On Election Day last month, 52 percent of Puerto Rican voters answered “yes” to the following question: “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a state?”
But the result of the nonbinding referendum has gotten little attention in Washington since then. After all, it’s hardly the first time a statehood vote on the island has been answered in the affirmative. Is this time any different?
On this week’s show, guest host Vanessa A. Bee talks to Julio Ricardo Varela, the founder of LatinoRebels.com, and Angelo Guisado, a civil rights lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights. They examine the past and present of Puerto Rico as a colony and U.S. territory and how that history should inform our understanding of votes like this one.
Sen. Mitch McConnell: They plan to make the District of Columbia a state — that would give them two new Democratic senators — Puerto Rico a state, that’d give them two more new Democratic senators. So this is a full-bore socialism.
Vanessa A. Bee: While millions of Americans were casting their ballots in the 2020 election to decide the next president, residents in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico were voting on an even more fundamental question: Should the island finally become a U.S. state? This is Deconstructed, and I’m Vanessa A. Bee, filling in for Ryan Grim this week.
It’s common for people to lump Puerto Rican statehood and D.C. statehood in with each other — and there are some parallels. Like Puerto Rico, D.C. is more populous than the states of Vermont and Wyoming, yet it enjoys no meaningful representation in Congress. And, like Puerto Rico, this lack of independence has often put the District at the mercy of petty battles for political clout.
Consider former Congressman Jason Chaffetz, who was elected to represent a district in southeastern Utah. To the dismay of D.C.’s liberal city council, this conservative politician spent a significant chunk of 2015 and 2016 obstructing the city’s decision to legalize cannabis and to authorize euthanasia in certain circumstances.
Newscaster: Chafetz threatened Mayor Bowser with jail if she allowed legal marijuana. She allowed it.
Mayor Muriel Bowser: I have a lot of things to do here in the District of Columbia; me being in jail wouldn’t be a good thing.
VB: Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans reeling from Hurricane Maria could only watch as Senate Republicans held up the passage of a robust disaster aid bill for weeks.
On top of that, the economic fate of the island hinges on a bankruptcy-like process established by Congress, called PROMESA.
President Barack Obama: Even though this is not a perfect bill, it at least moves us in the right direction.
Newscaster: Dos años han pasado ya de esas palabras.
Newscaster: Qué indica la ley PROMESA?
VB: People born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. They receive a social security number at birth and are eligible for an American passport. They can relocate to the continental U.S. and work freely. They do not have to deal with the barriers that apply to most immigrants.
And yet, their citizenship is conditional. Even if Puerto Ricans on the island wanted to vote for the President of the United States last November 3, the Constitution forbids it. And despite counting 3.1 million residents — so that’s more than the two Dakotas, Wyoming, and Vermont combined — Puerto Rico is not entitled to two voting senators or a commensurate number of House representatives. And, as we get into later in this episode, this is far from being the only tangible consequence of the island’s status as a territory of the United States.
Which brings us back to the big fundamental question that faced Puerto Rico on November 3: Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a state? Yes or no.
Hari Sreenivasan: On Election Day, Puerto Ricans voted in favor of becoming the 51st state. The vote was non-binding and would need the approval of Congress to push statehood forward.
Jenniffer González: The people of Puerto Rico directly voted, and in an absolute majority, more than 52 percent, to pursue statehood.
VB: This result sets the wheels in motion for the island’s governor to appoint a commission, which in turn will develop a transition plan for Congress’ and the President’s review.
That same day, these voters also handed a narrow victory to gubernatorial candidate Pedro Pierluisi, from the New Progressive Party.
While his opponent, Carlos Delgado, favored the status quo, Pierluisi is one of Puerto Rico’s fiercest advocates for statehood. Here he is in February 2015, introducing a statehood bill before Congress. At the time, Pierluisi was Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, which is a non-voting seat in the House of Representatives.
Pedro Pierluisi: The bipartisan bill I’m introducing today flows from, and builds upon, the 2012 referendum and the federal appropriation, enacted in response to that referendum.
In other words, this bill is being filed now, because the strategic foundation is firmly in place. Every action I take is designed to advance to statehood cause, because it is beyond dispute that territory status is the main source of Puerto Rico’s grave economic and social problems.
VB: There’s no question that the United States’ treatment of Puerto Rico as a territory of second-class citizens has caused very tangible damage. But what must come next may not be as simple as deciding yes or no on statehood, as both Sen. Mitch McConnell and Governor-elect Pierluisi suggest.
In fact, November 3 marked Puerto Rico’s sixth referendum on the question of statehood. Previous attempts have been mired in controversy and vigorously opposed. For example, the 2017 referendum drew a 97 percent majority for statehood. Pretty clear-cut, right? Actually, voter participation was abysmal that year, thanks to a very effective, very organized boycott.
Participation was higher this time around but opponents of the referendum have argued that the question was stacked; that it may not have been obvious to voters that a “no” on statehood was in fact a “yes” on independence or some alternative status. Opponents say the latter deserves consideration.
That distinction between D.C. and Puerto Rico matters a great deal. No one is seriously arguing that the nation’s capital should become an independent nation. Instead, the concerns over self-rule truly boil down for D.C. to statehood or no statehood.
Not so with Puerto Rico. And it all comes down to the island’s history.
Joining me today is Angelo Guisado, a civil rights lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the author of “It’s Time to Talk About Cuba. And Puerto Rico, Too,” an essay published in Issue 27 of Current Affairs Magazine.
Angelo, welcome to the show…
Angelo Guisado: Thank you for having me.
VB: To understand why Puerto Rico faces a much more complicated question than statehood or no statehood. I think it’s important to grapple a bit with its relationship with the rest of the country. In your recent essay, you argue that Puerto Rico gives us a sense of what Cuba might look like today, if it was still under American control. What is the context in which Puerto Rico becomes a U.S. territory?
AG: Puerto Rico became a territory, much like Cuba fell under United States monitorship and dominion, through the 1898 Spanish-American War, in which the United States took possession of Guam, had dominion over the Philippines, and, of course, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Since 1898, things get a little complicated. It’s kind of a labyrinthine route that they got to where they are today. And I’ll start at the turn of the century, 1901, and the Foraker Act, which basically established a civil government in Puerto Rico. It followed into what was known as, and is still known as, the insular cases, which is a set of legal cases that made it to the Supreme Court at the turn of the century.
Now, this was the same court that had decided Plessy versus Ferguson, upholding separate but equal, and was led by the same government — McKinley, later; Taft, later; Teddy Roosevelt — that put primacy on the sort of outward expansion and manifest destiny of a white American body politic. And that’s precisely the sort of reasoning that the court looked into, in the turn of the century, to establish the Puerto Rico itself was a colony, that the Constitution doesn’t necessarily apply there, and that it was going to take a different path for Puerto Rico than it had for Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Alaska, and Hawaii even.
And so its establishment as a territory, you know, starting from the turn of the century, you know, we move into the World War I-era, and we see that the United States grants Puerto Rican individuals the right to U.S. citizenship. But the 1917 bill, which was known as the Jones–Shafroth Act, was really not a lot more than a vehicle to draft Puerto Rican men into the American army.
In 1922, the Supreme Court issued a decision in a case called Balzac v. Porto Rico, that held that even though Congress had granted Puerto Ricans the right to citizenship, the Constitution didn’t fully apply — only such fundamental rights. And the court issued a decision by Chief Justice Taft, who, as I mentioned, was formerly president, but he was also the governor of the Philippines and the governor of Cuba, and so he brought into it his very manifest destiny-United States imperial sort of taint into the decision itself, which held that Puerto Rico itself was an unincorporated territory, which basically means that unlike Hawaii and Alaska, and eventually Oklahoma, and New Mexico, Puerto Rico didn’t have the full panoply of rights afforded to it.
And so the Supreme Court signaled in the 20s, that it was content to let Puerto Rico stay in the sort of limbo, which is basically the same colonial relationship we’ve had with it ever since.
VB: And from the outset, Congress makes it clear that it sees Puerto Rico as a source of extraction, right? You’ve written about some of the laws that Congress initially passed to advantage corporations on the mainland without much care for the handicaps that those laws place on Puerto Rico. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
AG: Absolutely. You know, before the imposition of the American Navy and Army into the Spanish colonies at the time, Puerto Rico enjoyed a fairly diverse agricultural economy. And as soon as America got its hands on Puerto Rico, it used it as an extractive sugar plantation, at one point sending over half of all production to the United States from Puerto Rico. It only got more inimical going forward. You see, in the 1910’s, or 1920, Congress passed what is known as the Merchant Marine Act, now we refer to it as the Jones Act. And that has the effect of making imports and dramatically more expensive for Puerto Rico; goods are marked up beyond measure.
Congress made it even worse in the 1970s, after enacting what was called Operation Bootstrap. They passed what was called Section 936, which was a tax break that allowed American companies to have offices, production facilities, what have you, in Puerto Rico, without having to pay any taxes that would redound to the benefit of Puerto Rico. It was essentially turning it into an offshore tax haven for major corporations. In fact, many of those industries, specifically pharmaceutical, Congress just allowed a rapacious industry that took out all of the resources and labor from Puerto Rico without ever paying anything back, which is one of the reasons why Puerto Rico’s cupboard is so bare to begin with, and I’m sure we’ll talk about that going forward.
VB: Yeah. So during that time, who is actually governing the islands on a day-to-day basis? I mean, do Puerto Ricans get to elect any officials?
AG: Yeah, they got to elect the governor in 1950, for the first time ever. Congress granted some protections and measures of self-determinacy to Puerto Rico, allowing them to elect their first governor ever. His name was Luis Muñoz Marín; he was extremely compromised by the U.S. government and was nothing more than a U.S. imperial-capitalist puppet. However, ever since then, Puerto Ricans have the right to elect their own governor. They just recently elected a governor, Pedro Pierluisi. He’s with the New Progressive Party, he won by a fraction of a percent or a percent or two, and he’s with the pro-statehood party.
Of course, also, Puerto Rico is granted one non-voting resident commissioner of Puerto Rico. Her name is Jenniffer González. The position has some influence, but, of course, it’s non-voting and Puerto Ricans recognize that they have no real representation in Congress. And, of course, those on the island cannot vote for president either.
VB: So to kind of go back in time a little bit, we know that Cuba eventually rebels against the American Empire with Fidel Castro at the helm of the revolution. Around that time — again, mid 20th century — several former colonies of the West are similarly emancipating. But what about Puerto Rico? Is there a movement opposing the American government during that time?
AG: Absolutely. In fact, it was led by Pedro Albizu Campos, former Harvard Law School valedictorian, who was mercilessly terrorized by the United States government. He started out labor organizing, doubling minimum wage for farmers in El Campo. He went on to radicalize and start his own Nationalist Party and the U.S. government meted out some really unfortunate and disturbing crimes against him and the movement itself.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Campos and a bunch of other national leaders decided to strike; they thought that the time was right to make a move, an uprising. Uprisings were planned all across the island of Puerto Rico. But, of course, the United States government had, through subversive means, covert means, undermined the Nationalist Party. It had spies; it had dossiers, two-million-long pages. The FBI and the insular police force on the island were really able to root out and stamp out the nationalist uprising before it happened.
It got worse from there. Some uprisings were planned in 1950; the United States government responded by sending 4000 National Guard troops. They sent 10 P-47 United States fighter planes, dropping 500-pound bombs over two separate cities, flattening one to dust. It’s the first and only time that the United States government has bombed its own citizens.
Tons more died by a barrage of bullets. Campos himself was interrogated, imprisoned, and tortured on multiple instances. He eventually died due to radiation poisoning imposed by the U.S. government. It wasn’t until Che gave a speech at the UN and he was seen by a Cuban doctor that he was able to determine that it was radiation poisoning, which was making him so sick. He didn’t last very long in U.S. custody.
Che Guevara at the U.N.: Expresamos nuestra solidaridad al pueblo de Puerto Rico y su gran líder, Albizu Campos es un símbolo de la América todavía irredenta pero indómita.
VB: So if we fast forward several decades, obviously in 2020, Puerto Rico is not free. Far from it — since 2016, it has been governed in part by an oversight board that was formed out of a now-infamous statute named PROMESA. Now this law had bipartisan support, from the playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda to President Obama. And PROMESA means “promise” in English, which sounds like it should be the kind of law that does good things. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way for Puerto Ricans, right?
What is PROMESA? And what is this board now?
AG: PROMESA is a 2016 law that accounts for the fact that because Puerto Rico is a colony, and not a state, its debts cannot be discharged through chapters 9 or 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. And I’ll save you all the bankruptcy law talk, because nobody’s here to hear that. Essentially, it is a promise. And it’s a promise that American banks are going to be paid before any services are afforded to the Puerto Rican residents. It was a measure that sought to account for the fact that, as was the custom in the 1800s under the Monroe Doctrine, that islanders and Caribbean subjects are unable to govern themselves, and they need oversight from the infinite wisdom of the United States government. And it’s bullshit.
Essentially, PROMESA allowed the United States government to appoint members to a fiscal oversight board, which has then hired McKinsey to consult and oversee, which has amounted to an implementation of rampant austerity measures. It’s caused the cuts to pensions of over 65,000 retirees, nearly 300 public schools are closed, they have privatized nearly every agency imaginable that they’ve been able to get their hands on. If they haven’t, they certainly have plans to do so soon. The board is appointed by the President. There’s five or six members: some lawyers, some consultants, all capitalists.
And, you know, as Judge Torruella, may he rest in peace, called for an economic boycott, he denounced PROMESA as the most denigrating, disrespectful, anti-democratic colonial act the United States has ever perpetrated against the people of Puerto Rico. And for an island that has been bombed by the United States military that has been subject to biochemical poisoning after what they did in Vieques, and being frankly, abandoned after two of the worst hurricanes in recent memory, that’s really saying something.
And from what I gather, Puerto Ricans are definitely not asking for a better control board. What they’re asking for is the right to self-determination. They’re asking for the right to be on equal footing, and they’re asking for the right to an end of the colonial-subject relationship.
VB: You’ve argued that if we’re curious about what Puerto Rico could have been and could still be, if it weren’t essentially a colony of the United States, that we could look to Cuba. What do you mean by that?
AG: I mean that the United States has prioritized, or attempted to prioritize, certain rights to economic liberty and certain rights to expression. Obviously, those aren’t meted out on equal hands, considering what the United States did in Puerto Rico, imprisoning thousands of individuals, torturing and executing political dissidents there, abroad, and even within their own country.
What I’m saying is that Cuba, instead of focusing on rights to economic liberty and expression, has instead chosen to focus on rights to dignity: the right to have healthcare, the right to receive an education. Michael Parenti, in a famous speech, detailed in incredible detail, the story of villagers who had never seen a doctor before. You know, in the 1940s, up in the Sierra Maestra, you had to carry the ill a day or two to the nearest village to see a doctor. And I cannot express what Cuba would have looked like if it weren’t for the revolution, because people, you know, may still be illiterate, may still have had to walk by foot to carry a person to a medical clinic.
What I argue in the article is that Cuba, by prioritizing dignity rights has been able to raise the standard of living throughout the country in a way that few other countries who subscribe to capitalist regimes have been able to. And what I’m saying about Puerto Rico, is that had the nationalist uprising been able to succeed, it would not have been crippled and strangled by an American imperialist influence that has continued to privatize and sell off Puerto Rican assets; it’s caused tremendous flight from the island. It’s caused the medical system to suffer irreparably. And when you look to Cuba, of course, it’s a poor Caribbean nation — all Caribbean nations are because of imperial and colonial practice — however, Cuba, especially when you look at how it’s been able to handle the virus, has been able to succeed magnificently in rising the standard of living: unemployment is low, the education rates are still on par with nearly every developed nation, and that they best America in a number of metrics, particularly in medicine.
And my point was that Puerto Rico has the opportunity to decide what it wants to do with its future. And it would strike me as profoundly hypocritical to merely succumb to the American desire to see it become a state for nothing other than the ability to gain two Senate seats. I think Puerto Ricans themselves have the opportunity to say this is our time to decide whether we want to continue implementing austerity measures, whether we want to continue stripping pension rights, whether we want to continue paying secured creditors $1 on the dollar while our citizens suffer.
VB: Angelo, thank you so much for joining us today.
AG: Thank you for having me.
VB: That was Angelo Guisado from the Center for Constitutional Rights, with some of the complex history that underlies Puerto Rico’s present status as a U.S. territory. This brings us to this year’s referendum on statehood. What does it mean for the island’s future? Is Puerto Rico now closer to statehood? And is that the right outcome?
To talk about this, and more, I am joined by Julio Ricardo Varela, the founder of latinorebels.com, and co-host of the podcast, “In The Thick.”
Thank you for joining us, Julio.
Julio Ricardo Varela: Thank you so much for having me.
VB: So on November 3, Puerto Rican voters were presented with the question of whether the island should become a state. You opposed this measure, and I want to hear why in a moment, but I think it’d be helpful if you could give us some historical context for this vote. This was the sixth referendum on this topic since 1967, and the third in eight years. Why has the question remained unresolved despite this large tally of attempts?
JRV: Let me just clarify, I don’t oppose the measure. As a journalist, I oppose the strategy of the plebiscite in general, and it kind of gets to your question as to why are we having a sixth non-binding plebiscite, which are actually just popularity contests.
If you really start looking at the history of these plebiscites, which, to be honest with you, have no legal binding. Congress doesn’t have to do anything, the Department of Justice, they’ve been on record to say: We’re not going to do anything. It’s just a lot of political posturing.
And what it really is is that they’ve been sort of formed because of the colonial parties of Puerto Rico. And you know, Puerto Rico is one of the only places that has two main political parties that are based on political status. And there’s been a two-party system since the 60s: One, the Populares, even though the Populares started in the 50s, at the start of the Commonwealth — and people can call it a colony, I like to call it an island colony — they’re the ones that defend the Commonwealth status; then the New Progressive Party, the Progresistas, kind of came as sort of this pro-statehood party that has been around since the 60s.
It’s basically statehood-ers versus status quo-ers. The Independence Party has sort of been seen as sort of an outsider and not a significant player. So when you start looking at the last 50 years of these plebiscites, and the first one, I believe, was in ’68, ’67. And then the next one was in the mid-90s, or early 90s, and then you have a couple more, and then there’s like three in the last eight years, nothing’s really happened. I mean, what has happened?
I think my opposition to all this is more about how the debate on status is actually ingrained in political parties in Puerto Rico, and that it’s in the political interest of these parties to maintain this debate, because you pay consultants, you message, you know what I mean? It’s like your entire party is based on a political status. So you’re going to do everything you can to push that.
VB: This time around, more than 1.1 million residents voted on an island of about 3 million people living there, and about 623,000 came out in favor of statehood. That seems to signal that even if these parties are using the process for cynical ends, people sincerely care, and have opinions, and are repeatedly taking time out of their lives to vote on this question. What needs to happen for these results to be binding? And does that actually make sense at this point? Or is Puerto Rico not necessarily ready to vote “yea” or “nay” on statehood, in your opinion?
JRV: Well, the thing is, first of all, it depends who you talk to. There’s plenty of pro-statehood proponents who will say that this vote is valid, and that it’s democratic, that people should pay attention. OK. But my question that I always raise about this, and no one seems to have this answer, so let me give you an example.
For example, New Jersey, right? Take the state of New Jersey that voted for legalization of marijuana, right, on Election Day, right? So people went and voted, and guess what? Boom, marijuana is legal in New Jersey?
JRV: OK. So there is an outcome. People voted in Puerto Rico for statehood, 52 percent, what’s happened? No, seriously, what has happened in a month? You don’t have the U.S. Congress doing anything. You have Joe Biden saying that he personally supports statehood, but he’s still for self-determination and wants all the people of Puerto Rico to decide for themselves. It’s frustrating statehood-ers. But what I tell statehood-ers is power in American politics now in the 21st century, is never given to you. Is there a statehood movement in Puerto Rico that is actually mobilizing Puerto Ricans, at the level of, you know, the movement for racial justice, you know what I mean?
It’s like, if you want statehood, where is the proof? Because all you have is a non-binding plebiscite that nobody — to be honest with you — nobody in D.C. is talking about. And even if you look at the runoffs for Georgia, and you look at Jon Ossoff, who, you know, people are saying, “Well, if Democrats take over, there will be statehood for Puerto Rico.” And recently, just a couple of days ago, one of the more prominent legislators, former Congressman out of Illinois, who’s Puerto Rican, Luis Gutiérrez, went after Jon Ossoff, because Jon Ossoff was, “I’m all for statehood of Puerto Rico, to the point that Jon Ossoff had to talk to Luis Gutiérrez,” and kind of tone down his position.
So you have Puerto Ricans on the island that vote for a non-binding plebiscite that no one’s paying attention to in D.C., and then you have Puerto Ricans in the mainland who actually have voting power, who actually can pressure their elected officials to call and say, “Hey, I want statehood in Puerto Rico.” And what’s happened, and this is the sad thing about all this, is that these pro-statehood factions in the island would rather lambast people like me, who are kind of saying, “If you really want statehood for Puerto Rico, then start making allyship with the diaspora in the mainland, Puerto Ricans on the mainland, who actually have voting power, who actually could advocate for you.” I’m still waiting for the massive statehood movement in Puerto Rico.
VB: I want to take a step back, because as you said, a lot of progressives, their instincts may be to think that statehood makes a lot of sense, because that’s sort of what D.C. is asking for for itself. And maybe that’s the best way for the island to sort of stop being treated as the ugly stepsister in the way that it is now. But I think some of the drawbacks of statehood may be unclear to people. And that’s further muddled by the fact that, as you said, the governor-elect, you know, he lives on the mainland, Pedro Pierluisi is for it —
JRV: No, he lives — he’s back on the island. But he was the former resident commissioner in D.C., non-voting, but he’s back in Puerto Rico.
VB: So he’s back in Puerto Rico, the new Progressive Party supports him. And then you have someone like Jenniffer González, right, who’s a Republican, and is the island’s single non-voting member in the House of Representatives. She’s also in favor of statehood. Can you help us understand what is so appealing about statehood to that camp? And then kind of outline some of the drawbacks of that status?
JRV: Well, there’s so many things to break this down.
First of all, when you’ve been a colony for centuries, you have a colonial mindset. I mean, there’s a term, having studied Puerto Rican history and literature, called insularismo, insularism, right? Literally being insular in terms of an island. And we’re talking for centuries. Puerto Rico has been a colony since forever. It’s one of the oldest colonies, if you really think about it, in the world. You start creating a colonial mindset, right, and there’s a colonial class, and there’s people who will want to exploit our relationship with the United States.
And this notion of us being equal American citizens is a farce. It’s a farce. Citizenship in Puerto Rico, U.S. citizenship in Puerto Rico, if you really start looking at the Supreme Court, and it’s all based on racist, insular cases [laughs], around the turn of the century of the 20th century, is that Puerto Rico belongs — I mean, basically, there’s a judgment that says that Puerto Rico belongs the United States, but it’s not a part of it. Think about that! Think about how the United States has viewed Puerto Rico historically.
You know, one of the things that I find almost laughable and kind of insulting about the statehood argument is that it’s always been equated to civil rights. People say: Well, it’s the civil rights movement of the United States right now. It’s a civil rights issue. And if anyone who has studied the civil rights movement in the United States would know, that that history is perhaps one of most violent and oppressive times of the late 20th century. And people put their lives on the line for a greater cause.
So I ask pro-statehood people — and I know I get in trouble, I don’t care anymore, because they come after me anyway — is: What are you going to do? And if you’re just going to present bills, and just look like you’re pushing for statehood because it goes back to the insularism that I’m saying, is that someone like Jenniffer González, who doesn’t have have a vote in Congress — she has no vote, there’s no political power. Alexandria, Ocasio-Cortez, who’s Puerto Rican, Nydia Velazquez, who’s Puerto Rican, have more political power in Capitol Hill, then Jenniffer González. But Jenniffer González will submit a bill or Pedro Pierluisi will come and do a delegation. And they’ll have a big photo op, and they’ll come back to Puerto Rico. And they’ll be like, “Look, we’re trying to push for statehood. We’ve seen this rodeo before. It happened in 2012. It happened in 2017,” when Ricardo Rosselló, who was the governor that resigned after the scandalous chat-gate in 2019, did the same thing. Nothing has happened. And so that’s where I think this is just absurd in a lot of ways.
VB: I have a question for you. Well, I have many questions for you. [Laughs.]
VB: Let’s imagine a utopian world in which self-determination actually passes the House and the Senate, and there’s a real opportunity to make a binding choice. And let’s also imagine that this binding choice would turn out to be independence. Are there conditions that you think Puerto Ricans should demand as part of getting independence. And what I’m getting at here is that —
JRV: Like reparations?
VB: Right. You’ve highlighted that if Puerto Rico was admitted, tomorrow, it would be poorer than Mississippi. I mean, it seems like when you have a history like the island has, it can’t just be that we cut you off at the umbilical cord, and wish you good luck, right?
JRV: Yeah, I mean, OK, if we really get into this utopia, because I actually would love to see that utopia. I would actually love to see a binding resolution that says, “Statehood or independence, you choose. And then the United States will grant it.” That’s the only solution to this. So I’m all for that utopia. I support a binding resolution that says, “Statehood or independence. Choose one. Done. Binding. Boom. All right.”
So let’s say, let’s say that happens. I love this. This is like fantasyland, but I love it. [Laughs.]
VB: It’s OK to dream.
JRV: Yeah. I’m dreaming. I’m sitting here, like, “Oh, let’s see what happens!”
OK, let’s say that happens. And let’s say statehood wins. Because, to be honest with you, right now statehood has an edge in Puerto Rico, but it doesn’t have political movements. So that’s a different thing, right? So let’s say statehood wins. Puerto Rican should demand reparations before becoming part of the Union. And if independence wins, Puerto Rican should demand reparations.
JRV: Because this is what’s happened. We all understand what a colony is. I mean, if you start looking at the American psyche, right? We all know what a colony is. It’s like 13 colonies and there’s something majestic about it. It’s like we fought against this. But when you have a country that has literally been a colonial power, and it’s 2020, and there’s still remnants of the teddy roosevelt days, and we’re still talking about this, and then there’s this false understanding that, “Well, Puerto Ricans are Americans. So — this is what I’ve written about.”
I wrote about this earlier this year, when it comes to like, mostly white liberal progressives, who are debating this and saying, “Well, we’ll solve the problem for you. We know what’s best for you.” I’m like, “You’re literally acting like a colonial power.”
I really hope the day comes when Puerto Rico wakes up and stops playing this divisive-status, political game that has been going on for decades, that has not done anything to advance the island. And my hope is that it is the younger generation that is going after the two-party system, waking up to how ridiculous it’s been, and saying “We’re done.” And there are remnants of it when you start looking at the Election on November 3, that that challenge against this two-party system is already happening.
Now, will that transfer to a clear position on where Puerto Rico is? I think it’s too early to tell. I might be wrong, but I don’t see any political appetite in Washington. I don’t think Joe Biden’s gonna go — if we want to play fantasyland, let’s say Democrats win the two seats in Georgia, and it’s 50-50. I don’t see Kamala Harris, I don’t see Joe Biden’s political capital saying, “You know what? I’m gonna go to Mitch McConnell, and I’m gonna work on this Puerto Rico statehood thing, because that’s what really matters.” I think it’s a very low priority. And I think people need to be realistic, and people in Puerto Rico are being fed this illusion that it’s going to happen.
And — I’ll leave you with this. The governor elected Porto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, is already calling for another referendum on status. [Laughs.] So what does that tell you? I mean, come on.
JRV: I’m gonna get in so much trouble on Twitter. Once this comes out. Puerto Rican Twitter is going to come at me.
VB: We’ll put your email address in the show notes to make sure the feedback can be directed to you.
VB: I do want to say, you know, if the Democrats can take back the Senate, it will be interesting to see whether that moment can be seized to finally give Puerto Rico the resolution that it deserves. But we’ll really have to see.
JRV: D.C. has a better chance in Puerto Rico. But we’ll see.
VB: We’ll see.
JRV: We’ll see.
VB: Julio, thank you so much for coming on to Deconstructed.
JRV: Oh, I’m glad I did!
VB: [Laughs.] Thank you.
VB: That was Julio Ricardo Varela, the founder of Latinorebels.com, and co-host of the podcast “In The Thick.”
If past referendums on statehood are any indication, the 2020 vote probably isn’t going to lead to anything concrete anytime soon. Nevertheless, Puerto Rican statehood is already being held up by Republicans as a boogeyman:
Donald Trump Jr.: They can pack the courts. They can attack the second amendment. They’ll give D.C. statehood. They’ll then give Puerto Rico statehood.
Sean Hannity: Democrats think they could lock in four additional senators, which would give them a Senate majority in perpetuity.
Steve Hilton: A permanent left-wing Senate majority.
DJT Jr.: For permanent Democrat Senators, in a balance that we will literally never overcome.
VB: But whatever happens, Puerto Rico deserves a chance to decide its own fate.
VB: Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. And Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Vanessa A. Bee. You can follow me on Twitter @Vanessa_ABee. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com.
Thank you so much!
Correction: December 23, 2020
An earlier version of this episode incorrectly stated that the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, requires that all imports to Puerto Rico come “from an American ship, from an American port, carrying an all-American crew.” In reality, this restriction applies not to all imports but specifically to vessels traveling between U.S. ports, including those traveling between Puerto Rico and the mainland. The reference has been removed.