Puerto Rico Needs the Right to Vote
October 22, 2018
Last year, Puerto Rico was hit by one of deadliest natural disasters to hit US soil. Hurricane Maria amassed a death toll of 2,975, cut off 100% of the electricity to the island which lasted months for most of its residents, and displaced over 135,000 families from their homes to settle in shelters across the continental US.
If the island of over three million United States citizens had resided in a state instead of a territory, would the response to Hurricane Maria been better? Would the government have provided more resources and directed more money to rebuilding and saving the lives of these Americans?
When you look at the response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas, or Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, the answer is a resounding yes. And the reason is clear- Puerto Rican citizens don’t have the right to vote, which means Congress and President Donald Trump believe they don’t have a reason to care.
The proof is in the tweets. In response to the updated death toll, Trump tweeted last month in response, “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…”
The response to the territory appears miniscule in comparison to the response to similar disasters. Where states got millions of dollars in disaster relief aid, rebuilding infrastructure, and the power being restored within a month of the hurricane, Puerto Rico went nearly a year without electricity and got only $6.2 million for victims of Maria. In comparison, Texas got $141.8 million for victims of Hurricane Harvey- the death toll of said hurricane being 106.
And they are still recovering. Day-long power outages are still common, especially in rural areas. Many homes still have tarps over them instead of roofs. The hurricane caused as much as $94.4 billion in damages- a crippling toll for an island already billions of dollars in debt. Trump claimed the government’s efforts in the US territory were an “incredible, unsung success.”
After the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, rep. Jennifer González-Colón, proposed yet another House bill that would see the US territory become the 51st American state by 2021.
“Now is the time,” said González-Colón in a statement in June, when introducing the Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018. “The catastrophe left behind by Hurricanes Irma and María unmasked the reality of the unequal treatment of the American living in Puerto Rico.”
The unequal treatment Puerto Rico’s representative is referring to is the poor response from the United States Government during both crises, and Trump’s downplaying of the news and outright denial of the death toll.
In response to Puerto Rico’s bid for statehood, Trump has declared himself an “absolute no” towards the prospect. He cites the incompetent leadership of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been a vocal critic of his in the past.
Congress has said in the past that it would consider granting statehood to the territory- if that is what its residents want. In a June 2017 referendum, Puerto Ricans voted 97% in favor of statehood. However, the low turnout for the vote- around 23% of the island’s registered voters- make it so the referendum was all but disregarded by Congress.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, put it this way: “The response of the United States to its colony can never be fantastic. That’s the root of the problem, and until we address the root of the problem, there is no way we will ever get a fantastic response.” The Trump Administration has made it clear that the treatment of Puerto Rico is not a priority in comparison to the treatment of a US state.
This bid for statehood is the latest in a list of many attempts to grant the colony the civil and human rights it deserves. For the American citizens of Puerto Rico who have been affected by Hurricane Maria and the lives that it took, they can only hope this is the one that succeeds.