On Election Day 2020, boricua voters were asked in a local, nonbinding referendum, “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?” The “Yes” option won with 52.5% or 655,505 voters. “Even with five parties against the referendum, the U.S. Department of Justice’s refusal to support this process, and the pandemic, our people were clear and a majority chose statehood,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who was elected in November and belongs to the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), said. “To question and ignore the people’s will is disrespectful.”
While statehood won the referendum, Pierluisi himself only obtained 33% of the gubernatorial vote, the first time a major party candidate has failed to reach 40%. Both chambers of the Puerto Rican legislature are now controlled by his opposition, the pro-commonwealth party Partido Popular Democrático (PPD). And the gubernatorial candidate for the pro-independence Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP) locked a historic 14% of the vote, a double-digit win the party hadn’t achieved since the 1950s. Depending on who you ask, the results either indicate strong support for statehood separate from the island’s partisan politics — or they show that Puerto Ricans remain as divided as ever on the status question.
Hugo Rodríguez, a former pro-independence senatorial candidate, said the referendum is not representative of what boricuas want. “The United States has been here in Puerto Rico for more than a century, spreading federal money to a lot of people, persecuting the independence movement,” he said. “After all that time, it has a little margin — only 53% for statehood. That cannot be seen as a victory of the statehood movement.”
But bolstering Pierluisi’s cause is the fact nearly two in three Americans support Puerto Rican statehood. Nationally, there’s also more awareness about the archipelago’s colonial status than ever before, due to a series of cascading crises in recent years: the catastrophic Hurricane Maria with its 3,000 deaths and $139 billion in damages, the downward financial spiral caused by the government’s debt crisis, and a series of devastating earthquakes just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Locally, Puerto Ricans have been rebelling against the status quo: They ousted Gov. Ricardo Roselló in 2019, gave 30% support to minority gubernatorial candidates in November’s election, and have forged mutual aid networks to fill the void left by the government.
Stateside Democrats, who are unsurprisingly friendly to the idea of Puerto Rico as a 51st state, now hold majorities in the House and Senate. And President Biden, who personally supports statehood, campaigned on working with representatives of each status option to “engage in a fair and binding process.”
Florida Democratic Rep. Darren Soto and Puerto Rico’s nonvoting GOP Rep. Jennifer Gonzalez-Colón are betting on Biden’s personal belief in estadidad with the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act. Their bill offers a straightforward path: Puerto Ricans would vote again on statehood, but this time the election would be federally binding. The measure is supported by the entire Democratic delegation in Florida, where over a million Puerto Ricans live. The bill, which has bipartisan support in the House but not the Senate, offers a path similar to what Alaska and Hawaii followed to become states, Soto said. (González-Colón did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Despite the fact that statehood has been part of the Democratic National Committee’s platform for nearly a decade, the bill faces opposition from a key Democrat. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said in recent months that he won’t support a statehood bill because the latest referendum showed “there is no consensus, there is division” on the status question. He added he is concerned about local legislation that could accelerate the process of Puerto Rico becoming a tax haven for the rich.
The other elephant in the room is how hostile the GOP has been to the idea of Puerto Rican statehood. Republicans claim it would automatically mean adding two Democratic Senate seats and conservatives would “never” get back control of the chamber. The consequence would be “full-bore socialism.” Despite this fear-mongering, the GOP has supported making the island a state in its platform for the last two elections. In practical terms, the statehood bill would need 60 votes to pass in the Senate, and those are numbers Soto and Gonzalez-Colón do not have yet. Two potential GOP allies, Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, have said they would favor making Puerto Rico a state but have not yet signed on to the latest push. “They need to step up,” Soto said. “They were happy enough to count their support for statehood as they were running for office and getting votes from Puerto Ricans across the state. Now’s the time for action.”
Meanwhile, Hugo Rodríguez’s party, the PIP, is supporting legislation put forward by New York Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represent the state with the second-largest boricua settlement in the U.S. “This is a problem of self-determination of a nation, a different nation from the United States,” Rodríguez said. “We have to confront the Congress with their responsibility to solve the problem.”
The AOC-backed Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, which has been endorsed by over 80 progressive organizations, would create a “status convention” made up of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters. These delegates would be responsible for coming up with long-term alternatives to the island’s territorial status — whether that’s statehood, independence, a free association, or other options — and developing transition plans for each. The options would be put up for a vote among the Puerto Rican people in a federally binding election. “This is not a regular election, this is an election to end colonial rule,” Rep. Velázquez said. “It’s an election that recognizes that it is inherent to the people of Puerto Rico to determine their political future.”
The act had about 30 more co-sponsors, including a Republican senator, than the statehood bill at the time of its introduction. “For decades, referendums and plebiscites have done more to delegitimize and undermine a process of self-determination than to advance it. They have been conducted unilaterally by one party without the input of other duly elected parties and Congress,” a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez said.
A similar measure creating a constitutional convention, known as HR5, was introduced locally by the pro-commonwealth PPD in January. HR5 would not be binding and would require an election to determine whether Puerto Ricans want to go ahead with the self-determination process. While the measure could potentially pass in the PPD-controlled legislature, it’s unlikely to be signed into law by Gov. Pierluisi.