Amid crisis, support grows for Puerto Rico statehood

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Porfirio Guerrero has grown increasingly frustrated as a decade-long recession has sapped business from his tailor shop in the Puerto Rican capital. He now feels the only way for the island to recover is to become a full-fledged part of the United States, a sentiment that is gaining force in the territory.

Puerto Ricans have been divided for decades on whether to remain a semi-autonomous commonwealth, push for statehood or break away entirely from the United States. The island’s economic crisis — including a $70 billion debt and looming default — have pushed many like Guerrero toward statehood.

“Can’t you see the devastation around here?” he says, gesturing at struggling and shuttered shops that make up the once thriving business district of Rio Piedras. “It would depress anyone. We need statehood.”

That feeling has been reinforced by Congress’ approval on Wednesday of a measure meant to help the island out of its deep economic malaise. The bill, which President Barack Obama signed on Thursday, allows Puerto Rico to restructure some of its debt as U.S. cities and counties can. It also creates a board appointed by Congress and the White House that will oversee the debt-restructuring process and Puerto Rico’s finances, including requiring the island to have balanced budgets.

The measure came too late, with Puerto Rico’s governor on Thursday declaring a debt moratorium on nearly $2 billion worth of debt that is due Friday, marking the largest default in the island’s history.

Though the bill is intended to help Puerto Rico, the outside oversight board and a provision to cut the minimum wage for some workers have fed into the sense of many that islanders are second-class citizens, forced to beg Congress for help in a time of need.

“If Puerto Rico was a state, Congress could not approve a law of this nature,” said Charlie Rodriguez, a former president of the island’s Senate from the pro-statehood party. “But since Puerto Rico is a territory, Congress can do whatever it pleases.”

The shift in sentiment is dramatized by the woes of the governing Popular Democratic Party, the standard-bearer for the island’s current status as a commonwealth.

“The party has completely fallen apart,” said Eduardo Villanueva, a political analyst who supports independence. He said the congressional action “was the final blow to the commonwealth status.”

Even some members of the party concede it faces a challenge.

“There are legitimate questions about where we should be headed,” said Roberto Prats, a former senator from the party. “We have a fiscal crisis; we have a debt crisis, an economic recession and an outcry of people demanding that we address the situation of the political status.”

Unemployment is at nearly 12 per cent, higher than in any U.S. state, fueling an exodus of Puerto Ricans to Florida and other states — something that itself strengthens the bonds with the mainland.

Many of the problems stem from the end of a federal tax break for manufacturers that prompted many factories to close, as well as massive public pension liabilities and the high cost of energy. The territorial government, its municipalities and utilities accrued about $70 billion in debt that the governor finally declared “unpayable,” last year, setting off a chain of defaults.

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898 and it gained limited political autonomy when the U.S. approved its constitution in 1952. The territorial status has helped the island to preserve some its cultural identity, allowing it, for example, to send its own athletes to the Olympics and to keep Spanish as an official language.

That autonomy comes with a cost: While islanders are citizens, they can’t vote in presidential elections and have no voting representative in Congress. They also pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, but receive less federal funding than U.S. states.

Only a small minority now backs independence, and when times were good, many people like Guerrero supported the current status. They’ve since changed their mind.

“Statehood would fix everything,” said Jaime Cruz, a 73-year-old lottery vendor. “Things are going down the drain for me.”

Adel Musa, a 43-year-old clothing store owner, said he believes that statehood would help pull the island out of the economic slump. “People right now are living in misery,” he said. “We’re trying to survive, but it’s hard.”

There haven’t been reliable published polls on the statehood issue in recent months. But in a 2012 referendum, 54 per cent said they wanted some change in the island’s status. Sixty-one per cent who answered a second question said they favoured statehood. But so many people left that part blank that the supporters of the current status argue that the result was too muddled to be legitimate.

Puerto Ricans may get another chance to formally express their views soon. Both the pro-commonwealth and the pro-statehood parties say they want a new, clearer referendum.

Regardless of the outcome, the U.S. Congress has final say, and it may be reluctant to welcome an island of nearly 3.5 million people in economic shambles that could change the balance of power in the Senate.

Jose Manuel Saldana, a former president of the University of Puerto Rico who has become a statehood supporter, said people are realizing the current status is no longer viable.

“The crisis has proven that we need a change despite emotional attachments to the past,” he said. “Human beings don’t change substantially unless they’re faced with an existential crisis. Puerto Rico has been presented with its existential crisis.”