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Puerto Rico Celebrates 100 Years Of U.S. Citizenship


Today's an important anniversary for Puerto Rico. A hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law giving U.S. citizenship to people born on the island. That citizenship has limits, though. Puerto Ricans can't vote for president in the general election. They don't have voting representatives in Congress, and there are other ways Puerto Rico is treated differently. Many on the island feel that separate treatment is unfair.

In June, Puerto Ricans will vote on statehood in a nonbinding referendum. NPR's Greg Allen has just returned from the island and joins us now from Miami. Hi, Greg.


SHAPIRO: How big a deal is this anniversary today on the island?

ALLEN: Well, people in Puerto Rico are certainly aware of this. The governor signed a proclamation. There's a special session in the legislature today. But at the same time, there's demonstrations of people out there saying that after a hundred years, it's enough; we want something else than statehood.

SHAPIRO: In these last hundred years, there have been votes on whether to become a state, much like the nonbinding vote coming up in June. Why hasn't it happened until now?

ALLEN: I think the easiest answer is that there's really never been a consensus that Puerto Ricans want statehood. There's three different points of view. One group wants statehood. One group wants independence. And one group wants to keep the status quo commonwealth status. And for years, the commonwealth status has been sold as the best of both worlds. We can be close to the U.S. but keep your own culture, your own autonomy. And so that's where we stand today.

SHAPIRO: As you spoke to people in Puerto Rico during this reporting trip, what did they tell you?

ALLEN: Well, support for the idea of statehood remains strong there. There's actually less support for independence now in Puerto Rico than there once was, and I think that's in large part because so many Puerto Ricans go back and forth, and many live of course on the mainland. In the last decade, we've seen a half million Puerto Ricans move to places like New York and Florida. So I think that's one reason for that.

There's growing support for something called free association, which is kind of like independence lite. It enables Puerto Rico to make some of their own trade deals and keep charge of their finances, but it also would enable them to have close ties with the U.S.

The status quo, actually - commonwealth status - has started to lose some steam in part because of some things that have happened over the last year. They've had some Supreme Court decisions and also this debt crisis which forced Puerto Rico to handover financial control to an oversight board appointed by Congress. I talked to Puerto Rico's governor, Ricky Rossello, last week, and he said it shows that the island's political structure has to change.

RICKY ROSSELLO: Seeing this economic downturn, seeing this fiscal problem, seeing this debt crisis - they are just symptoms of two underlying cause. One, you know, you can say bad government (laughter) but also an underlying political structure that just doesn't work. It's not compatible with the 21st century.

SHAPIRO: And so the governor is partially behind this nonbinding referendum happening in June where the status quo is not on the ballot. Explain that.

ALLEN: Well, this is something we've seen before. The governor is with the statehood party. So he and his supporters and the legislature got this passed and put on the ballot. They've not put commonwealth as an option. If you choose a second option, you will then decide later whether you want it to be independence or free association. But the party that supports commonwealth status will say that this undercuts the legitimacy of the vote, and that's where we'll be when we get - that vote happens.

SHAPIRO: Given that this vote is nonbinding, what would it actually take for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state or if Washington, D.C., becomes the 51st, the 52nd?

ALLEN: (Laughter) Yes, exactly. And it's similar with Washington, D.C. It's up to Congress. And you know, there's many things that go into that decision. One would be, Puerto Rico, with its population, would of course automatically get two senators and as many as five members of the house. Would Congress be willing to give seven members of Congress to a state which everyone mostly speaks Spanish and which in the past has leaned Democratic in national politics? Although who knows in the future? That would be one issue. And then there's also the issue of the debt. They've been somewhat of an economic basket case over the last decade. And they've had this...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Is that a technical term?

ALLEN: (Laughter) Yeah - and it's - they've got a $70 billion debt that they're wrestling with right now. And where the Congress would take that on is making it a state. So those are all issues. They'll be up in the air and for Congress to decide.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Allen, thanks a lot.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.