Puerto Rico has been devastated by Hurricane Maria. Most of the island is without electricity and communications, making many basic necessities of life difficult. Food, water, air cooling, medical care: it’s all becoming increasingly harder to access. And it seems the situation there is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, with relief and aid efforts so far falling far short of what they should be, both in amount and speed.
There are many possible reasons for these shortcomings so far: a president who appears more focused on the NFL than saving people, the false belief among nearly half of Americans that Puerto Rico isn’t part of the United States, or just good ol’ fashioned racism and xenophobia.
But there’s another hugely important reason Puerto Rico has struggled, and will certainly continue to struggle, to get the aid it needs: It has no real representation in its own national government. In other words, the Revolutionary War rally cry of “taxation without representation” is everyday life in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is an American territory of about 3.5 million people. As a territory, Puerto Rico has only one, non-voting member of Congress (currently Jenniffer González-Colón). If Puerto Rico were a state, based on its size, it would have five voting members of the House of Representatives and two senators.
Think of what a difference that would make for Puerto Rico right now. Those seven members of Congress – members who would have actual voting power in the House and Senate – would be able to make a case to their colleagues about the need for immediate help to Puerto Rico. González-Colón can do that now, of course, but her voice is much less powerful because she is by herself – and, more importantly, because she can’t vote, she has no power to wield with other members.
If she could vote, her vote would be on the minds of other members of Congress, who would be more inclined to listen to her in order to have her on their side in the future. And if she could vote along with six other Congress members from Puerto Rico, they would be a sizable bloc that would be hard to ignore.
Further compounding the problem, Puerto Rico has no real say in who the president is. As a territory, Puerto Rico votes in the primaries for both parties, but has no representation in the Electoral College that determines who becomes president. (This is true of all U.S. territories, as John Oliver made clear in a powerful segment two years ago.)
Long ago, the Supreme Court gave its blessing to this situation in a series of cases from the early 1900s called the Insular Cases. These had to do with whether Puerto Ricans, now that they were part of the United States, had constitutional rights. The Court held that territories do not have all constitutional rights, particularly when it comes to self-government. As former Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice José Trías Monge has written, the decisions tell us that, under the Constitution, there is “nothing wrong when a democracy such as the United States engages in the business of governing others.”
In short, Puerto Ricans are American citizens who have no real say in what the American government does. That’s why Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s statement Monday about the devastation in Puerto Rico ended with this sentence:
“Given Puerto Rico’s fragile economic recovery prior to the storms, we ask the Trump Administration and U.S. Congress to take swift action to help Puerto Rico rebuild.”
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The key word there is “ask” – because, without any say in what his national government does, asking is all Rosselló can do.
So over the coming weeks and months, as Puerto Rico struggles to recover, remember that not only is it struggling because our president is unfocused, or because Americans are ignorant about their fellow citizens, or because of racism and xenophobia: It’s also because of the structural disadvantage Puerto Ricans face.