless we do something about it. It is important to note that: democracy isn’t what a government does. Democracy is what people do!
    President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” These ideas, of course, are the reasons why the United Nations was created after World War II.

    It is up to us to defend the fundamental human rights that promote world peace. The tragedy of doing nothing is that we will have the kind of government that we deserve!


    José M. López Sierra

    For more information:
    Compañeros Unidos para la Descolonización de Puerto Rico

  3. Saludos,

    Tenemos que trabajar juntos para descolonizar a Puerto Rico y excarcelar a Oscar Lopez Rivera.

    Habra una protesta pacifica en las afueras de la ONU este 17 de junio 2013. Te esperamos!

    Un abrazo,


  4. Dear Partner,

    After the approval of the 33rd United Nations’ resolution by consensus on June 23, 2014 asking the United States (US) to immediately decolonize of Puerto Rico, we should work together to force the United States government to comply with it.

    The facts that the United States government has maintained Puerto Rico as its colony for 116 years, has had Oscar López Rivera in prison for 33 years for fighting for Puerto Rico decolonization, and has ignored 33 UN resolutions to decolonize Puerto Rico, confirm that the US government has no intentions of ever decolonizing Puerto Rico. Therefore, we need to form a tsunami of people to force the US to comply with the 33 resolutions.

    We should peacefully protest at least 3 times a year until we achieve our goal. The first one will be a march up to the US Courthouse in Puerto Rico on the Abolition of Slavery Day on March 22. The second will be another march in Puerto Rico on a day before the UN’s Puerto Rico decolonization hearing. The third one will be a protest in New York City on the same day the UN holds its Puerto Rico decolonization hearing.

    These 3 protests are indispensable, because those who have colonies don’t believe in justice for all.

    José M López Sierra
    Comité Timón del Pueblo
    United Partners for the Decolonization of Puerto Rico

  5. Dear Partner,

    Since the United Nations determined in 1960 that colonialism is a crime against humanity, there is no longer a need for plebiscites. The solution is to give Puerto Rico her sovereignty.

    But being the United States government does not want to, it continues to advocate the use of plebiscites to find out what Puerto Ricans want. Even if 100% of Puerto Ricans would want to continue being a US colony, Puerto Rico would still be obligated to accept her sovereignty to then decide what she wants to do.

    The only thing these plebiscites are good for is to divide Puerto Ricans. A Puerto Rican didn’t invade us to make us a colony. When will we understand that we need to unite?

    This is why we must peacefully protest at least 3 times a year until Puerto Rico is decolonized!

    José M López Sierra

  6. Not true that there are 3 political status options for Puerto Rico

    The United States (US) government has made Puerto Ricans believe that there are 3 political status options for Puerto Rico. That is a lie. The purpose for that is to have Puerto Ricans fight amongst themselves. The plan has been a huge success! Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States for 116 years, and judging by the 80% voter turnout in the colonial elections, the majority of us has not realized that we have been lied to.

    In reality, there is only one option. The United Nations (UN) in 1960 determined that colonialism is a crime against humanity. Therefore, the only thing that Puerto Rico can do is to become her own nation. That means that the US must give Puerto Rico the sovereignty that the US illegally took away from her by virtue of the July 25, 1898 military invasion.

    Thus far, the US government has ignored the 33 UN resolutions asking it to immediately decolonize Puerto Rico. Instead, it has tried to hide these petitions, and at the same time appear to believe in democracy by pushing for plebiscites so that Puerto Ricans could decide between colonialism, being a US state, or independence (decolonization as required by the UN).

    The problem with the US pushed plebiscites are that they:

    1. don’t comply with international law that prohibits a nation to have a colony.
    2. don’t comply with international law that requires the empire to give the sovereignty it illegally took away to its colony.
    3. don’t comply with international law that requires that to have free elections, that country must be free first.
    4. have 2 options that are not permitted by international law- continuing being a colony and becoming a state of the country that has the colony. For the option of becoming a state of the country that has the colony to be considered, the colony must first become her own nation (decolonized).

    This is why we have to peacefully protest 3 times a year until the US government complies with the UN resolutions for Puerto Rico decolonization.

    José M López Sierra

  7. The Second Oscar – Mandela March in New York City 2015

    We will be having our 2nd Oscar – Mandela Protest March on Monday, June 22, 2015. We will start marching peacefully at 9 AM from Hunter College on East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, to East 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue. We will then go East (turning left) to end up at the Ralph Bunche Park on First Avenue (across from the United Nations).

    We will be at the park until 5 PM. We will be giving out flyers and talking to people about who Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera is. We will also be educating the public about Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the government of the United States (US).

    Most people don’t know that every year, usually on the Monday after Fathers’ Day, the United Nations holds its hearing about the decolonization of Puerto Rico. The petitioners will usually join our protest after this meeting.

    The UN determined in 1960 that colonialism is a crime against humanity. Since then, the UN has issued 33 resolutions asking for the US government to immediately decolonize Puerto Rico. The US government has ignored these resolutions. What kind of democracy is that?

    The US government tries to keep these hearings a secret. What we are trying to do is to get them out of the closet. The UN is in its 3rd decade trying to make the world colony-free. Please help us!

    Most people also don’t know that the United States government takes out 14 times more money than what it invests in Puerto Rico. But, that is what colonies are for!

    This savage exploitation impedes Puerto Rico’s ability to provide opportunities for Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico. That is why there are now more Puerto Ricans living away from Puerto Rico than in their homeland.

    Oscar López Rivera has been incarcerated for 34 years for his struggle to decolonize Puerto Rico. Since colonialism is an international crime, international law gives Oscar the right to use whatever means necessary to decolonize his homeland. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years for doing the same thing as Oscar. This is why we say, Oscar López Rivera is our Nelson Mandela!

    United Partners for Puerto Rico Decolonization invites the public to be part of the tsunami of people that will be necessary to make the US government comply with the UN resolutions. These annual protests in Puerto Rico and at the UN are absolutely necessary, because, those who maintain colonies, don’t believe in justice for all!

    José M López Sierra


Subscribe Now: Feed Icon