Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Combination Of Ignorance And Lobbyists Keep Statehood Out Of Reach For Puerto Rico


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The U.S. and Puerto Rico flags fly near each other at Fort San Felipe del Morro in San Juan. (Photo by Tomas Fano via Flikr)
The U.S. and Puerto Rico flags fly near each other at Fort San Felipe del Morro in San Juan. (Photo by Tomas Fano via Flikr)
A recent birth certificate case in Raleigh, N.C., where public employees were confused over the U.S. citizenship status of a Puerto Rico-born child, has re-sparked the statehood debate as Puerto Ricans continue their quest to persuade Congress to recognize their November vote in favor of the move.

Yasenia Pena-Ducos has lived in the U.S. for the past 13 years. After a recent marriage to a Puerto Rican man, she filed for the adoption of his son in North Carolina’s Wake County. When the application process was complete, she requested a birth certificate for her new child.

A request made to the State Records Office for the birth certificate was denied after employees told Pena-Ducos that her son was not a United States citizen, citing the fact that he was born in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

“They really couldn’t see how what I was saying was true because Puerto Rico was a country and it wasn’t their job to naturalize anyone and I needed an immigration attorney,” Pena-Ducos told ABC’s Raleigh affiliate. “I was upset because of their ignorance.”

It’s that ignorance that could keep Puerto Rico’s U.S. citizens from obtaining the right to vote in U.S. elections, despite their Nov. 6, 2012 vote in favor of statehood. Before that can be granted, Congress would need to act in favor of the will of Puerto Ricans, a move that would allow the territory’s 3.7 million access to vote in presidential elections.

A Puerto Rican battle

The question of Puerto Rican statehood has been met with a common theme among lawmakers, who have consistently claimed that the people of Puerto Rico should be given the choice to decide. It was a belief held by Republicans and Democrats alike.

It’s unlikely that anyone could have predicted the Puerto Rico statehood vote, as all indications prior to the referendum pointed to failure. Similar referendums failed in 1998, 1993 and 1967.

The rhetoric on the “no” side of the voting campaign was also fierce, filled with fear-driven messages, including the scary prospect of having Spanish outlawed, a claim that was exacerbated by Rick Santorum, who ran for the Republican presidential ticket. While visiting the island during the Republican primary, he told residents that English would have to be the official language in order for Puerto Rico to be a state.

At the crux of the issue for Puerto Rican citizens is their right to vote for a commander-in-chief for the 200,000 U.S. military servicemen the territory contributes.

Former President George H. W. Bush believed that Puerto Ricans should determine themselves, through a vote, whether becoming a state was in their best interest. That same belief was adopted by his son, former President George W. Bush.

In 2011, President Barack Obama visited Puerto Rico and claimed he would stand by Puerto Rico if they voted in favor of statehood.

Yet he has recently made attempts to back out of those claims, instead insisting that Puerto Rico undergo another referendum.

After the White House released the 2014 budget in April, it was revealed that $2.5 million was set to be awarded to Puerto Rico for a new referendum on statehood, essentially ridding the previous vote of its merit.

What’s the deal, White House?

While the motives of President Obama remain unclear, those who have long pushed for Puerto Rican statehood have questioned whether the lobbying arm of pharmaceutical giants would allow Puerto Rico to become the 51st state, citing tax loopholes enjoyed by U.S. companies operating on the island.

“These corporations have political arms to make sure that the politics of the place is favorable to their business,” Miriam Ramirez, a Puerto Rican physician who has championed the right to statehood, told Mint Press News in an August interview. “It’s actually affecting their future, the self-determination of 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.”

In 1993, the pharmaceutical industry spent $1.8 million on lobbying in Congress to maintain its privileged tax rate, which at that time was in danger of being overturned, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The tax breaks are no secret to the Pharmaceutical Industry Association of Puerto Rico, the trade organization for pharmaceutical industries. Its website blatantly indicates the allure for companies seeking to do business on the island.

“Puerto Rico combines a low corporate tax rate with an attractive package of tax credits, exemptions and special deductions,” the site states.

Now, it seems Obama has just promised Puerto Rico money for a new referendum as an answer to not dealing with the problem. Yet the people there who have worked tirelessly for their right to statehood are not likely to give up soon. For Ramirez, it took 30 years to get to this point — she’s proved she and others aren’t willing to give up when their democratic rights are on the line.