WASHINGTON — With their island devastated by Hurricane Maria and treated like a foreign competitor in the new tax law, Puerto Rican political leaders have concluded that politely awaiting an invitation to become the 51st state is no longer the way to go.
Instead, advocates of statehood for the often overlooked United States territory plan this week to intensify their push for Puerto Rico to be made part of the union, allowing residents to reap political and economic benefits they have been denied for the past century despite their American citizenship.
“We definitely want to be much more aggressive,” said Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official just named to the Puerto Rico Statehood Commission and one of five shadow House members who, along with two senators, intend to demand to be seated in Congress. “It is time to try to change the dynamic.”
That dynamic has been long stacked against Puerto Rico — a government stepchild if there ever was one. Its distance, Caribbean vibe and Hispanic heritage have kept it a foreign presence in the mind of many Americans who, to this day, remain unaware that Puerto Ricans are their fellow citizens.
Critics of statehood fear that admitting Puerto Rico would upend the current political balance and saddle the rest of the country with a debt-laden jurisdiction. The route to statehood seems as impassable as some of the island roads in the aftermath of the unimaginably fierce hurricane last September.
But those behind the statehood movement say they will not be deterred and acknowledge it will take dedication and perseverance to overcome the resistance and inertia standing in the way of statehood for Puerto Rico. The debilitating storm that has left some parts of the island still without power has had the benefit of raising American awareness about the island. The statehood push was planned before the hurricane, but the storm has given it new impetus.
“What we want to impress upon Congress and, quite frankly, the whole nation is that Puerto Ricans want a change from their second-class status that Puerto Ricans have experienced and has been exposed in the path of Hurricane Maria,” Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico said in an interview Tuesday.
The new efforts are scheduled to begin Wednesday when seven members of a congressional delegation appointed by Mr. Rosselló after a successful statehood referendum last year are to present their credentials to the House and Senate in a bid to be recognized. They will hear a speech by the nonvoting representative of Puerto Rico endorsing statehood on the House floor and meet with statehood supporters.
Later in the week, statehood advocates intend to demonstrate their potential political clout with a town hall in Central Florida to showcase the growing numbers of Puerto Ricans capable of influencing domestic elections, including tens of thousands who have moved to the mainland since the hurricane.
Mr. Rosselló said he intends to try and harness the political power of about 5 million Puerto Rico-born citizens scattered around the country to help the statehood push by pressing and evaluating candidates on their support for that effort.
There is no chance that Congress will accept the credentials of the shadow delegation and seat them as representatives of Puerto Rico, which currently has a nonvoting resident commissioner who can participate in congressional debates. But it is a way of making a point. It is also following a well-traveled historical path to statehood.
In 1796, the residents of Tennessee decided to force the issue of statehood by holding a convention, drafting a constitution, electing members of the House and Senate and then demanding that the other states let Tennessee in. The state eventually prevailed, and that hardball path to statehood came to be known as the Tennessee Plan. It has been copied by others, most recently Alaska, and Puerto Rico is now utilizing the technique.
With an eye toward worries about political realignment, the shadow delegation includes three Democrats, three Republicans and an independent. While they may not share the same view when it comes to assessing the quality of the federal response to the hurricane, they would agree that Puerto Rico’s recovery would have been handled differently if it was a full-fledged state.
The new tax law, coming on the heels of the hurricane and a debilitating financial crisis, seemed to Puerto Ricans to be an especially cruel step. The legislation instituted a new tax on intellectual property held by foreign corporations that Puerto Ricans say will eliminate a main incentive for businesses to locate on the island and puts Puerto Rico on the same level as a foreign nation. “We are American citizens and these are American jobs,” the governor said. “It just doesn’t make sense.
He and other statehood backers say the island of nearly 3.5 million people — it would be the 30th largest state by population — would have fared much better with full representation in Congress and the right of residents to vote for president.
“Because we don’t have political power, because we don’t have representatives, senators, no vote for president, we are treated as an afterthought,” said Mr. Rosselló. “When it is time to vote, there is not accountability.”
He and his allies equate the push for statehood with past American civil rights movements, an attempt to remedy an undemocratic remnant of colonial government in a nation that considers itself the world standard in democracy. They also intend to emphasize the contribution that hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have made and continue to make by serving in the military.
“The message is very clear,” said Mr. Aguilar, the former Bush administration official. “If you are thinking of the long-term recovery of Puerto Rico, you have to support statehood. We have reached bottom and there is only one answer.”
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