Six months ago, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, signed a bill establishing the “Puerto Rico Equality Commission” – known today as the “Puerto Rico Statehood Commission”. The goal of the Commission is to help the Puerto Rican government lobby the U.S. Congress to admit the unincorporated U.S. territory as the nation’s 51st state. The bill stipulates that the Commission is part of ” the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA)” and as such PRFAA “shall request and justify before the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Legislative Assembly the allocation of funds for the operations of the Commission as part of the budget thereof.”
Inspired by the Tennessee Plan, the Commission’s seven members serve as “shadow lawmakers” asking Congress to recognize them as Puerto Rico’s representatives. Thus, two of these members serve as “shadow” senators and the rest are “shadow” congressmen. The strategy went into effect this week. On January 10, 2018, Jennifer González Colón, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, in a speech in the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives asked the U.S. Congress to recognize and seat the Commission’s members in their respective chambers.
After her “historic” speech, she joined the Commission’s member and Governor Rosselló for a press conference to explain their strategy’s rationale. In many ways, Rosselló and the Commission’s members noted that they wanted to end the island’s colonial history and its second-class status, while also fulfilling the will of the voters who favored statehood in the controversial plebiscite held on June 11, 2017.
Why has Rosselló and the leaders of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) pursued this strategy? After all, the island and its residents are still coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In addition, while the statehood option received 97% of the votes in the June plebiscite, only 23% of registered voters participated in the process – raising question about the validity of the vote. Both the White House and Congress have demonstrated little interest in Puerto Rico’s status question and statehood does not enjoy widespread support among Democratic or Republican lawmakers at this time.
Also, the strategy seems to be poorly executed. Here are at least two criticisms. First, the Commission’s website has not been updated recently. For instance, the site fails to mention that Alfonso Aguilar, who replaced Felix Santoni, is a member of the Commission. It also fails to explain who the “shadow senators” and “shadow congressmen” actually are. Plus the site fails to provide biographical notes for each of its members. Even worse, it is not clear how people can contact the Commission.
Second, the press conference was not even transmitted via C-SPAN. The best we have is a shaky Facebook Live video captured with a cell phone. If this was a serious effort, the Governor should have paid a videographer to tape the conference and share segments of the press conference with major news outlets and make a full copy available via YouTube.
If the goal of the conference was to raise awareness about Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations, it is not clear that this was achieved. Google Trends data for January 10, 2018 does show that interest in Puerto Rico among Google users in the United States increased. But interest was not driven by the announcement of the Statehood Commission, but by the tsunami alert issued for Puerto Rico following a 7.6 earthquake off Hondura’s coast.
A search in the TV News archive for January 10 and 11, 2017 also shows that the tsunami alert dominated the news coverage during the morning of the 10th, while the news coverage connected to Puerto Rico for the rest of the 10th and the 11th was connected to a national shortage of IV bags, many of which are produced in Puerto Rico. The single mention of the Statehood Commission is linked to a C-SPAN video of González Colón’s speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
An although some print and online media did cover the news conference and Rosselló’s plan, a MediaCloud search shows that coverage of the Statehood Commission was overshadowed by other issues connected with the island’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria.
In many ways, the goal of González Colón’s speech and the subsequent press conference was to try to unify the NPP and to try to remake Rosselló’s image as leader of the NPP and of Puerto Rico. Before Hurricane Maria, Rosselló was seen by many as a competent leader. Today, that is not the case. Some prominent lawmakers and Trump administration officials have questioned his decisions, many Puerto Ricans seem to be losing hope that he (and his administration, including the First Lady) can lead the Puerto Rican government forward, and many of the NPP’s leaders have either undermined his authority or are ready to do so in the near future. This last point especially applies to the Republican members of the Commission and the NPP who have raised questions of Rosselló’s criticisms of the Trump administration and the Republican Party following passage of the federal tax bill.
It is difficult to foresee what impact Puerto Rico’s slow recovery or the current state of US-Puerto Rican relations will have on the aspirations of the pro-statehood movement. But if Rosselló cannot find ways to secure the island’s streets, rebuild the electricity grid and get Congress to finance Puerto Rico’s recovery, many Puerto Ricans are not only going to question Rosselló’s governorship but his strategy of combining his fight for statehood with the island’s post-Maria recovery. If this happens, the Commission’s credibility will weaken and pro-statehood Puerto Ricans’ dreams will also fade with time.