Source: The Associated Press
The Puerto Rico Status Act (H.R. 8393) opens with an acknowledgment of the island’s prolonged struggle as an unincorporated U.S. territory: “For far too long, the residents of Puerto Rico—over 3 million U.S. citizens—have been deprived of the opportunity to determine their own political future and have not received the full rights and benefits of their citizenship because they reside in a U.S. territory. H.R. 8393 would take a historic step towards righting this wrong by establishing a process to ascertain the will of the voters of Puerto Rico regarding three constitutional options for non-territorial status.”
Hoping to “put the future of Puerto Rico’s political status in the hands of Puerto Ricans, where it belongs,” Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and 62 cosponsors introduced the bill in July 2022. In December 2022, the bill passed in the House and was received in the Senate. Although Democrats lack the votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, the Puerto Rico Status Act provides for a plebiscite to be held in November 2023 to resolve the territory’s political status, raising historical issues that have hindered Puerto Rico from addressing structural vulnerabilities and building resilience.
From natural disasters to food crises, Puerto Rico faces numerous issues—all of which are inextricably linked to each other and deeply rooted in the territory’s colonial history. One example of the territory’s inability to avoid certain catastrophes and build resilience can be found in the aftermath of Hurricane María in 2017, when residents went hungry as ships were unable to dock at the damaged ports. For context, the island imports about 85 percent of its food; worsening natural disasters, economic crises, and mismanagement have led to the island’s dependence. Furthermore, U.S. policies, like the Jones Act and Operation Bootstrap, have restrained local agriculture. For many, this catastrophe demonstrated the need for absolute change.
H.R. 8393 is historic in many ways. It is the first time the House passed a resolution requiring a binding referendum mandating the federal government to recognize the territory’s decision. The binding referendum would also be the first time that Puerto Rico’s current status as a U.S. commonwealth is not included as an option. Instead, the three options are independence, sovereignty in free association with the U.S., or statehood. The bill also promises to provide for a transition to and the implementation of Puerto Rico’s chosen status.
In June 2023, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization approved a draft resolution reaffirming Puerto Rico’s inalienable right to self-determination and independence. According to its press release, many spoke out in favor of autonomy, although it was pointed out that the foregoing was a minority opinion, with a majority of Puerto Ricans voting in favor of becoming the fifty-first state in the most recent referendum held in November 2022.
Among those who preferred statehood, Yadira Ofarrill, speaking for the Congressional Extended Delegation-Georgia Chapter, argued that statehood was a valid form of decolonization, and that Puerto Ricans deserved the same fundamental rights granted to U.S. citizens on the mainland. Xiomara Torres, on behalf of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, asserted that statehood would not “cut out the cancer that is colonialism.” The general consensus, however, seemed to be that the decision must be made by Puerto Ricans living on the island. Representative Grijalva, the sponsor of the bill, expressed similar sentiments: “It is crucial to me that any proposal in Congress to decolonize Puerto Rico be informed and led by Puerto Ricans.”
In her heartfelt piece on Puerto Rico’s fight for justice, Puerto Rican writer, journalist, and professor, Jaquira Díaz, also points to Hurricane María, arguing that it was not just a natural disaster, but a political event that provoked a historic shift. “Nine months after María, people still have no electricity. They stop waiting for FEMA. Instead, they look to their neighbors. They take care of one another. This is how it has always been […] There is no benevolent American savior coming to help Puerto Rico. Every day, people see that there is only them, doing everything for themselves. Every day, more of them come to understand that Puerto Rico has always stood on its own. This is why I believe that independence, not statehood, is the path we must pursue.”
Díaz acknowledges that the path to independence would be challenging. She argues, however, that the future of a free Puerto Rico does not need to be easy to be just. To reach that point, Díaz states that the U.S. has a responsibility to set a policy of reparations that acknowledges generations of environmental destruction, human rights violations, economic dislocation, and more. According to her, this process would be complex, imperfect, and messy, but “the point is that self-determination for Puerto Ricans necessitates not just cutting them loose, but also restoring what has been taken and otherwise making amends.”
Advocates of H.R. 8393 recognize Puerto Rico’s history of colonization and current political status as drivers of the island’s structural vulnerability. Disasters like Hurricane María revealed unsustainable practices and inequitable power relations, demonstrating the need for a change in status. What that change ends up being depends on the Puerto Rican vote. However, all three options listed on the bill require the U.S. to address the historic and modern injustices that Puerto Rico’s status has brought upon the island.
Rachel Lee is a former newsletter intern at Global Americans. She holds a bachelor’s degree in global studies with a minor in sustainability from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. She is currently a master’s student pursuing a dual degree in international affairs and sustainable development at American University in Washington, D.C. and the University for Peace in Costa Rica.