Commentary: Puerto Rico is retracing Utah’s steps to statehood

The territory’s journey has taken over 120 years thus far, and the end is not in sight.

(Ramon Espinosa | The Associated Press) Arden Dragoni holds a printed photo taken on Oct. 5, 2017, that shows him with his wife Sindy, three children and dog Max, amid the remains of his home that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, as he stands at the same spot where his home remains in shambles in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, May 28, 2018. The unemployed construction worker and security guard is separated from his family while his wife and children live in a FEMA-subsidized apartment, and he lives with his father. "The hurricane brought us many calamities, but my lesson was to value my family from my heart," said Dragoni.

As has been the common history of the 37 U.S. territories that have traveled the road to statehood, Utah and Puerto Rico share many of the political obstacles and congressional impediments in their saga for equal inclusion in the union.

In 1848, Mexico ceded to the U.S. the territories of Utah and other future states, and Congress enacted an organic act for the Utah Territory. Similarly, in 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, and in 1901, the Foraker Act was legislated for the island. Provisions in both acts instituted a governor appointed by the president, an assembly elected by popular vote, as well as a nonvoting delegate to Congress.

Utah’s path to statehood required several constitutional conventions (1856, 1862, 1872, 1882, 1887), ratified by the people. Congress finally passed an enabling act and Utah’s final Constitution was drafted and approved by an 80 percent margin in 1895.

Puerto Rico’s voters have also petitioned Congress to be admitted to the union. In a 2012 referendum, 54 percent of the electorate voted to end the current territorial status, and 60 percent chose statehood as the preferred alternative. Five years later, 97 percent voted for statehood. Despite these two clear petitions, Congress to date remains deaf to the democratic aspirations of the American citizens of Puerto Rico.

Additionally, Utah and Puerto Rico faced similar objections from opposition groups. In Utah, the resistance was of a religious-cultural nature because of its majority Mormon faith. Puerto Rico, with its Hispanic-Christian makeup, today encounters a comparable hurdle.

In both cases, the issue of national political party balance surfaced in every debate on new admissions. Mormons in Utah were thought to lean Democratic, when, truthfully, they participated in both parties. A similar charge was leveled against Puerto Rico. Yet the island’s elected government officials are balanced in terms of their national party affiliations : a Democratic governor, a Republican lieutenant governor, a Republican congressional nonvoting delegate, plus a territorial legislature with similar number of Democrats and Republicans, including a speaker of the House and a Senate president from different affiliations.

There are, however, two glaring differences between Utah’s and Puerto Rico’s path to statehood. Utah was proclaimed the 45th state by President Grover Cleveland on Jan. 4, 1896. It took 48 years. Puerto Rico’s journey has taken over 120 years thus far, and the end is not in sight. It is now the longest-held U.S. territory in history.

The other difference is that Puerto Rico suffered a recent reversal not endured by Utah or any other former territory. Congress enacted the PROMESA Act of 2016, establishing a takeover of basic policy functions by a board of non-elected officials, thus rolling back many of the powers exercised to date by the duly elected territorial government and usurping the already truncated democratic attainments in our search for equal participation in the American union.

The underlying problem is that the American citizens of territories lack the full representation and voting rights that citizens enjoy in the states. They cannot vote for the national elected officials who govern them, and they have no voting representation in the Congress that maintains full control over their destiny. This is not what our American democracy stands for.

Congress must respond to the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico and responsibly assume its constitutional powers and prerogatives by admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st state.

Dr. Pedro Rosselló

Pedro Rosselló is a former two-term governor of Puerto Rico (1993-2001). He serves as chairman of the Puerto Rico Shadow Congressional Delegation. He holds a master’s in public health, a doctorate in medicine and a doctorate in education.