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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About Puerto Rico's History


As he prepared to visit Puerto Rico yesterday, President Trump gave his administration high marks for responding to Hurricane Maria.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think she's come back a long way. And, you know, I think it's now acknowledged what a great job we've done.

MARTIN: Millions of Puerto Ricans are still without power and basic supplies. Critics blame the federal government for being too slow to respond to the disaster. So what is the federal government's responsibility to its territories? The destruction caused by Maria has renewed questions about Puerto Rico's status as a territory - not a state. We put some of those questions to Cokie Roberts in our regular segment, Ask Cokie. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Our first question gets to the history of Puerto Rico's status. It comes from Robert Woolley. He writes on Twitter, territorial status used to be a stepping stone to statehood, but that seems to have stopped in the 1950s. Why?

ROBERTS: Well, because the territories that the U.S. claimed after the Spanish-American War in 1898 - and that's Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico - they came in under different circumstances than previous territories. From the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 on, all territories came in with the understanding that they would be states. And that was certainly true of Hawaii and Alaska, which eventually did become states, both in 1959. One was in January and one was in August. And I was in high school at the time, and I remember just the craziness - wait, there are 48 stars on the flag. No, no, no - there are 49. Wait, wait. Wait, wait - they're (laughter) 50. But the territories taken from Spain had a different entry into the United States. The Philippines, by the way, did gain independence after World War II. Guam is still a territory.

MARTIN: All right. There have been all kinds of questions about what kind of benefits or rights are afforded a territory versus residents of the mainland. I mean, there are 3.4 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico. We've got a question from Jocelyne Knight. She asks, do they have voting rights and representation in Congress, unlike U.S. Virgin Islands?

ROBERTS: Actually, the Virgin Islands have the same representation in Congress as Puerto Rico and other territories, including, by the way, Washington, D.C. And that is they have a delegate, or in Puerto Rico's case, a resident commissioner, and they can vote in committee, propose amendments, make speeches but not vote on final passage of a bill. And that's one reason why there've been a couple of referenda in Puerto Rico supporting statehood. But only Congress can create a state, and that's not happening.

MARTIN: All right. Liz Rowden (ph), one of our listeners, wants to know about voting rights. She asks the following.

LIZ ROWDEN: What was the reasoning behind allowing Puerto Rico to vote in presidential primaries but not in the general election?

ROBERTS: Well, the political parties decide who votes in primaries because those are party primaries, and they can make up whatever rules they want to make up. But for a general election, the Congress has not said that Puerto Ricans can vote, and it would take Congress to do that.

MARTIN: One last question, from Giovanna Genard, about something we've been hearing a lot about in recent weeks. She asks the Jones Act. This is something that came up in headlines about ships getting into Puerto Rico to deliver aid. She asks, (reading) why was the Jones Act created, and how does it affect the economies of territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico versus the mainland?

ROBERTS: The Jones Act. In Puerto Rico's case, the 1917 Jones Act granted American citizenship. The 1920 Jones Act says that ships going between American ports must be American ships. It doesn't apply to the other territories, by the way, including the Virgin Islands, but Puerto Rico is faced with these much higher shipping costs on U.S. vessels. It's been a problem for a long time. And at the end of last week, President Trump finally did suspend the law for 10 days for Puerto Rico for the recovery efforts. Lots of people in Congress want to see it repealed, but the shipping industry is very powerful so don't hold your breath.

MARTIN: Thanks so much, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Rachel. Always good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org. Or you can tweet us your question with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.