President Obama's blink-of-an-eye visit to Puerto Rico, the first by a sitting American president since John F. Kennedy in 1961, put the spotlight on the island for maybe 10 minutes, just about as long as his arrival speech promising economic help to the island and support for whatever course its residents decide on when it comes to whether or not to become the 51st state.
Brisk as it was, Obama's trip had a triple purpose: one was to appeal to the growing number of Puerto Rican voters in the key presidential state of Florida and the burgeoning nationwide Hispanic population; two was to reaffirm his 2008 campaign promise that he would set up a mechanism for resolving the island's political status during his first term; and three was to raise money for the Democrats and his campaign.
The visit came soon after a White House task force on Puerto Rico's status issued a report recommending that the island hold a two-step plebiscite by the end of 2012 to determine whether it should remain a protectorate or become a state. Obama vowed that his administration would support whatever Puerto Rico decides, but therein lies the dilemma.
About half the voters in Puerto Rico support statehood; the other half want to remain a commonwealth, keeping the self-rule territorial status forged for it in the 1950s. Only a small minority supports full independence. While all Puerto Ricans hold U.S. citizenship, those who live on the island have no voting representative in Congress, do not pay federal taxes and cannot vote in presidential elections, though they may vote in primaries. (In 2008, Obama lost to Hillary Clinton.)
By taking on the prickly status question, Obama is stepping into the heart of the island's greatest quandary and hottest issue, and the intervention comes at a critical time.
I just returned from a three-day visit to San Juan that left me appalled at how much its economic and social situation had declined since my last visit, in 2008. Despite $7 billion in federal stimulus money for Puerto Rico, the island's Republican administration has slashed the budget and dismissed thousands of government workers. Unemployment has always been a problem on the island. Ten years ago, at the end of the prosperous 1990s, the island's rate was 11.7 percent, according to the Department of Labor and Human Resources. Today, it has climbed to a highly alarming 16.2 percent.
Evidence of economic and social deterioration is all around. Violence is rampant, driven in part by increased drug trafficking. Puerto Rico has less than half the population of New York City, but last year it had nearly twice as many murders, with 955 killings, according to FBI figures. The barrios and caserios (government-subsidized housing) are plagued with drug dealers, gangs, idle youths and jobless adults living off welfare. The drug trade has become much more pervasive.
"We've hit bottom," said Luis Agrait, director of the history department of the University of Puerto Rico. We had a spirited discussion in his San Juan apartment with Harold Toro, research director of the Center for the New Economy, and Hector Feliciano, a New York University adjunct professor who recently returned to the island because he wanted his daughters to grow up in a place where they are not a minority.
Though everyone agreed that Puerto Rico's condition is grave, and that political corruption and incompetence and a colonial mentality had much to do with its overwhelming problems, there was little agreement on which political status would be best.
Statehood could bring parity with other states in economic aid and would confer full-fledged citizenship (with additional voting rights and representation in government) on Puerto Ricans. The economic benefits, according to the 2011 White House task force report, would at least partially offset the effect of federal income taxes. On the other hand, opponents of statehood say that commonwealth status allows more independence from Washington and the preservation of a distinct bilingual culture rooted in the island's Spanish heritage.
Congress has the final authority on admission of a state, though it is generally assumed that if Puerto Rico petitions for statehood, the House of Representatives and Senate would pass a resolution authorizing it. Still, statehood could affect the makeup of Congress, since Puerto Rico would be entitled to representation there. The report recommends that federal legislation be enacted in advance of any plebiscite in Puerto Rico committing the United States to acting in accordance with the island's wishes.
Meanwhile, the island continues to bleed residents. Today, more Puerto Ricans live on the mainland (4.6 million) than on the island (3.5 million), and the exodus has become critical. A recent study by the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute found that the island has a net loss of about 35,000 people a year, and those who migrate out tend to be better educated and higher earning than those who are left behind or who migrate in. In the past decade, many have moved to central Florida, mainly to Orlando and Tampa, where Puerto Ricans now number 850,000. Unlike the mostly blue-collar and unschooled Puerto Ricans who immigrated to New York and other points north in the 1940s and 1950s, today's newcomers support statehood and lean Republican.
During his visit to San Juan, Obama addressed a people mired in economic crisis and facing a major political quandary: Who are we? Are we a state, a colony, a nation? For nearly 60 years that has been a dilemma for Puerto Ricans, and it is high time to make a decisive choice.