Ricardo Rosselló became the 12th governor of this Caribbean island earlier this month on the strength of one provocative idea: that the way out of a decades-long economic crisis involves adding a 51st star to the American flag.
Rosselló is pushing for a vote this spring that will allow Puerto Ricans, once again, to choose to turn this far-flung commonwealth into a full-fledged state. And if the island does vote in favor — as it did in a contested 2012 referendum — he says Washington has the moral obligation to comply.
“The United States is always demanding democracy in other parts of the world,” Rosselló told the Miami Herald, “but it seems to me it doesn’t have the moral standing to demand democracy in Venezuela or Cuba if it won’t extend [democracy] to 3.5 million of its own citizens.”
Wearing jeans and a black blazer as he toured an elementary school on a recent weekday, Rosselló, 37, has the telegenic look of a news anchor and the demeanor of someone who’s racing against the clock.
He had himself sworn in just after midnight on Jan. 2, so that by the time of his inaugural ceremony that afternoon, he’d already ordered staff and budget cuts to confront a grinding financial crisis that has the island buckling under $70 billion in debt.
Days later he was advocating for the statehood proposal, as columnists questioned why he was in such a rush. But for Rosselló, statehood is the only way out of the crisis.
Ever since the Caribbean island was invaded during the 1898 Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico has struggled with its place in the hemisphere and its powerful neighbor to the north. Occupying the ambiguous nether-status of U.S. territory, Puerto Rico’s residents have U.S. citizenship but can’t vote in presidential elections and have no vote in congress.
At first glance, the idea of statehood seems farfetched. It’s been more than half a century since new U.S. states were incorporated (Hawaii and Alaska were added in 1959), and Puerto Rico doesn’t immediately look like a prize.
While the economic crisis is often lost on tourists charmed by Old San Juan and the gleaming towers of El Condado, signs of neglect and decay abound. Freeways, once the pride of the Caribbean, are mined with potholes. Entire municipalities can’t afford to keep their lights on. The hospital system is on life support. Foreclosures continue to skyrocket, and residents are fleeing in record numbers — more than 1 million live in Florida — trying to outrun the crisis.
For Rosselló, the debt crisis and the island’s political status are inextricably linked: “Puerto Rico’s colonial situation is what has provoked this crisis.”
“If we compare ourselves with the other 50 states, the fundamental difference is our lack of rights, our lack of participation, and our lack of resources to move our jurisdiction forward,” he said. “Our colonial condition creates a situation of incredible inequality.”
The island-wide vote, which is expected in May or June, seeks to resolve the “colonial condition” once and for all. It will offer two stark choices: statehood or independence. If the latter wins, a second vote will be held letting people decide between full independence or a sovereign, “associated free state,” status.
If Puerto Rico’s congress green-lights the vote, it will mark the fourth time in 25 years that the island has gone to the polls over the statehood issue. In 1993, voters narrowly chose to remain a commonwealth. In 1998 “none of the above” won 50 percent of the vote, versus statehood (47 percent) and independence (2.5 percent).
In 2012, 61 percent voted for statehood versus 33 percent for “sovereign commonwealth” and 6 percent for independence. But critics pointed to the almost 500,000 blank ballots that were cast — more than any option but statehood — saying they reflected voter frustration with the options they were given. The confusion created by the blank ballots gave the U.S. Congress cover to ignore the vote, and it did.
Rosselló and his supporters say the 2012 vote is a sign that the island wants statehood. But there is also no lack of high-profile detractors.
Puerto Rico’s Archbishop Roberto González Nieves is one of the most influential men on the island, and while the church isn’t taking a formal stance on the islands status, González’s views are thinly veiled.
“God created man to be free and I believe that applies to the collective as well,” he said, echoing fears that becoming a full-fledged state would mean sacrificing the island’s national identity.
It’s also unclear if Washington cares about what Puerto Ricans want, he said.
“The United States hasn’t said what the conditions are to allow Puerto Rico statehood,” he said. “And until we know those conditions this debate is premature.”
On the campaign trail, all the Republican contenders, including Donald Trump, said they would support the island’s statehood ambitions. But its clear that healthcare, immigration and other domestic issues are likely to drown out any talk of Puerto Rico in coming months.
In an editorial, David Bernier, who lost the governor’s race to Rosselló, argued that Washington has no bandwidth to deal with a deeply indebted Caribbean island. And he imagined President Donald Trump dismissing Rosselló’s ambitions with a blunt Tweet: “Statehood for PR? No way.”
And yet Puerto Rico has been in the spotlight since last year, when the U.S. Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, which established an oversight board in exchange for keeping the island’s creditors at bay and facilitating negotiations. If those negotiations fail, the board, known here as the junta, can force a bankruptcy-like restructuring process.
The board has ordered Rossello’s administration to present a plan that would generate $4.5 billion a year in revenue or savings through 2019. In addition, the board is demanding tax reform and deep cuts to healthcare and higher education.
Rosselló and others say such harsh cutbacks will send the island’s economy into a steeper tailspin and are asking for more flexibility.
Not surprisingly, the board has drawn the ire of islanders who see it as one more colonial imposition, a group of unelected officials in Washington with the power to override the island’s leaders. In recent months “Junta = Dictatorship” graffiti has sprouted up on San Juan’s highways.
Rosselló says statehood will benefit the mainland as much as it does the island. The United States is already the country with the second-largest number of Spanish speakers, according to one recent study, so Puerto Rico is a natural fit.
“Geopolitically, we would be a benefit to the United States,” Rosselló said. “Puerto Rico would become a natural connection to [Latin America] because of its culture and proximity to the region...It would be a step in the right direction of history [for the U.S.] to have a Hispanic state.”
Rosselló’s aspirations are something of a birthright. His father, Pedro Rosselló, was a two-term governor from 1993 to 2001 who also pushed for, but failed to win, statehood.
Rosselló is convinced this time will be different, but he said the island needs Washington’s help — and the help of the country’s diaspora.
“Puerto Ricans in the United States need to be our political voice...They need to talk to their congressmen and senators about our aspirations,” Rosselló said. “They need to be that bridge that helps us develop our economy and society and helps us solve our 500-year-old colonial dilemma and make Puerto Rico a state of the nation.”
Correction: a previous version of this article mischaracterized the “associated free state” status. It is not synonymous with commonwealth.