By: Chande Blurton
Over a month ago Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. Its immediate effects were catastrophic: immense flooding, clearing of infrastructure, chaos, and disorganization. When compared to the storms that hit the continental US in the days prior, it is evident that Puerto Rico suffered a categorically different level of destruction. However, the bigger disaster in Puerto Rico is the slow-motion crisis that has followed. Much of the island is still without electricity and clean water, with no clear date of restoration in sight. The official death toll is unclear but is projected to rise as individuals face dwindling supplies of clean water and unreliable access to food and hospitals. We are sure to see a compounding public health disaster if vital municipal services are not restored. Left with no other options, some have even resorted to drinking from hazardous Superfund sites. Amid the dangers millions of Americans on the island are facing, some important questions emerge: would the government let other US states go weeks without power and clean water? Where is the outcry from US mainland nationals? The territorial status of Puerto Rico is turning a natural disaster into a humanitarian crisis.
Washington’s response to Hurricane Maria events has been highly politicized. Critics contend that funds and supplies sent to the island have been inadequate and sluggish—it wasn’t until October 18th, nearly a month after the hurricane stuck land, that FEMA restored water services for 69% of island residents. Many point to a discrepancy between disaster-relief efforts in Puerto Rico and those after Irma and Harvey hit mainland US. The basis of these criticisms is founded in the assertion that Puerto Ricans, just like Texans and Floridians, are American citizens. This is important because it shows that states are expected to uphold certain obligations to their citizens. However, operating under the assumption that the federal government has ever treated Puerto Rico like it does Florida is dangerous: it ignores not only political reality but also public conception of Puerto Rican statehood and its implications.
Puerto Ricans are treated as post-colonial subjects of the United States—they do not share the rights enjoyed by American citizens. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria sheds light on the precarious position that Puerto Rico occupies in the global sphere. It is not a fully-integrated political entity of the United States, nor an independent nation. The island is relegated to the status of “unincorporated US territory”, meaning that Puerto Ricans, although natural-born US citizens, cannot vote in federal elections and do not have a voting representative in Congress. The Supreme Court rulings in Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust and Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle affirm the nation’s status as a possession of Congress which lacks the sovereignty granted to other US states. Residents of the island also do not share the same benefits as those states, such as minimum wage protection and proportional rates of federal funding. Puerto Rico is a colony. Calling Puerto Ricans citizens creates ambiguity in what defines a citizen, and there should be no gray area in citizenship.
Ambiguous nationality can have serious global humanitarian consequences. Historically, many minority groups have either been prevented from acquiring nationality in their country of residence or have had their nationality arbitrarily revoked. This manipulation of nationality can be used by governments to relieve their obligations to certain groups of people. Puerto Rico’s neighbors in the Dominican Republican (DR) provide an example of this phenomenon: their constitution, passed in 1929, declares that anyone born on Dominican territory is a citizen. But, in 2010 DR rewrote their constitution to grant citizenship only to those born on Dominican soil to parents with legal citizenship. In 2013, in the context of increased tensions between Haitians and Dominicans, courts ruled that those new restrictions are to be applied retroactively, meaning that anyone born after 1929 to undocumented parents is no longer a citizen. This progression of legislation not only created over 200,000 stateless individuals but also provided a justification for the arbitrary discrimination of ethnic Haitians living within the country. Although clearly illegal from a human rights perspective, these actions illustrate how states use nationality as a way to subdue and control groups viewed as unfavorable.
Examples like this seem endless: e.g. the Sudanese government’s hesitation to acknowledge citizenship of its residents of southern origin; the denaturalization of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds; denial of citizenship to Palestinians throughout the Middle East and North Africa; the systematic stripping of citizenship of the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar. Clearly, citizenship is not just a state of being, but often a political pawn that informs the conscious decisions of states. Ambiguity in nationality has repeatedly lead to violence against targeted populations.
The concept and recognition of national identity is often inextricably tied to race. The previously-mentioned abuses were certainly racially-motivated, as particular racial groups were explicitly targeted and stripped of their rights. What is happening in Puerto Rico is not a crisis of revocation of nationality, as in the previous cases, but one of withholding complete nationality. It is less outwardly-despicable, however, there is indeed something sinister in relegating an entire nation to a status of quasi-statelessness. Thus, the racial component should not be negated in the case of Puerto Rico. Trump’s statements on Twitter following the crisis represent the prevailing historical amnesia regarding the role of the United States in the economic and social problems currently facing the nation. Trump is not responsible for the history of racialized American foreign policy that led to the acquisition of colonial territories, but his blaming the disaster victims for “wanting everything to be done for them” reinforces the implicitly colonialized, racist stereotypes. Also, his initial refusal to waive the Jones Act, which restricts the shipment of goods between American ports to only American ships, represents a prevailing hesitance to release the colonial vestiges of economic control over the nation.
The territorial status of Puerto Rico is a ubiquitous undercurrent to its political life, although the decision is ultimately up to Congress. In order to make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the Union, US legislature would have to pass a bill for statehood. In the latest referendum on the island regarding the issue, which took place on June 11, 2017, 97.2% of Puerto Rican voters supported statehood. However, it’s unlikely that Congress will take up the issue anytime soon, due to both a reluctance to give the federal funding that would be needed to ameliorate the Puerto Rican debt crisis and GOP control in Washington. An article in The Economist discussed the latter, noting that adopting the Democratic-leaning electorate of the island would be a nightmare for the Republican party: two more Democratic Senators, five representatives, and seven electoral votes.
As a prominent global power, if the United States is to claim any sort of moral authority, it has an obligation to either accept Puerto Rico as a US state or to let go of its reigns and allow it to become its own nation. Not doing so, and treating Hurricane Maria as a non-domestic disaster, keeps them in a state of limbo and reinforces the flawed idea that nationality comes in shades. States have the responsibility to serve and protect all of their citizens equally. As stated in former President Obama’s 2011 Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, “Resolving the island’s political status is essential to restoring the health of Puerto Rico’s economy and improving security”. These words ring even truer following the Hurricane Maria disaster. Nationality is a human right, so it is time for Puerto Rican statehood.