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Statehood Is The Best Way Puerto Ricans Can Move Beyond Rosselló – And Trump

Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo
RICKY RENUNCIA: Puerto Ricans march in San Juan this week demanding Governor Ricardo Rossello's resignation. (The black T-shirts say Ricky, Resign)


Good riddance, Ricky.

Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló has finally agreed to resign, effective August 2, after protesters all but shut down the Caribbean island this week demanding he get lost.

But I’ll at least give Rosselló this: Ironically, his crass, clueless performance as governor has helped strengthen the case for what he’s always said is a key solution to Puerto Rico’s problems: statehood.

Rosselló has reinforced President Trump’s sneering assessment of Puerto Rican leadership as “corrupt and incompetent.” Too much of it admittedly is – and too much of it admittedly has been for as long as Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory.

Sure, it was a jolt this month when reams of disgusting chat messages were leaked and revealed the 40-year-old Rosselló to be as brutish as he is baby-faced. In them he and his inner circle yearned to shoot the mayor of San Juan; they made vulgar remarks about women and homosexuals and swapped jokes about corpses left in Hurricane Maria’s wake. It was just as jarring that all this came out as the FBI arrested two of his top former officials for steering multi-million-dollar contracts to cronies. (They deny the charges; Rosselló is not directly implicated.)

READ MORE: Trump's Tactless Puerto Rico Tweet Was Right. But Wrong. Here's What He Left Out

But Rosselló is just the latest poster boy for a political class that has turned the Caribbean jewel also known as Borinquen from the Island of Enchantment into the Island of Embezzlement. Top figures in the administration of his father, former Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rosselló, went to prison two decades ago for pilfering millions of dollars meant for AIDS patients.

Credit Carlos Giusti / AP
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello

Meanwhile, politicos left and right have saddled Puerto Rico with a $123 billion debt crisis as its infrastructure rots. The island’s power grid is so decrepit it took a year to restore electricity after Maria pounded the island in 2017, and roads are so crumbled you can practically see the earth’s core through their potholes. As a result, half a million people – 15 percent of Puerto Rico’s population – have left for the U.S. mainland this decade. Florida’s Puerto Rican population has grown to more than a million.

Removing Rosselló removes only a small part of that civic tumor.

And just as important, it also does nothing to correct Washington’s – and Trump’s – own deplorable treatment of Puerto Rico and its residents, who are U.S. citizens.

Politicians in both San Juan and Washington feel a lot less accountability towards Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans than they would if the island were to become the 51st U.S. state.

Washington aided Puerto Rico’s implosion by indulging reckless Wall Street lending to the government in San Juan – and by keeping unfair restrictions on the territory’s trade with the U.S. mainland and on its access to bankruptcy protections. Trump’s insensitive if not racist handling of Puerto Rico is more notorious, from sophomorically tossing paper towels to Maria victims to stripping away tax benefits from the island’s crucial pharmaceutical industry.

So the question is: why do leaders inside Borinquen and the Beltway behave this dreadfully and cavalierly toward this territory? The answer is in the question: because it’s a territory.

Politicians in both San Juan and Washington feel a lot less accountability towards Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans than they would if the island were to become the 51st U.S. state.


When I interviewed Rosselló in recent years, he seemed to understand that – even if he didn’t understand that ridding Puerto Rico of goofball governance like his is one of the most urgent reasons to support Puerto Rican statehood.

It’s a big reason a 2017 referendum in Puerto Rico favored statehood (which the U.S. Congress must approve). That plebiscite was inconclusive because voter turnout was so low. Still, polls show it’s the preference of island and mainland Puerto Ricans alike. They, like Rosselló, know that plugging Puerto Rico more firmly into the U.S. – and giving the island’s U.S. citizens voting rights in U.S. elections for once – will help it flourish.

Credit Evan Vucci / AP
President Trump tossing paper towels to Hurricane Maria victims in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2017

They also know statehood doesn’t eradicate corruption and incompetence. But they think it could create a setting where governmental integrity and aptitude matter more, since those virtues promise them more benefits under statehood than they do under the territorial status quo. And statehood would at least, they say, get Washington to do more than toss paper towels at them after catastrophes like Maria.

Americans in general realize that’s in the U.S.’s broader interest, too – which is why a Gallup poll this month found two-thirds of them back Puerto Rican statehood, even though the island would be a Spanish-speaking state. Apparently Americans are able, unlike their president, to look beyond Puerto Ricans like Rosselló and see the potential of Puerto Ricans.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.