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For Puerto Rico: statehood or independence?

Gene Roman

The future political status of Puerto Rico will be independence or statehood. That is inevitable because of the nonviolent “people power” protests spurred on by the release of 800 pages of confidential chats between aides to Governor Ricardo Rosselló. What we have been watching on television and listening to on the radio is the funeral for the “commonwealth” of territorial government in Puerto Rico.

This model of territorial government was never intended to be permanent. For Washington and San Juan, the “commonwealth” model approved in 1950 was created to buy time for Puerto Rico to grow economically and politically.

The slow pace of recovery from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the imposition in 2016 of a fiscal control board and the island’s bankruptcy are evidence that the “best of both worlds” philosophy of the last 100 years is no longer sustainable for Puerto Rico. The road ahead splits two ways: toward independence or statehood.

“For too long, many have believed the fiction that Puerto Rico can somehow have the best of both worlds under the commonwealth status (local autonomy with full benefits of American citizenship),” says U.S. Congressman Jose Serrano (D-NY). “This fiction papered over what we have known all along: Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States, treated unfairly and unequally.  The result of that colonial relationship is on display today — both in Puerto Rico’s inability to address its fiscal crisis under the current status, and the fact that the debate on assisting Puerto Rico reaffirms the Island’s second-class status.”

This would not be the first time that a crisis led Congress and a territorial government to take the necessary steps to permanently resolve a status quagmire, according to Howard Hills, author of “Citizens Without A State.”

“As a general historical pattern,” says Hills, “U.S.-administered territories do not become states or separate nations because internal political and economic conditions are favorable.”

In 1803, the U.S. acquired territories that would become all or part of 15 states in the Louisiana Purchase, Hills reports in his book. Louisiana’s economy was undeveloped and 95 percent of its population spoke Spanish or French and little or no English when it was admitted as a state in 1812.

Congress would again confront issues of language and culture when the territories of California, Florida, New Mexico, and Arizona sought statehood.

Congress could also authorize a transition toward Puerto Rican independence, as it did for the Philippines in 1934. Filipinos finally gained separate sovereignty in 1946.

“In most cases,” Hills says, “Congress has managed the transition to statehood or nationhood when the only thing worse than the political and economic cost of enabling would be to delay or deny either option.”

The disparity engendered by the commonwealth status is most evident in how the federal government treats Medicaid recipients on the Island. Approximately half of the Island’s residents rely on Medicaid for their basic health needs, according to Judith Solomon of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“A key part of the problem is that Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program differs significantly from state Medicaid programs,” wrote Solomon in a report published by the Center. “Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program needs an ongoing commitment of federal funds.”

Solomon found that states receive open-ended federal funds to match a percentage of their Medicaid expenditures. Puerto Rico receives only a fixed block grant that fails to cover the costs for its Medicaid enrollees. In the states, federal matching funds are reimbursed at a higher rate.

Of Puerto Ricans, Solomon says, “These are U.S. citizens who are being denied even the most basic health care access. It needs to stop.”

Gene Roman is a former Massachusetts regional director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

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