NPR’s Morning Edition Airs “Puerto Rico: A Disenchanted Island” Series

NPR is airing a four-part special series on its morning program this week on Puerto Rico, titled “Puerto Rico: A Disenchanted Island” I’ve heard the first two on the drive into work this week and they are well worth a listen (or read if that’s your thing)

Part one of the series, which aired on Tuesday, looks at some of the reasons why Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for a life on the mainland.

Part two, which provocatively asks whether Puerto Rico is the “Greece of the Caribbean?” looks at Puerto Ricans’ motivations for staying put even as the island’s debt increases and the crime and unemployment rates inch upward.


Non-states inch closer to US Capitol’s Statuary Hall Collection

The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands are one step closer to being represented in the US Capitol. Voting-rights advocates shouldn’t get their hopes up, however.

The US House of Representatives on Monday passed a bill that would allow the non-states to place one statue apiece in the US Capitol as part of the Statuary Hall Collection. According to the 1864 legislation that created the collection, the honor of placing statues in the Hall has is expressly reserved for the states themselves, which, however, are allowed to contribute two statues.

As with virtually all attempts to increase the non-states’ visibility in Congress, the statue issue has not been without controversy. In 2010, with the failed DC Voting Rights Act still a fresh memory, California Representative Dan Lungren (R) opposed District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D) bill that would have placed two DC statues in the Capitol, suggesting the move was an attempt to confer “quasi-state status” on the city. The objection here, of course, was that adding two DC statues to the Statuary Hall collection would have given the city equal billing with the states, and therefore set the city on the path to full House voting rights, anathema to today’s Republican Party.

But Lungren isn’t firmly opposed to admitting statues from DC and the non-states into the collection outright; he only opposes conferring symbolic equality on the non-states by admitting their statues to the Capitol. After all, Lungren did introduce the bill that cleared the House today, noting on a previous occasion that statues are important to his constituents.

The House passed similar legislation to Lungren’s bill nearly two years ago, just before the dissolution of the 111th Congress in December 2010. But the Senate, not unexpectedly, let the matter die by not taking up the bill.

Should President Obama sign the bill into law after Senate passage–still an uncertainty–the non-states could move statues into Hall immediately. As far as I know, DC is the only non-state that has actual statues ready to deploy, and it looks like abolitionist Frederick Douglass would have the honor.

Douglass was chosen in 2006 after the city held a contest to select two historical figures to represent the city. The vote itself wasn’t without controversy, however, as the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities ultimately passed over jazz musician Duke Ellington–runner-up to Douglass in the vote–and instead commissioned a statue of French architect and Revolutionary War veteran Pierre L’Enfant, who in the early 1790’s drafted the initial plans for the design of the District of Columbia (Ellington, however, was later immortalized on the District’s quarter as part of the State Quarter program).

But with only one statue allowed under the legislation passed by the House, Douglass is no doubt the wiser choice. His efforts to end slavery in the United States aside, Douglass actually meets the Statuary Hall requirements that all persons immortalized be former citizens of the localities they represent. I could be wrong, but I don’t think L’Enfant ever actually resided in the District of Columbia–he was kicked off the DC planning project  after only a few months after it began and left what would become the District well before the city was incorporated in 1801. L’Enfant died penniless in 1825 on a farm outside the city in Chilium, Maryland.

If anyone knows what statues Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands would contribute to the collection, please let me know!

Non-States Roll Call, part II – the Democratic National Convention

In a follow up to our post on how the non-states branded themselves at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, we take a look at how Democratic delegates from the non-states introduced themselves during the Roll Call vote in Charlotte.

American Samoa: Geography was front and center for Democrats and Republicans from America’s southernmost territory, as Democratic delegates last night echoed their Republican peers by branding themselves as “the only part of the United States south of the equator” In a bit of progressive flair, the American Samoan Democrats pointed out that the territory is “the land of our nation’s cleanest air.”

District of Columbia: DC Mayor Vincent Gray’s impassioned speech harkened back to the nation’s founding in resistance to taxation without representation, and could have been lifted right out of a Republican speechwriter’s notebook. Before casting the District’s votes for President Obama, Mayor Gray asked all Americans to help “bring justice and equality to the District of Columbia.” Gray’s appeal for DC voting rights stood in stark contrast to the DC Republicans’ roll call speech in Tampa. After their suggested amendment to the GOP platform calling for DC voting rights and home rule were roundly rejected by the Republican platform committee, the DC GOP meekly stated they were excited to cast their votes for candidate Mitt Romney.

Guam: Guam voiced support for President Obama’s plans for a military buildup in Guam that is “done right.” The military’s increased presence in Guam is part of the larger US strategy to rebalance military forces to the Asia-Pacific region. After lauding Obama’s support for medicare and working families, the Guam delegation voiced support for Obama’s belief in the territory’s “right to self-determination.”

Northern Mariana Islands: No delegation present, as the territory did not hold a Democratic Party primary or caucus.

Puerto Rico: Unlike the Republican Puerto Rican delegates, the Democrats made no reference to statehood. Instead, the territory’s Democrats gave a shout out to the Supreme Court’s first Latina justice, Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent and is an Obama appointee. The Delegation called Obama a “good amigo” of the people of Puerto Rico.

US Virgin Islands: In front of a nearly-empty convention hall at 12:48 AM Eastern Time, US Virgin Islands Democratic Party Chair Emmett Hansen, on behalf of the “proud Caribbean Americans” of the US Virgin Islands (USVI), called on the country to support the territory’s aspirations to one day cast votes for president in the general election. Currenly, the District of Columbia is the only non-state to have this distinction. Hansen wrapped up his short speech with a bit of a tourist pitch, casting the territory’s 12 votes from “the hills and windmills of St. Croix, the wonderful shopping in St. Thomas, and the beautiful jewel St. John.”

Non-states roll call

Courtesy of Maclean’s, a run-down of how the GOP delegations from the non-states branded themselves during the Roll Call vote for the Republican presidential nominee:

American Samoa: “The only American soil in the southern hemisphere.”

District of Columbia: Apparently the DC delegation didn’t brand themselves at all, only saying that they were “excited” to vote. Perhaps they were still smarting from the RNC’s refusal to adopt their own stance on DC voting rights?

Guam: “America’s tropical paradise.”

Northern Mariana Islands: “We are strong believers in God.”

Puerto Rico: “The 51st state of the union!”

US Virgin Islands: “America’s paradise.”

Seating the non-states at the GOP Convention

A recently-published map of the convention floor provided by Politico shows that the non-states have snagged some precious real estate at the Republican National Convention this week.

(click for larger) Continue reading

GOP sidesteps language precondition for Puerto Rico in platform

At the Republican National Convention this week, the GOP will again endorse the right of Puerto Ricans to determine their future within the United States, including as the potential 51st State. The issue is especially relevant this year, because Puerto Ricans in November will have the chance to endorse the statehood option in a territorial referendum.

The Puerto Rico language of the 2012 platform is identical to that included in the previous three platforms, and, ironically, is located just two sections below the plank opposing outright statehood for the District of Columbia. It reads:

We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine. We recognize that Congress has the final authority to define the constitutionally valid options for Puerto Rico to achieve a permanent non-territorial status with government by consent and full enfranchisement. As long as Puerto Rico is not a State, however, the will of its people regarding their political status should be ascertained by means of a general right of referendum or specific referenda sponsored by the US government.

Continue reading

The Northwest Ordinance…in space?

With the GOP Presidential Primaries behind us and the candidates no longer courting votes from the US Territories in their quest for the nomination, the issue of statehood will probably disappear again from the campaign trail for another four years.

That is, unless, Mitt Romney bucks common sense and for some reason selects former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as his running mate.

You may remember that Gingrich made headlines when the primaries were in full swing for some remarks he made on statehood. It wasn’t his comments on Puerto Rico that grabbed headlines—that honor went to Rick Santorum who falsely claimed that the territory would have to adopt English (and only English) as its official language for Statehood to be a legal possibility.

Instead, Gingrich made headlines for his grandiose plan to colonize the moon and then admit Earth’s celestial cousin to the Union as the 51st state. Continue reading

Why does Puerto Rico have an Olympic team?

When the American Samoa Olympic Team marched into Olympic Stadium at the start of the London games a few days ago—fifth in line behind Greece, Afghanistan, Albania, and Algeria—the Twitterverse erupted in disbelief. Those not commenting on team’s Polynesian garb seemed genuinely shocked that American Samoa was actually a real place. Most of the American Samoa-related Tweets I noticed inevitably mentioned Girl Scout Cookies in some way. One viewer asked whether “American Thin Mint” would be the next team to enter the stadium.

Last night, when NBC aired Puerto Rican athlete Javier Culson’s bronze medal performance in the 400 Meter Hurdles, reactions from American viewers familiar with the island’s status as a US Territory ranged from confused to apoplectic. Some asked how Puerto Rico could compete if not an actual country. A few accused Puerto Rico of disloyalty and demanded that we start taxing the territory. Others simply asked whether Puerto Rico’s medals could be counted as US medals in the event of a tie with China. Continue reading

Non-states at the White House

A few months ago, my girlfriend and I had the chance to attend the welcome ceremony for UK Prime Minister David Cameron on the South Lawn at the White House.

While the Prime Minister and President Obama were swapping jokes about the British burning Washington in 1814, I snuck over to the side to snap a picture of the non-States’ flags lined up just underneath the East Room.

              from left to right: DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands


You may be surprised to know that there’s more to these United States than the 50 multi-colored shapes you’d find on a classroom wall map. Uncle Sam, always careful to disavow any interest in seeking empire, nevertheless claims ownership of dozens of islands, atolls, reefs, and rocks that dot the Caribbean and Pacific, as well as a federal district wedged between Maryland and Virginia. We, the 4.4 million Americans who inhabit these non-States, lack full representation in the US Congress.

Growing up in Indiana, I never considered what it meant to have actual representation in Congress. I took it for granted. Spotting my Senator sleeping during the State of the Union was always a thrill. I didn’t consider that people in other parts of the country would never know the joy or embarrassment of seeing one’s Senator threaten a cable news anchor to a duel or be embarrassed for marriage infidelity or some intern scandal.

Even when I moved to the DC, I didn’t give the matter much thought. The “Taxation Without Representation” license plate that I slapped on the front of my Volkswagen seemed like a gimmick. I saw it more as a conversation starter on return trips to Indiana than a city’s cry for political rights.

But then the 112th Congress arrived in town. With the new House Republican majority came rule changes. The media focused on the important ones, like the reintroduction of Styrofoam plates to the House cafeteria. Mostly ignored was the rescinding of a rule that had given non-States—DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands—a vote on House committees.

Weeks later Congress found itself unable to pass a federal spending bill. As a federal employee, Congressional dithering meant the possibility of an unpaid vacation. But, as a resident of DC—the only city whose budget requires Congressional and Presidential approval—a federal shutdown also meant a suspension of city services, from trash collection to pothole repair. DC’s 600,000 residents became hostages to Republic-shattering battles such as devoting .0001% of the federal budget to public broadcasting.

All of this coincided with a trip my girlfriend and I took to the Virgin Islands. Rather than devote our first day there to the beach, I dragged my girlfriend to the territory’s legislature—a former Danish military barracks—for a civics lesson. There we swapped stories with a local about life outside the bounds of statehood.

Eventually, Congress passed a spending bill, and trash collection continued in DC. Over the ensuring months, as Congress explored ways to drive its approval rating ever downward, 4.4 million Americans remained without a vote in the body that has a great deal of power over our communities.

Maybe our plight is due to the fact that the rest of the country seems wholly ignorant to our existence. Though small in size and number, we do have interesting stories to tell. This blog will shed some light on life in the non-States, the small slice of America that the rest of the country has forgotten about.