By Claire Breining ’13
Following the November election, talk of Puerto Rican statehood circulated throughout the media. However, two months later, the US territory had disappeared off the radar again except in the context of vacation plans. What exactly happened in the November election, and what could transpire moving forward? Is a 51st state a reality?
Puerto Rico, a US territory in the Caribbean, is surrounded by the Dominican Republic and the US Virgin Islands. Both English and Spanish are spoken as official languages. Puerto Ricans have US citizenship, and starting in 1947, have enjoyed the right to elect their own governor. A nonvoting delegate represents Puerto Rico in Congress. Over the course of the last century, political status has been a contentious issue for Puerto Ricans. Despite unrest by some fringe groups, Puerto Ricans as a whole have traditionally expressed a desire to remain a commonwealth territory rather than becoming a state or an independent country. However, for the first time in a nonbinding plebiscite during the November election, more than half (54%) of Puerto Ricans voted against continuing the island’s current self-governing commonwealth status. In a second question concerning what they thought should replace the commonwealth, 61% voted in favor of statehood.
Many voters chose not to answer the second question because the current commonwealth status was not listed as an option. Instead, 61% voted for statehood, 5% for independence, and 33% for sovereign free associated state. At the same time, nearly half of Puerto Ricans are currently living off the island, many who have moved for economic reasons. The vote could simply express dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, or express a hope that more Federal programs could bring positive change.
Both Congress and President Obama have stated that if Puerto Ricans wish to become a state, they will begin to take action in that direction. However, due to the nature of the plebiscite, Washington seems to regard the vote as little more than a passing whim. No hearings on statehood are planned, and because the new Puerto Rican governor, Alejandro García Padilla, is opposed to statehood, it seems unlikely that action will come quickly, if it comes at all.
As Minnesota continues to torture us with subzero temperatures that become sickly comical when calculated with wind chill, more than one St. Olaf student begins to dream of a tropical oasis. However, those with the hope of visiting the pristine beaches of one of the last remaining territories need not act fast. The residual dregs of colonization seem here to stay.
Claire Breining ’13 is a member of the Political Awareness Committee. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.