At a campaign event in Central Florida on Wednesday Sept. 16th, Biden stated his personal preference for statehood for Puerto Rico— a status option preferred by 81% of boricua residents there. This was a marked shift from previous statements his campaign had made as recently as earlier that day, when the Biden/Harris campaign presented their platform on Puerto Rico. While it included progressive stances on auditing Puerto Rico’s debt and protecting the University of Puerto Rico from budgetary cuts, it took no sides when it came to the debate surrounding the island’s status. This is typical of national politicians and has caused much frustration among boricuas in the island and mainland alike, who feel ignored on the issue of status.
The history of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States is long and complicated, but it has always been colonial. While residents of the island have gained many rights over the course of a century (U.S. citizenship in 1917, the right to elect a governor in 1948, etc.), the fundamental issue of de-colonization has largely been ignored by the federal government.
For several reasons, including avoiding the “messy” issue of status, politicians across the spectrum have instead focused the bulk of their efforts on obtaining half-measures that would help Puerto Rico in the short term (equal funding in Medicaid, access to SSI benefits, etc.). While these plans are well-intentioned and may have positive effects on Puerto Rico, they fail to address the fundamental issue of status—which denies Puerto Ricans the right to representation at the federal level.
This changed when Congress finally “threw us a bone” on the issue of status in 2014, when Congressional Democrats appropriated $2.5M to be made available to the government of Puerto Rico for a “non-territorial” plebiscite that would resolve the island’s status.
The hope was short lived, however, as President Trump’s unexpected victory would come to mean the stagnation of these funds.
Congress had conditioned the disbursement of the money to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) approval of the plebiscite’s language. Thanks in large part to collusion that took place between Trump’s associates and the island’s pro-territory Popular Democratic Party (PPD), as well as general indifference from Trump’s appointees, the DOJ has twice rejected the Puerto Rico government’s request to hold a plebiscite that would resolve their political status—in 2017 and now again in 2020.
This brings us to the debate surrounding the status plebiscite that will be held in Puerto Rico on November 3rd of this year, only thirty-nine days from the date of this writing. The island’s government is deciding to hold the plebiscite regardless of the DOJ’s determination to withhold the funds. On top of this, Puerto Rico’s scheduled plebiscite is facing an additional challenge in the face of Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
In an Op-Ed, Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez dismissed the upcoming statehood vote as not being reflective of popular opinion on the island. Their new proposal, the ‘Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act’, would establish a “status assembly” instead of a plebiscite– which in their opinion is a tried and failed option.
While the idea of a status assembly is one to consider, the upcoming plebiscite was approved by the legitimately elected representatives of the people of Puerto Rico. To invalidate the locally-approved plebiscite would go against any right which Puerto Rico may have to its self-determination (arguably, as a colony, we don’t.)
More pressingly, however, this could be costly for Democrats in Florida— where 85% of Puerto Ricans think Congress should abide by a statehood yes/no vote.
Vice-President Biden has already struggled with Puerto Rican support in Florida, and his decision to personally endorse statehood is one that seems to target the 71% of boricua voters which support aggressively pro-statehood candidates, regardless of party.
Even beyond Florida, a poll released this week highlights the fact that 86% of Puerto Ricans nationally would be more likely to support a candidate who endorses statehood for Puerto Rico— and while Vice President Biden’s comments about statehood represent a significant step forward for a presidential candidate, it may no longer be enough in a race as tight as this one.
On Friday, President Trump announced that his administration would give $13 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, the largest disaster relief grant the federal government has ever made, to fix schools and electrical grids on the island following Hurricane Maria. Clearly a ploy to target voters in Florida, and perhaps even in retaliation to Biden’s pro-statehood comments, he also announced that his administration would begin the process of bringing back U.S. pharmaceuticals to the island.
With his actions on Friday, Trump may well have solidified or even increased his support amongst Puerto Ricans voters. Puerto Rico has been struggling financially, and the last time it prospered was when pharmaceuticals ran abound throughout the island– suggesting that Trump’s announcement could tap into sentiments of nostalgia, even if based on false hopes (think coal miners in 2016.)
In fact, the PPD’s candidate for Congress in Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, is largely basing his campaign on the idea of bringing back pharmaceuticals to Puerto Rico. This only feeds into the President’s talking points back in Florida, which blames Democrats for eliminating the tax incentive as part of a budget deal in 1996 (Biden voted for it as a Senator.)
To win the Puerto Rican vote by a wide margin, Joe Biden must take President Trump into a battlefield of his own– the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico. Republicans have been openly campaigning on the idea that granting statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia is part of Democrats’ “radical” agenda, and that it would mean Republicans would “never get the Senate back again.”
This is a golden opportunity for Biden to say that his government will abide by the results of the November 3rd statehood referendum in Puerto Rico– something Republicans are unable to do.
If previous plebiscites haven’t worked on the island, it’s largely because they have been ignored by the federal government— Joe Biden has a chance to change that.
The GOP will never admit a hispanic state, and they are quite literally campaigning on that sentiment in this election. By committing to respect the results of the upcoming statehood plebiscite, Biden has a chance to both honor the right to self-determination of the people of Puerto Rico and solidly increase his lead against President Trump.
In fact, Congressional Democrats in Florida have already paved the way for him to do just that…
Florida Congressman Darren Soto, who is Puerto Rican, led all Florida Democrats in Congress, as well as José Serrano (D-NY), Don Young (R-AK), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Jennifer González (R-PR) in introducing a resolution that would recognize the results of Puerto Rico’s referendum and urge congress to take action if the island votes for statehood.
On Wednesday, Biden got it right on Puerto Rico statehood– now he has a golden opportunity to run away with their vote, and perhaps the presidency with it.
Puerto Ricans will vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the issue of statehood this November 3rd, the same day as the general elections.