Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Earlier this week, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, bringing up to 30 inches of rain to parts of the island, triggering massive flooding and killing at least eight people. As of Friday morning, nearly a third of the population was still without electricity. Of course, the island's infrastructure is still quite fragile after the damage and destruction caused five years ago by Hurricane Maria.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden, approved a major disaster declaration for the island, opening up FEMA aid to assist individuals on the ground through initiatives like low-cost loans for uninsured property damages, and money for temporary housing. Here's FEMA Director, Deanne Criswell on Wednesday.
Deanne Criswell: From what I saw yesterday, and what I expect to see today is that as we go through the recovery from Fiona, we will support the governor in meeting his aggressive goals to make sure that we get Puerto Rico on the road to recovery from Fiona, but also that we're doing it in a way that creates a more resilient Puerto Rico.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For many Puerto Ricans, this feels like too little and too late, especially in light of the US government's repeated failures during its response to Hurricane Maria. Slow or inadequate disaster response raises questions of whether resources would be more forthcoming if Puerto Rico were a state, rather than a disenfranchised territory.
Christina Ponsa-Kraus: My name is Christina Ponsa-Kraus and I am the George Wellwood Murray Professor of legal history at Columbia.
Charles Venator-Santiago: My name is Charles Venator-Santiago. I'm an associate professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Political Science.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Charles, I do want to start with you. For folks who may not be entirely familiar, can you give us the one-minute history of the territorial status of Puerto Rico?
Charles Venator-Santiago: [laughs] Well, Puerto Rico was acquired along with the Philippines and Guam in 1898. Between 1898 and 1901, the United States invented a new territorial status, also known as the unincorporated territory. Since 1898, the United States has debated at least 148 bills to resolve the status of Puerto Rico, but no single bill has been adopted in Congress or approved by Congress and Puerto Rico has remained an unincorporated territory since, depending on how you count this, 1900 or 1901 with some modifications created by organic acts or territorial acts, that have progressively granted Puerto Rico a little bit of territorial autonomy of self-government.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the context of the US, there are some democratic systems where this might make some difference, but not a lot given that Puerto Ricans are citizens who have the right to vote, but because the US not only represents individual American citizens but also actually represents us by geography, so it is our states who get two votes in the US Senate. I'm wondering, Charles, again, what this means in the most practical terms, in terms of democratic representation.
Charles Venator-Santiago: Puerto Rico has one resident commissioner that doesn't have a vote in the House, can participate in the committee and voting committee but doesn't have any political representation in Congress. US citizens who reside in territories like Puerto Rico and any territories, for that matter, can't vote in presidential elections and aren't entitled to an electoral college. They don't have any representation or at least direct representation, even in Congress, or access in some ways to participate in presidential elections.
In terms of direct participation, Puerto Ricans are excluded from the political process, although they can participate in primaries, or if Puerto Ricans traveled to the United States, they can participate as members or residents of a state.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm always clarifying that for students, that there isn't an identity-based restriction. If you are Puerto Rican and living in Houston or in Colorado or in New York, then you simply vote as any other American citizen would have the right, but again, the island itself, the geography is not represented. Christina, I'm just want to come to you on this. What difference does that make in a moment, for example, like Hurricane Fiona or Hurricane Maria, when maybe individuals with the identity Puerto Rican are not kept from voting, but Puerto Rico itself is not represented in the House and Senate?
Christina Ponsa-Kraus: A crisis like Hurricane Fiona or Hurricane Maria, or for that matter, the economic crisis that Puerto Rico has found itself in for a number of years. These crises make it clear that Puerto Rico is in an untenable situation because it lacks total political power with respect to the federal government. As Charles explained, there's a nonvoting representative in the House, already known as a Resident Commissioner, but that person doesn't have any power because that person has no voting power.
It's also just one person to represent a population that should actually have four or five representatives, and of course, there are no senators, and Puerto Ricans can't participate in the actual presidential election. Puerto Rico is absolutely stripped of power, and as a result of that, Puerto Rico has been treated unequally and as subordinate, really since it was annexed. There are certainly many good things the United States has done in Puerto Rico, but there are also not-so-good things that the United States has done in Puerto Rico, and central among them is deny Puerto Ricans power in the federal government.
What that means is that Puerto Rico has a dependent and dysfunctional economic system that depends on loopholes that Congress can come up with if it wants and take away if it wants and has taken away and with enormous consequences for the economy. It also means that Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico don't get the same level of assistance from the federal government in ordinary times and in extraordinary times. It is well documented that after Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Harvey had hit on the mainland, and the places affected by Hurricane Harvey has suffered less quantifiable damage and yet received much more assistance from the federal government much more quickly.
I just want to emphasize that Puerto Rico's crisis really is over a century old. It's the crisis that it is to be a colony, without a voice, without a vote, without power, without representation, and also without sovereignty of its own. That's what's untenable about Puerto Rico situation. What's painful and traumatic about these hurricanes and these other crises is that they exacerbate the harms that colonial status has already subjected Puerto Rico to for a long time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right. Christina, I'm going to ask you to underline that point of it, because there is a sense that the disaster is the hurricane, the disaster is the flooding or the winds or the electricity, but I hear you saying actually, the disaster pre-exists, the disaster is this unequal status or the disaster is this economic crisis. Can you just put a somewhat finer point on the economic crisis? Which initially, you said, the Puerto Rico found itself in it, but how is it that Puerto Rico found itself here, and how is it related to this subordinate status?
Christina Ponsa-Kraus: I do want to emphasize that an environmental crisis is a crisis no question as is an economic crisis, but it doesn't take away from the fact that being a colony is also a crisis. All of these are crises, and it's just worse if you're a powerless colony when a crisis hits. As far as how Puerto Rico found itself in this situation, much has been said and much has been written about why Puerto Rico has ended up in an economic crisis, but it is really in arguable that one central problem of Puerto Rico's situation is that US economic policies in Puerto Rico have created an economy of dependence, and of short-term fixes and loopholes that ultimately have benefited US corporations more than they have benefited the Puerto Rican people.
The policies have varied over time, but always, Congress makes decisions with respect to Puerto Rico's economy, with a view toward benefiting entities that really aren't primarily the people on the island. The federal government has also helped Puerto Rico in many ways, but the help is always clubbed, always lower. Sometimes Puerto Rico is excluded entirely from a federal program, for example, the Supplemental Security Income program, which helps elderly and disabled people. If you're a US citizen living in a state receiving those benefits and then you move to Puerto Rico, you lose them entirely, and the Supreme Court upheld that just last spring.
Charles Venator-Santiago: I agree completely with what Christina said. Part of what's going on is that the Supreme Court in 1922 decided that what determines the application of the Constitution, is the status of the island, not necessarily the citizenship. Congress has used since the insular cases, this decision to cherry-pick which laws to extend or withhold to Puerto Rico, including parity funding and social services.
Some federal funds, apply. Some apply as block grants, and some don't apply at all, as Professor Duffy Ponsa mentioned. That makes the case of Puerto Rico really complicated because citizens don't have the same access to basic services like parity funding and Medicaid, or as Christina suggested, no access to Supplemental Social Security Income, which creates economic hardships in the island.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Would statehood make a difference in not only these broad issues around, for example, the SSI income, the core aspects we think of as connected to an American social safety net, but would it make a difference in a disaster? I hear Christina's point about the clear difference between Harvey and Maria. I'm wondering in the case of Fiona, if the story would be different if, in fact, Puerto Rico were a state.
Christina Ponsa-Kraus: I would say there's no question whatsoever that statehood would make a difference. I am a supporter of statehood, I always have been, but I also want to be clear, as I say, what I'm going to say that if Puerto Rico were independent, that too would be decolonization and Puerto Rico would have other avenues to develop its economy and be able to withstand the crises that buffet it, but statehood, absolutely would make a difference. For one thing, just imagine, there's two senators from Puerto Rico. Senator stands up and says, "Nothing else is happening in this chamber until we provide Puerto Rico with the aid that we need to provide it."
The reality on the ground is that if you lack the political power, you're going to get less help, as the aftermath of Maria demonstrated. Absolutely, you would have people with voting power and leverage in Washington making sure that Puerto Rico gets what it needs. You just look at what happened after those two hurricanes, and you see Puerto Rico's situation from the beginning of time, aid is always more limited, more kept, or denied altogether because Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States instead of a state.
Charles Venator-Santiago: I want to disagree a little bit with Professor Ponsa. One because I think when we saw what happened in Maria, the biggest problem was a policy position by the Trump administration and Republicans in general, which decided to curtail interagency agreements. A lot of the funding, a lot of resources that could have gone to help Puerto Ricans was just simply not available.
To highlight that point, I remember sitting in a Governor's Commission here in Connecticut, where I was talking to the Secretary of Housing about housing Puerto Ricans who had migrated to Connecticut, and he said, "Four years later, we have funding to help people from New Jersey and Sandy, but the Republicans haven't given us any funding to help Puerto Ricans who are now being brought here by TSA or Temporary Shelter System, by FEMA."
In some ways, part of it has to do also with the government of turn. I think the Biden administration is more willing to help Puerto Rico than the Trump administration was or Democrats in general. The second point, I think we need to emphasize is that you can put lipstick on a pig in Puerto Rico, and that's not going to change the inefficiencies and corruption of the Puerto Rican statehood party in Puerto Rico or the Commonwealth party.
Christina Ponsa-Kraus: I absolutely agree, actually. I don't think we have a disagreement. I think that which government is in power in DC certainly plays a role in the federal government's willingness or less willingness to assist Puerto Rico. There's no question. That's part of it. There's also no question that mismanagement and corruption in Puerto Rican governments have exacerbated crises over time. I'm actually completely on board with what Charles said.
I do think, and I also have to just underscore, you're absolutely right. A crisis is a crisis anywhere. When we think about what New Orleans has been through, we remember statehood is not a panacea. I would never call statehood a panacea, but what statehood gets you is voting power. If Puerto Rico had equality, and a voice and power, then it would have for a very long time now had the resources and the leverage to fulfill the needs of its people in a way that would render them better able to withstand the emergencies that will inevitably arise.
Charles Venator-Santiago: Professor Duffy Ponsa, and I come from different positions, I believe in independence, but I want to acknowledge an underlying pump. One of the challenges for independence is that the advocates for independence have not been able to solve the economic question. Where's the money going to come to replace the $25, $30 billion a year in subsidies that are coming in? That's been the stumbling block for a lot of independence advocates.
In that sense, statehood guarantees a lot of resources that no one's been able to figure out how to extend to Puerto Rico or acquire through other means. The question for me then becomes, and again, I'm not in disagreement with what Professor Duffy Ponsa says, is to what extent can we explore other alternatives? This is a quandary that people like me are still trying to figure out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think the easy part is exactly where I wanted to go for each of you. I think that these sorts of core political questions about representation and fairness and our system matter whether or not there is a likelihood of them proceeding to activation, but I want to know, also, when you think about the options that are available, statehood, independence, maintenance of this system, perhaps with some tweaks, what seems like a possible pathway towards any of these outcomes? Charles, I'll start with you, and then Christina, end with you on this.
Charles Venator-Santiago: Congress has debated possible solutions for Puerto Rico. With the exception of two bills, nothing has come about. The only bill, it was a concurrent resolution in 1979 that affirmed the right of self-determination. Congress has never been able to move forward in any discussion of status. I think part of the challenge is that, again, as we mentioned, there's an economic crisis in Puerto Rico that is costing pension owners in the United States billions of dollars. Until the $150 billion debt is resolved, I'm not seeing any movement in any direction.
Then the other problem is that Puerto Ricans historically tend to identify with the Democratic Party, so I'm not seeing any movement for statehood in Puerto Rico or in Congress. At the same time, there is very little support for independence in Puerto Rico. What we do know from empirical research on federal legislation is that Congress historically has been interested in maintaining some autonomy, or some in-between government that is convenient. Sometimes it's treated like a state, sometimes like an independent country, and that seems to be the one status that continuous in Congress, which is a separate and unequal status in itself.
Christina Ponsa-Kraus: I'm really glad you asked this question. I am on board with what Charles said, except I would reword one statement he made. He said, "Congress has never been able to move forward." I would reword that as Congress has never been willing to move forward. Congress has the power and the duty to move forward because Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, and it's Congress that holds the power to ensure that Puerto Rico decolonizes. It's absolutely right.
There have been so many bills, none have ever passed. The current status is the status of disenfranchisement. That cannot change because as you rightly pointed out, Melissa, representation is guaranteed to people in states. It's the states that are represented in the Senate and the states that are represented in the Electoral College, and then the people in their states, but the people in the House of Representatives. The current status is colonial and cannot solve the problem. Congress has to step up and fulfill its responsibility to define the options and then offer them to Puerto Rico and let Puerto Ricans vote, and finally decolonize.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Christina Ponsa-Kraus is the George Welwood Murray Professor of Legal History at Columbia Law School, and Charles Venator-Santiago is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. Thank you both for taking the time today.
Christina Ponsa-Kraus: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Charles Venator-Santiago: Salu.
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