- - Monday, June 7, 2021

With the recent release of Census results, most are focusing on how this will affect the makeup of Congress, particularly with control of the House up for grabs next year. Unfortunately, given Puerto Rico’s lack of representation in Congress, their dramatic loss in population and the opportunity to fix it is being overlooked.

Nearly 12% of the population, close to 440,000 people, have left the island since the last census ten years ago. The main reasons Puerto Ricans leave the island are the lack of opportunities and unequal treatment, both of which are tied to the island’s territory status. This population loss is absolutely devastating for the island’s economy because it diminishes the consumer base, tax base and the workforce, and increases per capita debt.

Up to now Congress has paid little attention to this ticking time bomb of population loss, prioritizing piecemeal solutions for Puerto Rico instead of addressing the heart of the issue, which requires solving the territory status. This inaction by Congress is not just negligent, it also amounts to a massive form of voter suppression of 3.2 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico that have demanded full voting rights and representation at the federal level through statehood.

That is why when I testified recently during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on two bills to solve Puerto Rico’s status, it was so disheartening to hear many Democrats fall back on the talking point that “we should just let Puerto Rico decide.” It was blatant election denial. As if voters in Puerto Rico hadn’t participated in three elections over the past decade to answer this very question. It is an undeniable fact that as recent as November 2020 the people of Puerto Rico voted and a majority chose statehood.

Ignoring this reality, and instead telling voters to go back to the drawing board to reconsider everything without offering any concrete commitment to actually implement the choice that the majority has already favored, is exactly what those who support H.R. 2070, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, are suggesting. This is tantamount to seeing a sinking ship that is taking on water and whose passengers have called for an emergency sea tow, and instead of plugging the hole and bringing the ship to port for permanent repairs telling the passengers and crew to go back below deck and assemble a committee to see if options other than a full repair at a safe port are viable.

Puerto Rico’s catastrophic population loss cannot be stopped without ending the unequal and discriminatory territory status. It is impossible to even begin to develop Puerto Rico to its full economic potential without having clarity on the legal and constitutional context in which its economy will exist in the future.

Developing Puerto Rico’s economy as an independent country, with or without free association, would require completely different policy choices than maximizing Puerto Rico’s economic capacity under statehood. Members of Congress need to realize that delaying a decision for years, if not longer and inviting consideration of fantasy options, as H.R. 2070 proposes, would create a massive opportunity cost which Puerto Rico simply cannot afford.

Puerto Rico’s electorate, who sees the higher quality of life and higher incomes stateside and can easily move to get better economic opportunities, will either pressure their local elected officials to rack up unsustainable debt to provide additional services and other incentives for people to stay, or simply vote for statehood with their feet by moving to the mainland.

Those in Congress who argue that Puerto Rico must improve its economy and fiscal situation before supporting statehood are ignoring this reality, which cannot be fixed until the status issue is addressed. Elected officials must realize that delaying statehood for economic reasons will only ensure that the economy further stagnates or worsens on the island — and will lead to more people leaving the island which further exacerbates the financial crisis.

This is why Congress must provide Puerto Rico a real and direct status choice that can be implemented soon, and that is exactly what H.R. 1522 and S. 780, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, would do.

Puerto Rico needs a game changer to stop and reverse the mass exodus trend, and the most viable solution that is also supported by the majority of voters on the island is full equality and democracy through statehood. It would not only give Puerto Ricans on the island equal voting rights at the federal level, an improvement in quality of life, but would vastly increase the capacity to attract investment and generate economic development by offering certainty and equality in the application of federal laws, programs and policies going forward.

America has a critical window of opportunity. Congress must finally correct the historic wrong of America’s colonial legacy that has drained Puerto Rico’s economy and its people. Let’s open the door to Puerto Rico statehood and transform the island’s potential for the benefit of current and future generations.

• Jose Fuentes is the former attorney general of Puerto Rico and is chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council. 

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