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Puerto Rico – Our 51st State?

This summer, my nephew became interested in collecting state quarters.  When she was a kid, my sister collected baseball cards and stamps, so perhaps this early interest is in his DNA.  Regardless of the source, I received a list of the quarters he still had to collect (for him and his younger sister).  I promptly turned that list into an online order from ICCOIN.  Yes, Mom, I am aware of the benefits of “the hunt.”  At 7, he has plenty of time to learn its virtues.  As his aunt, I could imagine months of, “Did you find Hawaii and Alaska?  I still need Washington, D.C.”  So the hunt be damned.

What has been great about collecting these coins is that it seems to have raised his interest in the states, territories and now the National Parks.  Unfortunately for my 7-year-old nephew, he has an aunt that requires a level of intellectualism and edification in return for her generosity.  And so, in addition to NPS quarters such as Ellis Island and Frederick Douglas, he has also received books on both, which he has not yet pledged to read before my next visit.  But he knows that Ellis Island is in New York and was the entry point for immigrants in the 19th century and that Frederick Douglas lived in Washington D.C.  I’ll take it.

On a more cynical note, my 7-year-old nephew knows what roughly 50% of Americans do not:  that Puerto Ricans are American citizens and that Puerto Rico is an American held territory.  (Note*I am citing ONE survey taken in the wake of Hurricane Maria.  In reading the associated article, there is a distinct disparity between education and age cohorts which should be noted).  Given the unfolding humanitarian disaster and chaotic federal response, I thought I would walk through a bit of a history lesson on US held territories, specifically Puerto Rico.  I am by no means an expert on the island but I seem to know more than our President.  I hope that by reading this post, you have a better appreciation of our territorial possessions and the rights of our fellow citizens.  In Puerto Rico specifically, I think it’s helpful to understand that the economic crisis they have suffered, and the debt to which President Trump referred, is a larger story than a 160 character Tweet.

US Territories:  How Many Do We Have?

Six.  We have 6 official US territories.   Each has a unique story of US acquisition but all inhabitants are protected by the US Constitution.  Citizens of the territories are United States citizens, but their voting rights and representation vary.  Territories typically have non-voting members of Congress and no Senators.  While the territories typically vote in the presidential primaries (because the primary is governed by the political party and not the Constitution), only the District of Columbia vote in the presidential election.  The District’s 2 or 3 electoral votes (equal to the smallest state), but no voting representation in Congress.

Taken together (and depending on the source), roughly 5 million American citizens have no Congressional representation and over 4 million do not have a voice in electing the President.  Interestingly, these same citizens, should they move to the mainland, would be considered full voting citizens.

As U.S. citizens, anyone from the territories can move to the mainland.  The downside to this benefit, particularly in the case of Puerto Rico has been a “brain drain.”  Young people move to the mainland for the economic opportunities, leaving the depressed island without the benefit of their intelligence and productivity.  It makes a bad problem even worse.

  • The District of Columbia
  • The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
  • Guam
  • American Samoa
  • The United States Virgin Islands
  • The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

When you have time, Jon Oliver does an excellent 20 minute bit on the voting rights of the territories.  It is worth the time to understand the rights these citizens have and how those limitations impact what we see today.

How Did the United States Acquire These Territories?

Let’s set aside Puerto Rico and pick it up again later in the post.  Moreover, hopefully, everyone reading this knows the background on Washington D.C.  At the founding, there was the concern by those at the Constitutional Convention that placing the federal capital in a state would give that entity too much power.  Additionally, at that time, Washington City was still swampland, virtually unpopulated.   It did not become the metropolis that we know today until the 1930s.


The United States acquired Guam as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1898 following the Spanish-American War.

American Samoa

America acquired American Samoa (consisting of 5 islands in the Pacific) in 1899, resulting from the Tripartite Convention.  I have to admit, this is not information of which I was aware and know little about the background leading up to the agreement.  Thank you, Google.  But at that time in history, the industrialized world (America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and others), was quickly carving up and colonizing the rest of the world.  America, under Teddy Roosevelt, was interested in expanding in the Pacific which may explain the agreement.

Regardless, as a result of this Treaty, American Samoa became part of the United States of America.  It has remained a territory since that time.

The United States Virgin Islands

The USVI is made up of 3 islands:  St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John.   The indigenous population has been under colonial rule or vulnerable to imperial powers since the 1600s.  The early colonial period featured rule by both Britain and Denmark.  It is an injustice to the USVI that I and others know virtually nothing about their history outside of the sugar, cotton, indigo, and slave trades.

The United States reached an agreement in 1916 with the Danish to purchase the islands for $25 million in gold bullion.  The United States wanted the islands as a defensive measure against what was feared to be a German plan to build a naval base during the Great War.  Ownership transferred to the United States in 1917 but citizenship was not granted until 1927.  The USVI has been hit repeatedly by damaging hurricanes, including Hurricane Irma, from which it is still recovering.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

The Germans acquired the Northern Mariana Islands, an archipelago in the northern Pacific when it was transferred from the Spanish at the end of the Spanish-American War.  During the Great War, when Japan declared war on Germany, it invaded the islands and occupied them until the United States invaded in 1944 initiating the Battle of Saipan.  At the end of the war, the United States was given administration over the islands.  Over the years, there seems to have been several referenda and thoughts about integration with Guam but currently, the Mariana Islands remain a territory with citizenship but no representation or voting rights in federal elections.

Back to Puerto Rico and the Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War is likely the shortest declared war on the books.  At 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days it began and ended almost within the confines of a season (April 21, 1898– August 13, 1898).  Its duration may be the reason we know so little about it but from my perspective, it was consequential.  That is to say, the forces that pushed us into the war and the imperial desires of the élite and business class were never more evident than at the turn of the 20th century.  Finally, this period of conquest and acquisition continued the American tradition of white supremacy and racism, this time codifying it in restrictive laws preventing inhabitants of these new territories full integration into US society.  Some of these laws remain in force today.


The real prize was Cuba.  That is what America really wanted.  The Spanish Empire had held Cuba, Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands since the days of Columbus and then Cortez.  By the late 19th century, the Empire had dwindled significantly but Madrid was determined to hold on to what was left.

Annexation of Cuba was popular from time to time prior to the Civil War.  Southerners were very interested in making Cuba a slave state and petitioned the US government in the 1850s to do so.  The Civil War itself got in the way of progress towards that goal.  Meanwhile, Cubans continued their battle for independence against their Spanish overlords.

Sadly, I am not doing this period of history justice and for that, I apologize.  Really good historians will remember that President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which in modern parlance stated, “The Western Hemisphere is off-limits to the rest of the world.  We will leave current arrangements alone, but as former colonies become independent, we expect all y’all to keep your European and Asian hands off our turf.”  Subtext:  if anyone is going to benefit (read, “extort”) from the economic and market integration of this hemisphere, it will be the United States of America.

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States, like many developed countries had reaped the benefits of industrialization.  It needed new markets and customers to sell products and required greater access to raw materials.   The government, backed by business interests, was highly interested in building a trans-isthmus canal across Latin America.  After failed negotiations with Columbia, the United States ‘helped’ foster a revolt in Panama, which at the time was part of Columbia.  Upon the former’s declaration of independence, the United States entered into an agreement to build the Panama Canal which it then owned until the end of 1999.  It worked out nicely for everyone – except maybe the Panamanians.

Cuba had fought for independence for years.  In fact, Cuban rebels had engaged in a 10-year struggle from 1868 – 1878 before finally surrendering to Spanish authority.  Again, in the lead-up to the war, Cuba rebelled again and Spain, once again sent troops to quell the disorder.

So how did the United States get involved?  As usual, it is complicated.  US business interests played a significant role.  We traded with Cuba and needed that relationship to continue.  Anything that disrupted the steady flow of commerce was (as it is today) considered a threat to America.  At first, there was little popular support for intervention – in fact, there was little popular support for an American Empire.  But as the revolt continued, various groups began to compare the Cubans to the American colonists.  Black Americans, having seen their civil rights erode after the end of Reconstruction, saw war as an opportunity to fight for equality and to show Americans their loyalty to the country in hopes that the government would return the favor.

But it was the sinking of the USS Maine, that made war inevitable.  President McKinley had been pursuing a peaceful resolution of the conflict but was obviously concerned about US citizens in Cuba.   The USS Maine was sent to Havana in furtherance of the goal to protect those people.  On February 15, 1898, the ship exploded and sank in the harbor.  Interestingly, even after all of these years, it is still a mystery as to the true cause.  We may never know whether it was sabotage (and if yes, by who), or a result of a mechanical failure within the ship.  But at the time, it did not matter.  War had begun.

We should not ignore the role that journalism played in inciting the public.  This was the age of “yellow journalism,” when editors like William Randolph Hearst discovered that the news could be profitable.  Sensationalism was introduced to the industry.  Historians credit Hearst and those like him for playing a major role in not only the Spanish-American War but in other major world events during this time period.

But back to Puerto Rico.  The war was fought in the Caribbean and the Pacific.  In the Pacific theater, major battles occurred over Guam and the Philippines.  It was in the latter that President Trump continually returns to a fabricated story about General Pershing’s war crime against the Filipino people.  I will come back to the Filipino War in a later post.  This is a historical event that is not covered in American History class, perhaps because the United States military is not, in any way, the positive force we like to portray.  War crimes were committed against the Filipino people while the Philippines were under American control.   While the specific “story” that Trump continues to repeat did not happen, many Filipino’s died at the hands of the U.S. military.  That is something that should be part of our history courses and certainly, not something of which to be proud.

The war ended due to overwhelming American naval power.  In 1899, the Treaty of Paris was signed.  Spain ceded Guam, Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico to the United States.  In return, the U.S. paid Spain $20 million dollars for infrastructure already built in the Philippines.

Puerto Rico and the Insular Cases

In February 1898, prior to the war, Puerto Rico became an independent part of Spain which granted its citizens voting rights and a constitution.  Within a few months, it was under American control and back to territorial status.  During the war, Americans had promised the Puerto Ricans protection from the Spanish ruling élite.  The American military invaders were not only fighting the Spanish but were defending US business interests on the island.   We wanted to open a sugar market.  But the promises of citizenship and American protection were heard by the poor and peasants, who worked with the Americans against the Spanish.  It should be no surprise that upon victory, promises or what Puerto Ricans thought were promises turned out to be empty.

It gets worse.  In a series of legal decisions collectively termed the “Insular Cases” (named for the division within the War Department that would have to administer the territories), the Supreme Court ruled in 1901 that the people in the territories were part of an alien race (or races) and therefore would not be able to understand Anglo – Saxon laws and customs.  As Jon Oliver points out in the video above, the justice that wrote one of the decisions was the same gent that wrote for the majority in Plessy vs. Ferguson which established “separate but equal” or segregation.  One might argue that decision single-handedly, stunted race relations for a century.  The insular cases seem to have a similar result.  Well done SCOTUS.  Well done.

Not surprisingly, Puerto Ricans were more than a little upset.  They were not granted citizenship until 1917 and then, it was done so that they could enlist in the Army and be sent to defend the Panama Canal.  Apparently, in President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, blacks were not the only inferior beings; so were the Puerto Ricans.  They were sent to fight and defend a canal in the tropics because, “white Americans” were not used to the climate, nor would they be immune to tropical diseases.

Modern Day Puerto Rico:  Why is it in Debt?

When I was in grade school, I wrote to my Senators and Congressman about Puerto Rico’s statehood.  “Why is it not a state?”  I researched the issue in the encyclopedia, came up with reasons advocating statehood and sent three letters to Washington D.C.  I am pretty sure I received responses and I suspect that they are buried in a plastic tub somewhere in my basement.  No idea what they said and I moved on to other things.  Today, I have questions: “Was ‘writing a letter to your Senator’ a school assignment?  If not, then for heaven’s sake, what possessed me to write them?  Surely, Mrs. Hayes or Mrs. Gill would not have required that we write 3 letters and how did I come up with Puerto Rico’s statehood as the topic?  I was not that prescient as a child (or as an adult for that matter)”  I have no answers.

So what happened?  Why is Trump talking about Puerto Rico as if it is a NATO ally that has not paid its “dues?”  Seriously.  When the President started tweeting and talking about PR’s debt and how “decisions would have to be made,” I asked myself, “Has he mistaken Puerto Rico for a NATO ally?  Does he believe that NATO’s Article 5 has been invoked and after checking its balance, has found that the island owes the Alliance money?”  I know he does not read, but maybe Fox & Friends could explain it to him on their morning show.

Good God.

Once again, Jon Oliver does a fantastic job of explaining how Puerto Rico got into this debt crisis.  I would highly recommend setting aside the 20 minutes or so it will take to watch the clip.  The important thing to remember is that as a territory, the island has no voting representation and therefore, no constituency and no lobbying power in Washington D.C.  The tax breaks that American companies used to set up shop on the island, were phased out in the early 2000s to pay for a tax cut likely in a state WITH a voting constituency and/or a lobby.   This was soon followed by the Great Recession which hit Puerto Rico especially hard.

Puerto Rico then did what a lot of other municipalities did (and continue to do).  They borrowed to pay the bills.  But the bonds they sold, while attractive for tax purposes, required that bondholders be paid before public services (like basic water, electricity, education – you know, all the stuff you need to live).   Government officials have cut public services to the bone, to the point at which Congress passed a bill in June 2016 which provided the island with some breathing room against its creditors.  It appointed an independent “board” to administrate the island’s finances and placed a moratorium on creditor’s claims until May 2017.  The island is now going through the process of the restructuring agreement.

Why not Statehood?  Now What?

Puerto Ricans have gone back and forth on statehood and have held several referendums in the last century.  The most recent vote was this past summer at which time a majority of voters requested to be admitted as the 51st state.  This is not the first time Congress has received the request and failed to act.  It tends to be a common occurrence as Puerto Rican statehood (debt or no debt) is not a priority.  For Republicans, it would mean admitting a state that would likely lean Democratic.  Now, with the debt, conservatives are less likely to approve statehood and given the anti-immigration spirit in the air (despite Puerto Ricans being citizens already), progress seems unlikely.

The island was hurting even before Hurricane Maria hit and it is the lack of understanding its history and current context that is so disappointing (and insulting) in the President’s comments.  Given the economic crisis, the infrastructure, and public services were already at risk.  Puerto Rico is not Florida and it is not Texas.

Fortunately, I have not personally experienced a natural disaster.   When Superstorm Sandy came through New Jersey and New York in the fall of 2012, the interior of Connecticut lost power for several hours.  But through work, I knew many people in New York and New Jersey that were without power for 10 days.  Most had generators.  All were able to get out of their homes within a few days after the storm to get groceries and supplies.  Hospitals remained open.  First responders responded.  Wall Street firms damaged by the storm surge from Battery Park had to relocate workers elsewhere or invoke remote working environments.  My customers were back online within a few days of the storm.  Public transportation (subways and buses) were offline for a while but lines were gradually opened in the week after the storm.

In the past month, we have seen the impact of a major hurricane in Florida and Texas.  The response and coordination between federal and local authorities were exactly what we should expect.  Even then, the rebuilding efforts will take billions of dollars in taxpayer funds.  Now imagine Hurricane Irma hitting a debt-ridden and impoverished Florida with dilapidated roads, an outdated electrical grid and a large population living in remote villages, cut off from communication.  Is it your fault – or your government’s fault – that you need more help to recover?  Is it your fault that the infrastructure needed improvements before the storm and now needs to be completely rebuilt?  What benefit is there to being part of the United States of America, if the richest country in the world refuses to acknowledge that its initial recovery efforts have failed?

This morning, President Trump insulted Puerto Ricans and their leaders, claiming that the pleas for help were merely a political stunt instigated by the Democratic Party.  Obviously, the President has no idea that there is no payoff for the Democratic Party.  Puerto Ricans have no vote.  His comment that they “want everything to be done for them,” is perhaps the most insulting and I hope that Americans of all colors and persuasions make it clear that his attitude is unacceptable.  The Mayor of San Juan indicated that state governors are reaching out directly and offering to help.  I read a communication from my U.S. Congressman today indicating that members of the Connecticut National Guard were deployed to Puerto Rico right after the storm to help with the recovery.  That is reassuring.  Resources and supplies may be at the docks, but the logistics and personnel needed to distribute them are not.  And yes, that is on FEMA.  That is on the President.

The situation in Puerto Rico reminds us that nothing is easy and nothing is black and white.  There is a lot of grey in complicated circumstances and placing blame on the wrong people simply divides the population and slows progress toward the end goal.  We are responsible for what happens in the US territories just as we are accountable for what happens on the mainland.  All Americans must answer for Charlottesville and the President’s response to it.   When an unarmed black kid is shot by the police and the courts determine that no one is to blame, we are all accountable.  Likewise, when American citizens 1,000 miles from the mainland survive a natural disaster but 10 days later do not have clean drinking water, food, or medicine, that shame is on all of us.

Puerto Rico has a long road back to prosperity, even after it recovers from Maria.   The economy has taken its toll and the youth have left in droves.  Schools have closed and pensions are not being funded.  There will be lasting impacts that will take years to address.  It is situations like these that we should consider when walking into the voting booths.  How unfortunate that so many failed to do so in 2016.



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