When Puerto Rico is referred to as a “commonwealth” the term obscures the true meaning of its current political status.
We use “commonwealth” as a legal designation for states like Massachusetts, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. In a state, you can vote for president. In Puerto Rico, you can’t. This facade has served to disguise the island’s undemocratic and unequal relationship with the U.S.
“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 the full benefits of American citizenship),” said retiring U.S. Congressman Jose Serrano, D-N.Y. “This fiction papered over what we have known all along, Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States, treated unfairly and unequally.”
A nonbinding referendum held last month sought to end this by asking the 3.2 million American citizens on the Island: “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?” — 52.24 % of voters answered yes and 47.66% said no, according to official results reported by the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission.
“Puerto Rico voted for statehood fair and square,” tweeted Puerto Rico Democratic Party Chair Charlie Rodriguez on Nov. 6. “Congress must support the will of the people of Puerto Rico. America cannot demand democracy abroad if it ignores the plebiscite results and denies its citizens (in Puerto Rico) the equal rights that only statehood can provide.”
Congress should affirm or reject Puerto Rico’s statehood petition with a public statement in writing. A yes still needs a presidential signature to become law. And a no might set off a nonviolent protest campaign demanding that Congress affirm Puerto Rico’s choice of Statehood or approve a transition plan to Independence.
But a status plebiscite doesn’t automatically trip a switch that converts a territory into a state. Congress must respond because the Framers vested responsibility for reviewing territorial petitions in the legislative branch.
“New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union … The Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States,” according to Article 4, Section 3, Clauses 1 & 2 of the Constitution.
Commonwealth status allows Congress to unilaterally impose laws on the Island without consultation. In the past, they have canceled tax breaks for drug companies to create jobs, banned Puerto Rico from seeking federal Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection and permitted the federal government to treat Puerto Rico differently than a state in the allocation of funds for nutritional support, Social Security disability and Medicaid.
Almost half of Puerto Rico’s residents (1.4 million people) receive health coverage through Medicaid, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program differs significantly from state Medicaid programs,” said Judith Solomon, a Senior Fellow at the Center. “It is much harder for Puerto Rico to ensure its residents can get the health care they need because states receive open ended federal funds. Puerto Rico receives only a fixed block grant that does not come close to covering the health care costs of its Medicaid enrolees.”
The question of Puerto Rico’s permanent status does not need another study, presidential task force, congressional hearing or constitutional assembly.
Congress needs to accept or reject Puerto Rico’s statehood petition and follow through with a plan.
Gene Roman served as Massachusetts Regional Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration from 1994-98 in Boston.
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