On Sunday, the commonwealth of Puerto Rico will hold a plebiscite regarding changing its status as an unincorporated territory of the United States. The option of submitting Puerto Rico’s application for admission as the 51st state of the union is guaranteed to prevail.
However, I believe that outcome will not reflect the informed decision of the people of Puerto Rico. Nor would statehood benefit the island or the United States in the long run.
Puerto Rico is currently suffering from its worst economic situation in history, the result of decades of mismanagement, inefficiency and poor choices made by successive local administrations. The island’s finances are under the control of a federally imposed financial oversight board and it is operating under quasi-bankruptcy proceedings. Government services and investment in basic services such as education, police and health will be drastically slashed.
It is in the midst of this unprecedented financial hardship that statehood is being offered — not as a way to achieve equality with the rest of the United States, but as a life raft to save a floundering economy.
It pains me, as a Puerto Rican, to see that many of my friends and relatives are approaching this most important decision simply based on the belief that, as a state, the island will be entitled to receive billions of dollars in assistance from the federal government to help pay bondholders, repair broken infrastructure and pay for ongoing government expenses. Decisions about the future of a people cannot be reduced to dollars and cents, regardless of how pressing the needs or how desperate the financial situation.
Congress has the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether to admit Puerto Rico as a state. I hope all of our representatives in Washington take into account the context in which this plebiscite will be held; I hope that they are aware of the pro-statehood voters’ expectations of massive cash infusions from Washington and that they consider the costs to us, the taxpayers residing on the mainland, of having to bail out a future state of Puerto Rico.
The island, under its current economic difficulties, is unable to contribute financially to the nation. Minnesota’s taxpayers should not be asked to shoulder the burden of over 3 million people in a newly admitted state of Puerto Rico.
Statehood can be a just and fair solution to the status question for Puerto Rico, as could independence or free association with the United States or other alternatives that may present themselves due to the changing dynamics of the world — for example, federation with a future democratic Cuba and other Caribbean islands or even joining the European Union as an autonomous community of Spain.
However, none of these final formulas can be achieved until the island emerges from its economic disaster and its people embark on an open, frank discussion of the merits, costs and drawbacks of any future political status.
Francisco J. Gonzalez is director of the Office of Equality and Civil Rights for the Minneapolis Public Schools. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.