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Statehood for Puerto Rico, but not D.C.?
(Published July 24, 2006)


It hasn't gotten a lot of attention here, but there is a concerted effort at the highest levels of government to grant statehood to a jurisdiction consisting of U.S. citizens who have endured a long history of colonialism and denial of basic democratic rights.

Unfortunately, this effort is directed not at the people of the District of Columbia, but those of Puerto Rico.

With little fanfare, last December a presidential task force released a report on Puerto Rico's status. The 16-member panel, consisting of officials from a variety of government agencies, recommended that within one year half of which has already passed a two-tier plebiscite be held. Puerto Ricans would first be asked to vote either for the colonial status quo or for "something else." If "something else" were the choice, there would be a second vote, with the choices being statehood or independence. Should the status quo win the first round, there would be periodic such plebiscites in the future presumably until voters came up with the right answer. Since in the past there has been minimal support among Puerto Ricans for independence, one would suppose this demand for plebiscites is intended to put Puerto Rico on the fast track to statehood.

While this effort to end a vestige of U.S. colonialism is heartening, it's unfortunate that there's no similar regard for the subjects on our government's own doorstep. After all, the area now known as the District of Columbia has been part of the United States since the country's founding, while Puerto Rico came under the stars and stripes only in 1898 (following four centuries as a Spanish possession, back to the time of Columbus). In addition, while the District has petitioned the U.S. government for statehood through a referendum in 1980 backed by 60 percent of the voters the people of Puerto Rico have held referenda on their future four times over the past five decades, and each time endorsed the status quo.

In some ways Puerto Rico's lack of dissatisfaction with its current standing is not surprising. As residents of a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans are exempt from federal income taxes, a luxury not afforded citizens of the District who pay more federal taxes per capita than all but two states (Massachusetts and Connecticut). In addition, Congress generally allows Puerto Ricans to run their own affairs, while it keeps a stern eye on the doings of the D.C. government. Unlike the District, which must submit its budgets and laws to Congress for review, Puerto Rico which was granted local self-government in 1951, 23 years before the District does not. The only significant democratic right enjoyed by the District and not Puerto Rico is the ability to vote in presidential elections, where candidates from both major parties engage in virtual hand-to-hand combat to win the District's hotly contested three electoral votes. (Sarcasm, folks.)

So why the Bush administration's solicitude for Puerto Rico and not D.C.? From time to time the United States endures heat from abroad for maintaining a colonial system in the post-colonial era, and solving the Puerto Rico "problem" would quiet some of the criticism. But more likely, some in the government are tired of Puerto Rico getting a free ride on income taxes and want to get their hands on some of the wealth flowing through the island for while there is substantial poverty in Puerto Rico, there also is considerable income that could be taxed, including that generated by the thriving tourist industry. Also, because members of Congress work in D.C., and many of them live here, they gain benefits from micromanaging affairs in their own backyard in a way they don't with Puerto Rico such as being able to pull D.C. police out of local neighborhoods to protect themselves during demonstrations or rallies. Setting Puerto Rico free would let members of Congress salve their consciences on the cheap. While our federal government practically begs Puerto Rico to become the 51st state, Congress insults D.C. by proposing only a lone vote in the House of Representatives.

However, if Congress held both to the same standards, the District would be a prime candidate for statehood, while Puerto Rico would be about as likely as Iraq to become the 51st state. While the District was enduring financial crises in the early 1990s, members of Congress huffed that D.C. would have to clean up its fiscal and management act before it would consider statehood. Now, even after recording nine consecutive balanced budgets, the District is no closer to statehood than it was when Tony Williams took office as mayor, promising to deliver D.C. into the promised land through probity and clean living. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's government ran up a $740 million budget deficit that resulted in a two-week government shutdown in May. Who's more worthy of statehood?

The answer is: both, if both want it. Democratic rights should not be contingent on good behavior. Citizens of the District and Puerto Rico are all U.S. citizens, and their wishes should be respected. D.C. has asked for statehood; Puerto Rico has not. If Puerto Ricans are content with the status quo, let them have it. But D.C. residents have demanded full citizenship, and the principles of democracy demand that we get it.

There's substantial opposition within Puerto Rico to another statehood plebiscite, and there's no indication that this proposed shotgun marriage will go forward anytime soon. It shouldn't. Any movement for changing the status of D.C., Puerto Rico or any other U.S. territories should come from their residents, not from official Washington. It's time to leave Puerto Rico alone and to honor the District's petition for statehood.


Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! For Democracy in D.C. Coalition. Contact him at or (202) 232-2500 ext. 3.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator