Trump's visit to Puerto Rico reignites debate over island's statehood

"Statehood is in fact in the political party platforms of both the Democratic and Republican Party of the United States ... so it is on the table."
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with residents while surveying hurricane damage in San Juan, Puerto Rico, U.S., October 3, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

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In a much-anticipated visit to the devastated island yesterday, U.S President Donald Trump said Washington has spent "a lot of money" on Puerto Rico.

"I hate to tell you Puerto Rico but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack."

President Trump went on to compare the devastation left behind by Hurricane Maria, which hit the island two weeks ago, to that of the 2005 hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

U.S. president jokingly seems to blame Puerto Rico for financial cost of Hurricane Maria 1:30

Critics argued that these comments and the lack of urgency displayed by the federal government in providing aid to Puerto Rico highlights the political status of the U.S. territory and left many Puerto Ricans feeling like second class citizens.

People have been taking care of each other here because no one else has been taken care of us.- Ana Portnoy Brimmer

"Trump's arrival to Puerto Rico was a a storm of its own," says Mayaguez resident Ana Portnoy Brimmer.

The aftermath of Hurricane Maria has shed light on what she says is "Puerto Rico's colonial reality."

"Everything from the slow and sluggish federal response, making us feel like a neglected and rejected appendage of the U.S. — which we are even though were U.S. citizens," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Puerto Rico resident Ana Pornoy Brimmer says the aftermath of Hurricane Maria highlights the island's "colonial status" and calls U.S. President Donald Trump's recent visit "a vein and self-gratifying act." 1:04

"People have been taking care of each other here because no one else has been taken care of us."

An island divided

As a commonwealth or colony of the U.S., some Puerto Rican residents feel abandonment is endemic for the island and they long for full independence. 

But others covet status as a 51st state of America.

Local residents wait in line, Sept. 30, 2017, during a water distribution in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, following damage caused by Hurricane Maria. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

While an independent Puerto Rico is not a popular argument with residents, professor Charles Venator-Santiago would like to see the island be its own country for two main reasons.

"It would be a democratic option. The U.S. Constitution is an undemocratic constitution by definition," he explains.

"And two, that [the island] could get access to international markets and get access to a sense of sovereignty that would allow it to better plan its economy, its social structure, it's politics." 

A precedent for statehood

Venator-Santiago says the most innovative argument is following the Irish model that would service a hub between the United States and the rest of the world. 

But for Ken Oliver-Méndez, director of the MRC Latino, supporting statehood would mean respecting "the will of the people of Puerto Rico."

"I think it's just the most natural development and the most logical progress for the American citizens of a U.S. territory. "

Irma Maldanado stands with her parrot in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane hit Puerto Rico, Sept. 27, 2017.

Oliver-Méndez says residents had a mandate for statehood at the ballot box in 2012. 

"Statehood got several thousand more votes than support for continuing as a territory — and many people didn't vote." he tells Tremonti.

Oliver-Méndez argues more needs to be done to create "a very clear and convincing no doubt mandate for statehood."

"If that happens then no territory that has ever done that has ever failed to obtain statehood, he says.

"And statehood is in fact in the political party platforms of both the Democratic and Republican Party of the United States and has been for decades, so it is on the table."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese, Ashley Mak and Yamri Taddese.