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To be or not to be a US state: Will it really be a question for Puerto Rico?

FILE: UConn professor Charles Venator Santiago.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
UConn Professor Charles Venator-Santiago.

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Residents of Puerto Rico have been official U.S. citizens for over a century.

Like every other working American, they have the obligation to pay federal taxes. What they uniquely do not have is any votes in Congress or the right to vote for the President of the United States.

There’s a bill being considered in Congress that would change that — if Congress passes the legislation and if the residents of Puerto Rico desire it. The Puerto Rico Status Act aims to provide the island's residents with a choice in the year 2025: become a sovereign nation associated with the U.S., declare independence or start on a pathway to statehood.

Since 1898, experts say Congress has debated over 152 bills addressing Puerto Rico's status, yet none have passed to settle the issue.

"This bill is just a continuation of hundreds of bills that address the question of the status," said Charles Venator-Santiago, associate professor at UConn's Institute for Latino/Latina, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies.

Venator-Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, studies the historical context of the island. He said despite the fact both of Connecticut’s U.S. senators support passage of the latest bill, he expresses skepticism about the current bill's prospects.

"There is no indication that Republican senators are going to support this legislation," he said.

Venator-Santiago points out that the bills in question, such as Senate Bill 3132, appear to be stacked in favor of statehood. If put to a vote among residents of Puerto Rico, he said statehood would win.

“I would guarantee that at least 75% of the electors would vote for statehood,” Venator-Santiago said. “Then you have to do parity funding, which is an extra $5-$10 billion a year in federal subsidies. Statehood is too expensive.”

Statehood for Puerto Rico might be expensive for the U.S. Treasury, too. Venator-Santiago said Puerto Rico's staggering debt of around $140 billion would completely become the U.S. government’s problem.

“If Puerto Rico were to become a state, the federal government would no longer be able to control the management of that debt,” Venator-Santiago said.

Puerto Rican statehood could also come at a political cost for many members of Congress, according to Venator-Santiago.

“If Puerto Rico were to become a state, then it is more likely that Puerto Rico would like two Democratic senators and four, maybe five lawmakers,” Venator-Santiago said. “Republicans aren't going to give up seven seats.”

When asked about the option of Puerto Rico becoming an independent sovereign nation, Venator-Santiago says that option has its own challenges.

"The Independence Party faces two problems,” he said. “One is how to deal with the citizenship question if Puerto Rico becomes independent, and the second is finding subsidies to replace the $30 to $40 billion per year currently provided by the U.S."

Although the Puerto Rico Status Act has little chance of passing through to the president’s desk, some lawmakers, like Connecticut U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, publicized their support for the measure.

Venator-Santiago said the measure’s primary purpose might be political posturing for the upcoming election year, since Connecticut is one of many states with large Puerto Rican populations.

"This is an opportunity,” he said, “to tell the Puerto Rican voters in Connecticut ... we want to support you.”

Correction: This story has been updated to say the bill would let island residents decide whether to become a sovereign nation associated with the U.S., declare independence or start on a pathway to statehood. A previous version of the story incorrectly stated the bill would let island residents choose to maintain the island's current territorial status as one of the options.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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