The Platform


In the southeastern Caribbean Sea lies Puerto Rico. The last remnant of a 19th- and early 20th-century American imperial outpost, Puerto Rico remains the only significant territory not incorporated into the greater union or granted independence. Cuba, the Philippines, and Liberia, all territories taken by the United States for one reason or another, were all granted independence.

Meanwhile, American territories like the Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa, are all fairly strategically important territories without the same sort of large population or culture which generally warrants a strong independence movement.

In the middle of these two distinguishable sides is Puerto Rico — an island of just over 2.7 million people taken from Spain during the Spanish-American War. It has a strong native culture, yet it remains an American territory. This position is certainly tenable, but not particularly desirable.

As a territory, it exists in limbo, where it lacks the self-determination necessary to independently seek a future among its independent Caribbean neighbors, while simultaneously lacking the political representation of its American brothers. Understandably, a sizable minority of the Puerto Rican population desires independence from the United States, especially since the portion of American politicians who support Puerto Rican statehood currently lack the political will to make it happen (particularly with the focus on the D.C. statehood movement).

However, it is important to recognize a couple of factors. First, the majority of Puerto Ricans desire statehood. Second, Puerto Rico is economically dependent on the United States. And finally, with enough motivation and political will, the political tides could turn relatively quickly.

On the economic issue, Puerto Rico lacks the ability to establish its own domestic economic policy, unlike other Latin American countries. But at the same time, it has inexorably benefited from its tight relationship with the massive American economy. The effect of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. economy cannot be understated.

Sitting at a GDP per capita of just over $31,000, it sits slightly ahead of wealthy, small island nations in the Caribbean like the Bahamas, while simultaneously sitting clear out in front of many of its other Latin American peers like Mexico, the Dominican Republic, or Honduras. A staggering 58% of its economy is directly attributable to trade with the rest of the United States.

Should Puerto Rico separate from the rest of the United States, while it would still maintain heavy economic ties with the rest of America, it would put the same trade barriers and tariffs between it and the rest of the United States which exist between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Not to mention, it would lose out on a significant portion of American tourists who contribute to a small but sizable chunk of the Puerto Rican economy. The process of obtaining a visa to travel to a different country is a hassle many Americans who currently travel to Puerto Rico might not be willing to deal with, instead choosing to travel to other American territories like the Virgin Islands. Ultimately, going independent would simply damage the Puerto Rican economy too much for it to be financially worth it.

While trade benefits exist under territorial status, Puerto Rico could see amplified benefits under statehood — most notably, federal aid. While Puerto Rico already receives substantial amounts of federal funding as a territory, it would receive far more as a state. Statehood would automatically give Puerto Rico $9 billion dollars in federal funds to invest in its economy.

Federal funds are increasingly important in the face of the ever-growing threat of hurricanes and other extreme weather patterns due to climate change. Hurricane Fiona has already made landfall in Puerto Rico, causing massive damage to the island territory, damage which will inevitably need to be repaired through the use of federal funds. Statehood would give Puerto Rico more funds to recover from hurricanes, as well as build up stronger infrastructure to protect against hurricanes.

Put aside the economic aspect. Put aside the aspect of political representation. Puerto Rico needs to become a state because that is what its citizens desire. In 2017, Puerto Rico held a referendum to vote on whether it should become a state, and 97% of its citizens voted in favor of statehood. Now, it is important to note that the referendum only had a 23% turnout and was held 5 years ago, but more recent actions also point toward a desire for Puerto Rican statehood.

A referendum in 2020 with a modified format again showed a desire for statehood, this time with a much more slim 52.5% of the vote, though with a turnout of over 50%. While it is not the most unequivocal message of support for statehood, Puerto Rico absolutely has shown that it desires statehood through multiple modern referendums. The only thing really stopping it is politics.

Generally speaking, Puerto Rico is not a pressing issue. There is no deadline for its statehood, and Washington D.C. has a much more visible movement for statehood. The major opposition to Puerto Rican statehood are Republicans in Congress. Only Democrats have shown strong consistent support for Puerto Rican statehood (aside from Republicans in Florida) because it would benefit them politically.

Republican opposition follows the same line of thought. At least initially, Puerto Rico would likely elect Democrats, which would be particularly disruptive to the Senate. Long-term, the picture is much more muddled, as Puerto Rico has shown an aptitude for electing Republicans statewide, but nationally leans much more blue.

Opposition to statehood over political structures is disappointing, though not surprising. But with the right Republicans in the right offices, and Democrats with the political will to make it happen, Puerto Rican statehood could absolutely happen. It will take time, but the issue will inevitably gain enough traction and political leverage. And when Puerto Rico is granted statehood in 10, 20, or 30 years, or however long it takes, it will be a far stronger alternative for its future than independence or continued territorial status could ever be.

Justin Huff is currently a high school junior in Orange County, California. He is a writer with Foreign Policy Youth Collaborative. His work as of now mainly focuses on the role that the United States plays or should play and the ramifications of its actions or inactions.