It was September of 2017. Hurricane Maria – a deadly Category 5 hurricane, possibly the most destructive Atlantic storm on record, plundered Puerto Rico – killing 3,000+ people and causing losses upward of $90 billion. In response, then-President Trump lambasted San Juan mayor Cruz for his poor leadership. The federal government’s response after Maria was way slower compared to after Harvey in Texas or after Irma in Florida. It underscored the historic inequity between mainland U.S and its unincorporated Caribbean territory.
Five years later, in mid-September of this year, Hurricane Fiona ravaged Puerto Rico and led to catastrophic flooding. It has been over 3 weeks, and over 100,000 Puerto Ricans continue to be without power. Thousands of households still lack clean water. While President Biden has finally pledged full support and promised to rebuild the island and has allocated $2.6 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law for improvements to prevent hurricane damage, it feels like too little too late. As the attention has shifted towards Hurricane Ian that recently battered Florida – Puerto Rico may soon recede in memory.
In all candor, Puerto Rico has always been doled out the stepchild treatment. Over 40% of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line – more than thrice the U.S average. The island territory has no electoral vote in Presidential elections, nor does it have any voting representation in Congress. More than a century after being acquired by the U.S from Spain, Puerto Rico continues to be a political paradox. The island continues to struggle against debt crisis, bankruptcy, shrinking population and natural disasters that ravage every few years. Supporters of statehood have been lobbying their agenda for far too long now. Seven statehood referendums have taken place on the island since the 1960s – and though flawed in their execution, many resulted in pro-statehood outcomes.
So why are we still debating? Why is the U.S Congress not granting statehood to Puerto Rico? The debate is around representation. Granting Puerto Rico statehood will clearly have an impact on the make-up of the House. Few of our states may lose a seat or two, in order to give Puerto Rico its share and still remain within the 435-member cap. But a state as large in area as Connecticut and with a population larger than some 20 of our states and a GDP higher than 15 of our states – have a lot to bring to the Union. Puerto Ricans are already US citizens. They carry US passports and serve in our military. Its high time we granted them full statehood. The fifty-first star on our flag beckons…