The United States of America has stood as the beacon of democracy and freedom in the world for a long time now, yet for 4.4 million Americans this is but a façade in their lives. These people are all resident to the various territories, possessions and districts that make up the United States. It stretches from Guam in the far eastern Pacific, to Samoa in the south to Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.
The two major regions whose territorial status has been questioned in recent years are that of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. The former being a territory (a sub-national division under the jurisdiction of the federal government) of the U.S and the latter the only district (an administrative division under the direct control of the federal government) of the nation and capital city of the vast federation.
Both area’s residents have strongly and repeatedly voiced their desire to become states with Puerto Rico voting six times on the issue since 1967 with the most recent two referenda holding majorities in favour of statehood. The very fact that the citizens of the island territory and world’s oldest colony voted six times on their territorial status in the last fifty years certainly highlights some questionable democratic practices in place there.
This can be seen with respect to the disastrous hurricane Maria, where a centralised state-sponsored response could have drastically prevented the damage and death toll for the islands. There is also no direct representation for Puerto Ricans in the Senate or Congress (save the incumbent Governor Pedro Pierluisi who runs day to day affairs on the island but holds no political power in the U.S government) and consequently most referenda are non-binding and are merely a political statement. However, on the other hand, Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income tax: a privilege many working Americans of all classes would envy.
Yet is not paying income tax any compensation for a lack of political power to direct the course of the people and island at large? Over half of the islanders disagree, with the latest referendum held during the U.S elections last year showing around fifty two percent of Puerto Ricans supporting statehood.
There are a multitude of reasons why statehood is desirable for the average Puerto Rican. Effective damage control for the notorious hurricanes which ravage the island seem to be the most pressing issue, alongside this would be political equality with the fifty other states and the right to nearly $20 billion more in federal funds a year- money which Puerto Ricans know how to allocate more than an often distant federal government do.
The question over the status of Puerto Rico is primarily divided between the New Progressive Party (NPP), which supports statehood, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), which supports the status quo, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), which naturally supports an independent Puerto Rican state. With such a divide amongst the population, the issue may not be resolved anytime soon which is detrimental to the wider Puerto Rican society especially considering their geographical problems and the recent unreliability from Washington.
There is another factor at play with the Puerto Rican Question and that is the theory of statehood in the U.S. It is generally customary to admit two states simultaneously to the Union with the idea being that one would be a Republican leaning state and the other Democratic. The only other currently viable candidate for statehood is D.C. which is an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
The issue of party politics in Puerto Rico is not established in the typical battle between the GOP and the Democrats but in the issue of nationhood, which makes it difficult to ascertain its prevailing allegiance should it be admitted as the 51st state. Therefore, both regions status’ on statehood are unusually linked by the rule of statehood admittance.
D.C’s woes have never been more prevalent than today, as residents have been subjected to arguably the city’s worst year since 1814: A global viral pandemic preyed upon the citizens, the politically, socially and economically embittered Black Lives Matter supporters protested with an untold vigour after the ripple-effect murder of George Floyd by a police officer in May, and most recently, thousands of highly disillusioned pro-Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill, disrupted Congress and ransacked federal property in the crudest personification of “draining the swamp” yet seen.
In a region of the U.S that has no representation in Congress but who are resident to the capital of the largest democracy in the world, it must seem incomprehensible that they have less political privileges than their counterparts in the freezing streets of Anchorage or on the sandy beaches of Honolulu: regions of the two youngest U.S states. Coupled with this is the recent political violence and unrest that has washed over the streets of Washington in recent months.
Curfews, the National Guard (over which the districts leadership has no authority unlike elsewhere in the U.S) and extremist groups are no strangers to the residents of D.C who must be entirely sick of their home being the crucible of American dissatisfactions. D.C residents drive around with the ironic words: “End taxation without representation”, on their licence plates, harkening back to the fabled slogan of the American Revolution whereby colonial settlers were becoming increasingly dissatisfied by the mounting taxes of the British government but had no parliamentary representation in London.
Residents may vote in both the presidential primaries and general election but like other territories, have no representation in Congress but for a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. Unlike in Puerto Rico where the divide between territorial status isn’t unanimous, in D.C citizens voted over eighty five percent in the 2016 statehood referendum, a clear indicator of their dissatisfaction at the status quo and of how times have irrevocably changed since the time of the district’s creation.
In one of the birthplaces of modern democracy it may seem paradoxical to some that this is the status quo in the United States, but no democracy is perfect and being a democracy means being ever open to change for the betterment of the people. It is unlikely we will see any change soon as there has not been a state admitted to the Union in over sixty years.
However, with a promising, stable administration under the helm of Joe Biden soon to come into the White House and proof of the woes of unrepresented Americans visible to all, change may come sooner than expected. And in these harrowing and uncertain times, it may be time for the millions of these Americans to take a firm stand as citizens of the worlds most famed and revered democracy and make their future better for themselves and for the generations to follow.