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The Problem With the Colonies

Author’s Note: You will notice that I don’t mention statehood for Puerto Rico as an option.  It is a viable and real option for the island, but my point here is to talk about the problem faced by all of America’s territories when it comes to representation and a way that can be remedied besides statehood.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, I was looking at it with special concern. This disaster was personal for me. My mother was born in Puerto Rico, born in Canovanas and growing up in Carolina, both suburbs of the capital city of San Juan. Mom moved to Michigan in the 1960s and met my Dad. I came along a year after their wedding in 1969. I grew up hearing my mother speaking Spanish with my uncles who had moved from the island to follow my mother in Michigan, and with mi abuela, my grandmother, who also moved to be close to her children.

My mother told me about her homeland and how they became American citizens in 1917 and how the island became a Commonwealth in the early 50s, and about the first elected governor, Luis Munoz Marin, and how he helped the island become a shining star on the Caribbean. My mother and I tended to hope that one day, the island would become the 51st state.  We were strong statehood supporters and were against the independence movement, which tended to use terrorism to get their point across.

I grew up with a sense that you could be a proud Puerto Rican and proud to be a part of the United States. We were not a mere colony, we were so much more.

These days I have to wonder if the island that is part of my heritage is really considered a part of the US or simply a mere colony that the overseers in Washington think of occasionally.

Puerto Rico, along with the Virgin Islands, Guam, the North Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and, to some extent, the District of Columbia are considered unincorporated territories of the United States. Their people are American citizens, but they don’t have representatives in Congress, save non-voting representatives.  They also can’t vote for President.  Congress and then-president Obama worked to create PROMESA, a legislative act that set up a Fiscal Control board to help lift Puerto Rico out of its fiscal crisis.  So, a Congress Puerto Ricans didn’t vote for drew up a bill that became an act and was signed by a President they didn’t vote for.  Think about that: 3.5 million people don’t have a voice in how to restructure their own collective finances. They have to rely on the good graces of the Legislative and Executive Branches. (The Washington Post has a great article that explains the problem of US territories in words and pictures.)

US Territories are very seldom thought of by the average American.  NPR’s Code Switch cites a recent survey where only half of Americans even knew that Puerto Ricans were fellow Americans.  This is what author Tiphanie Yanique said on National Public Radio about how people see her home of the Virgin Islands:

The United States has talked about us as if we are effectively a colony, which is that we are secondary. We are perhaps secondary types of Americans. Now, we do carry American passports in the Virgin Islands, but we don’t have federal representation.

We cannot vote for president for example. Our congresswoman, who – we vote for her – she cannot vote in Congress. So we really have no say. But I also think that this has to do with just the way that we are thought of in the national imagination as a place for a vacation and respite. And it’s a beautiful place. The Virgin Islands is as beautiful as everybody says.

It is a gorgeous, pristine, absolutely divine place. However, it’s a place where human beings also live. So, you know, when Americans travel to Europe, for example, they know that they’re traveling to Europe to engage with the cultural history. When people travel to the Caribbean, they are often traveling to avoid the human beings and to just engage in the beauty of the space.

It’s time for American territories to be heard, to be treated with more respect. They are Americans and they need to be treated as such.

Short of statehood, there is a way that gives the territories more of a voice than they do now. The answer lies in giving them real representation and the ability to vote for President.

Territories in Australia and Canada have limited representation in Canberra and Ottawa respectively. For example in Canada, each of the three territories have one member of Parliament each and one senator. So in the Yukon Territory, they send one MP to Ottawa as well as one senator. Australia’s Northern Territory has two MPs and two Senators. In each case the territory has representation in the federal legislature. No, the territories are not on equal footing with the states or provinces, but they at least have a voice in national affairs in a way that US territories don’t.

My own proposal would be that each US territory has one representative and possibly one senator.  These representatives would have full voting privileges in Congress. All of the territories would be able to vote in Presidential elections and would get 2 electoral votes each. Also, all of the territories would have the same rights as states to declare bankruptcy (the late Senator Strom Thurmond had a role in stripping Puerto Rico of bankruptcy protection in 1984).

It’s past time that America’s territories be treated with some respect. These are Americans who have fought in our nation’s war and claim American citizenship just like someone from the mainland. It’s time that we start treating them as fellow Americans and not prized possessions from a long forgotten war.


Staff Writer

Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Minneapolis, MN.  You can follow Dennis through his blogs, The Clockwork Pastor and Big Tent Revue and on Twitter.  Feel free to contact him at dennis.sanders(at)gmail(dot)com.

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23 thoughts on “The Problem With the Colonies

  1. I hope this proposal gains more traction in mainstream culture. As a Canadian, I feel like a dope for having just assumed all these years that Puerto Rican residents would get to vote for President even though I knew they didn’t have congressional representation. Thank you for educating me.

    It really is ridiculous and antiquated for the situation to be as it is.

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  2. I feel like a […] for having just assumed all these years that Puerto Rican residents would get to vote for President

    Don’t feel that bad. It’s an understandable mistake because the territories do vote in the primaries, so you get to hear about campaigns going on in there.

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  3. First off, IIRC, ALL territories have been treated similarly, along the lines of “we know better than you do” how to manage that piece of land. PR actually has a better deal I expect that the western US territories that later became states.

    But, none of that really matters. I fail to see why the US should “bring them in” vs “let them go”. In the age when people clamor for independence, the US maintaining territories is foolish and a waste of resources. Make em independent.

    Oh, and DC is a federal city.

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  4. I feel like we should require people to voice their feelings on this proposal — specifically support or opposition — without knowing how the residents of the various territories are likely to vote.

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  5. Thats a pretty good solution if you can’t give them full statehood. It should at least give them enough political and electoral power in Presidential elections not to be totally screwed. My preferred solution is to make them states or counties of states if their population is too low for states. Join Guam, the Northern Marianna Islands, and American Samoa with Hawaii, make DC and Puerto Rico full states, and the Virgin Islands with Florida.

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      • There’s a cultural component, as Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands have a distinct history from each other and how they became part of the US. It’s not like USVI has a cultural affinity towards Florida, but Florida is already such a melange that it’s less likely to completely overwhelm USVI in the bipolar relationship.

        (or more prosaically, if San Juan is the capital of USVI, Spanish will be instituted as the official language of government, which USVI has no history of) (though according to Wikipedia, 17% of the territory speaks it).

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  6. A Senator to represent the N. Marianas Islands, which has a population that is about 1/10 of the smallest state with two, seems a bit much, especially since I’m somewhat unhappy about the distortion produced by the electoral college. In fact because the House of Representatives pegged the number of Members at 435, smaller states now get a slight edge there as well. (There’s one CA rep per 700,000 people, but ND has only 450,000 pop)

    Of course, that doesn’t apply to PR. I find it strange that it isn’t already a state. I find it doubly strange that there is a large contingent there that apparently don’t want to be a state, and would rather just continue on with things as they are.

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    • Yes, no more statelets or things that resemble statelets, please. PR is populous enough to be a state. DC is in the statelet category — shrink the federal district to a minimum of federally-owned land and cede the rest of it back to Maryland. As others have suggested, attach the odd bits and pieces to existing states.

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  7. I definitely think Puerto Rico needs to be its own state. (and if we need to some some Quebec like cultural regulations, so be it). I’m also fine with giving DC statehood, as the physiographic reasons for having the area of the seat of government wholly managed by that government have been made obsolete by technology.

    Like others have said though, the rest of the territorial populations are just way too small (even by Wyoming/Vermont standards – about 375K combined between the remaining 4) to be given ‘equal standing’ to a state.

    Besides just appending certain territories to certain states for the purpose of Congressional representation and Presidential elections, another, kinda out there proposal, is to give the citizens of the 4 small territories their choice in which state and which congressional district within that state they want to vote in (using some process similar to absentee or the mail ballots that many states now use)

    (and something that should be done in any case is fix America Samoa’s status as an Unincorporated Unorganized territory)

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    • The case against PR as a state is that it has a third-world economy (1/2 of the GDP/per capita of Mississippi) whose chief comparative advantage to the other Caribbean Islands is that it is stable and secure due to being part of the U.S., but exempt from federal individual and corporate taxes and federal regulations.

      Unless PR statehood would continue special treatment not afforded any other states, it would further shrink the economy. What PR needs is more autonomy, not more economic decisions made with far wealthier places in mind. I believe the current trade-offs of in-betweener status will continue indefinitely though.

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      • The IMF classifies (classified, prior to Irma and Maria) Puerto Rico as one of 39 “advanced economies”. I have seen estimates that as a state, Puerto Rico’s economy would receive net ~$20B more annually from the federal government to spend on goods and services. That’s one of the reasons some conservatives in Congress give for not allowing PR to become a state.

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        • IMF designated PR as an advanced economy because of U.S. tax breaks for manufacturers to locate on the island. These were controversial as manufacturing jobs started to locate overseas and Clinton signed the gradual phaseout of these incentives (1996- 2006). Useful graphs at link:

          https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/26/heres-how-an-obscure-tax-change-sank-puerto-ricos-economy.html

          IMF requires some level of industrialization to be an advanced economy, but PR’s was dependent on mainland corporate welfare which shrank, and now manufacturing is not that important to be an advanced economy anyway. PR’s talent is moving to the mainland for the variety of opportunities of an advanced economy.

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          • I’m just pointing out that you’re saying “The IMF is wrong, PR is a third-world economy not an advanced economy.” (I note that with essentially no electric grid, the Commonwealth government and the electric utility both broke, that may well be true today.) If the difference is that PR got assistance from the US federal government, well, the estimates I’ve seen are that as a state PR would get a lot more net assistance than they have as a non-state.

            For example, Mississippi is poor so the feds pick up 70%+ of their traditional Medicaid expense. As a non-state, Puerto Rico gets a fixed amount for Medicaid based on how Congress feels that works out to about 55% (and which, post-Maria, may simply run out). As a state, by formula that would jump to about 80% on day one with no chance (absent Congress rewriting the Medicaid rules) of running out.

            State vs non-state economy is a hard comparison.

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            • State vs non-state economy is a hard comparison.

              Somewhere there are people far more interested in this with a lot more resources to chase the answer around, they probably are in PR.

              The “Statehood” people don’t argue math. The “Independance” people also don’t argue math. It’s widely assumed in PR (according to my father who lives there) that either of those options are fiscally really awful.

              It’s certainly possible I’m wrong and there’s math out there which shows happy trails for one path or the other, but judging from the behavior of everyone involved, I think not.

              On the other hand I’m kind of committing the “appeal to authority” fallacy here and it’s not even an authority I’m pointing to.

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            • To be clear, I don’t agree that IMF designates third-world economies, so the accusation that I think IMF is wrong about it is incorrect. My point was that IMF’s designation of PR as an advanced economy is partly based upon manufacturing output that resulted from 50 years of federal subsidies for such businesses that has been phased-out and left the economy shrinking year after year.

              I believe PR is a third-world economy because it has less than half of the gdp per capita of the poorest State (45% of MS) and the gap is widening: I would also add per capita income ($40,593 in MS $18,626 in PR (2015))

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  8. On the Presidential vote thing — I suggest that you have a better chance of getting an Amendment changing to direct popular vote passed than you do adding Senators, Representatives, and EC votes for non-states.

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  9. Note that delegates etc can vote in committee and have been able when democrats hold the house to vote in the committee of the whole house here is a link to the details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-voting_members_of_the_United_States_House_of_Representatives The committee of the whole house is a committee of the whole with looser rules than the regular house order.
    A some what wild idea would be to group the territories with the states with the least population for example the usvi with Wyoming (the usvi has 1/5 the population of Wyoming)
    Since the delegates are all democrats when the republicans take over the house they remove the committee of the whole house because these votes would all be against them.

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  10. It’s time for American territories to be heard, to be treated with more respect. They are Americans and they need to be treated as such.

    I don’t disagree with this statement or with the proposal, but I think that it partially misses the real issues. The Puerto Rico issue is much more about how Puerto Ricans see themselves than it is about how the rest of America sees the island. That is, Puerto Rico is pretty evenly split between people who want the island to become a state and people who want it to become an independent nation. As far as I know, that is the main tension that needs to be resolved.

    I don’t know much about the rest of the U.S. territories, but what we should probably do with Puerto Rico is to hold some kind of binding referendum and push the island either towards statehood or independence, depending on the outcome. Such a referendum would also be a good case to use ranked voting. I doubt that this will happen anytime soon, though.

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  11. I think statehood is a bigger issue than most would think, especially for the “I’ve got mine, screw you” wing of the American population. It is more than just representation, and many lawmakers probably see nothing but red ink in that idea.

    My suggestion would be to identify one “non-state entity” with proportional representation in the house, two senators for all of it and a vote for President. If the makeup of “non-state entity” changes, the rules stay the same.

    If you make PR a state, where do you stick the star on the flag? 51 is an awkward number.

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