Is Independence The Answer For Puerto Rico? : Consider This from NPR As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is perpetually stuck in limbo.

The people there are subject to federal laws, but don't have a vote for president or Congress.

This is a major problem when it comes to responding to disasters like Hurricane Fiona, which hit the island last month.

Many Puerto Ricans are deeply frustrated by what they claim has been a slow and inefficient response from a federal government that they have no say in.

Some want statehood, some want more autonomy. A small, but growing, group of people want independence.

Jaquira Diaz's essay "Let Puerto Rico Be Free" for The Atlantic looks back at key moments in the history of Puerto Rico and argues for the island's independence.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Is Independence The Answer For Puerto Rico?

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two different governors hosted President Biden this week to bring him up to speed on recovery from two different hurricanes.

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RON DESANTIS: Well, good afternoon. And I want to thank President Biden and Jill Biden, as well as administrator Deanne Criswell for coming down here.

CHANG: Ron DeSantis in Florida...

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PEDRO PIERLUISI: Buenes tardes. Good afternoon. Mr. President...

CHANG: ...And Pedro Pierluisi in Puerto Rico. If you put their speeches side by side, you hear lots of overlap. They talk about progress that they've already made.

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DESANTIS: As of now, there have been over 2,500 rescues effectuated. There have been close to 100,000 structures in the most hard-hit areas that have been searched.

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PIERLUISI: We have been able to provide safe passage to all communities whose access roads or bridges were affected.

CHANG: And they also talk about the work still to be done.

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DESANTIS: Major, major reconstruction of the power in Sanibel's going to be necessary and massive, massive amount of debris removal.

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PIERLUISI: We have requested that FEMA treat the reconstruction of our roads and bridges as critical infrastructure in its recovery policy.

CHANG: There is one line that stands out from Pierluisi's speech, one that makes clear that he is the leader of a U.S. territory rather than a U.S. state.

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PIERLUISI: In short, my asks to you, Mr. President, are straightforward. We want to be treated in the same way as our fellow Americans in the states in times of need.

CHANG: The governor of Puerto Rico made sure to point out that, yes, Puerto Ricans are American citizens.

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PIERLUISI: All American citizens, regardless of where they live in the United States, should receive the same support from the federal government.

CHANG: Pierluisi may have felt compelled to underscore this fact because of what happened after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico five years ago. You see, from the first days of the federal response, former President Trump seemed focused on the cost of the recovery.

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DONALD TRUMP: Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you're throwing our budget a little out of whack...

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TRUMP: ...Because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that's fine.

CHANG: And as time went on, Trump openly complained about Puerto Rico's requests for funding, and he accused its leadership of corruption. The Trump administration put restrictions on money meant to help Puerto Rico rebuild. And to this day, only a fraction of that allocated federal funding has actually been spent. Former Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN, in 2019, that Trump saw Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens.

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RICARDO ROSSELLO: Puerto Rico's a colonial territory, and we've been treated that way for over 100 years. But now it's manifested in a very clear way.

CHANG: Puerto Ricans are subject to U.S. federal laws, but they had no vote in Congress or for president. And that in-between status has affected the recovery from Hurricane Maria. For example, the Puerto Rican government agencies that would be putting the rebuilding money to use are instead struggling to retain employees. They're hamstrung by policies put in place by a federally appointed oversight board installed to manage Puerto Rico's debt crisis. And Yarimar Bonilla, the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City, points out that Puerto Ricans are stuck with a federal agency that they don't have any say in.

YARIMAR BONILLA: We don't have the sovereignty to create our own vision of a FEMA or of emergency management. So it affects in every possible way.

CHANG: People in Puerto Rico have differing opinions on the solutions here. Some people want statehood. Some want the U.S. to give the island more autonomy. But CONSIDER THIS - for a small but growing number of Puerto Ricans, the deeply frustrating recovery process after hurricanes shows exactly why it is time to end their relationship with the United States. We'll speak to one Puerto Rican author who argues that the only just future for her home is independence.

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CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Thursday, October 6.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. Jaquira Diaz was born in Puerto Rico in a government housing project in Humacao. Now, she lives in Colorado, where she teaches creative writing at Colorado State University. But she dreams of a return to Puerto Rico.

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JAQUIRA DIAZ: We arrive at night carrying duffel bags filled with our clothing, our children's clothing. We come with our families, hauling suitcases through the airport, boxes sealed with packing tape, whatever we can carry from Orlando, from Philadelphia, from Hartford. At the airport in San Juan, a crowd is waiting outside baggage claim, hands raised overhead, makeshift signs reading, welcome home and viva Puerto Rico libre.

CHANG: That is a passage from Diaz's new essay in The Atlantic, "Let Puerto Rico Be Free". It's a journey through key moments in Puerto Rican history and an argument for independence.

DIAZ: Everyone I know in Puerto Rico, in pueblos like Camarillo and Yabucoa feels very let down. There's a sense that the people were out there during Maria doing everything for themselves, taking care of each other and that they were essentially ignored by the American government. But also five years later, today - I was just recently there two days ago. I still see blue tarps on the roofs of houses as I drive around. The evidence of neglect is all over. And it certainly feels that there's been a massive waking up. Like, the people...

CHANG: Yeah.

DIAZ: ...Are certainly aware that they were ignored and that they were essentially left to do for themselves. And so this has caused a significant shift, essentially, young people who are saying, we've been doing it for ourselves. Why don't we have independence?

CHANG: And, you know, one of the striking things that came out of Maria was that it was quite apparent that many mainland Americans didn't seem to realize that Puerto Rico was even part of the United States, right? Like, Puerto Rico became U.S. territory after the Spanish-American War. Can you just lay out what that essentially meant for Puerto Rico back in 1898?

DIAZ: Yes. So the United States essentially seized Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, a year after Spain had already granted Puerto Rico a form of sovereignty under a statute called the Carta Autonomica. But when the U.S. took Puerto Rico the following year, it essentially dissolved Puerto Rico's Parliament, which had been established by the Puerto Rican people, and brushed aside the new charter establishing its own colonial government. And the Puerto Rican people then lived under military occupation. They saw their land taken, their industries destroyed, their currency devalued. After taking control, the U.S. disrupted the main industry, which was the coffee industry, which employed most of Puerto Rico's working class. And then American sugar companies started coming in and eventually supplanted Puerto Rican coffee growers. And they converted about half of all arable land into sugar plantations and displaced small landholders. So in a variety of ways, the economy was upended and the Puerto Rican people were essentially evicted from their own lands by American sugar companies.

CHANG: And then tell us about the Jones Act from 1917, which granted what you call second-class citizenship to most people born in Puerto Rico. Why do you characterize it as that, second class?

DIAZ: In part, the Jones Act arguably was passed so that the U.S. could pass a second law which made Puerto Ricans eligible for the military draft. The Jones Act was passed so that Puerto Ricans could be sent to war. And it didn't grant Puerto Ricans the same rights as most U.S. citizens. They did not have any voting representatives in Congress and could not vote in presidential elections, which is still true today.

CHANG: Your own family's story, you explain, it intersected with an especially disturbing chapter for women in Puerto Rico. And I'm talking about sterilization. I had never heard of Law 116 until I read your piece. Can you tell us about that law?

DIAZ: Yes. So Law 116 came into force under the U.S.-appointed governor at the time, Blanton Winship, which created the Puerto Rican eugenics board and subsidized the sterilization of Puerto Ricans. It was essentially a U.S.-imposed population control policy. It subsidizes sterilization of particularly poor women and was proposed by the U.S. government as a solution for Puerto Rico's rising unemployment rate, which was, according to the government at the time, was caused by, quote, "overpopulation". Between the years of 1937 and 1960, the Puerto Rico eugenics board directly forced 97 sterilizations by means of tubal ligation and hysterectomy. But also thousands upon thousands of other women were coerced into the same procedures. And so it became common practice for women to have this procedure following delivery, even after the repeal of the law. It kind of became part of the culture. My mother, who had three children, was a very young mother. When she went into the hospital to give birth to my little sister, she got sterilized, and it was something that she didn't want but was essentially coerced because everyone said, this is what you do. You have to get la operacion, which is what they called it.

CHANG: Another mid-20th century law that reflects the troubling tension that Puerto Rico's status sets up is the gag law, which, to a lot of people, directly violated free speech protections. Can you talk about what kind of restrictions did this law impose on people in Puerto Rico?

DIAZ: The gag law, which was known in Puerto Rico as la ley de la mordaza, made flying Puerto Rican flags, even privately in your own home, illegal. It made it a crime to sing the Puerto Rican national anthem, to speak out against the United States, to speak or organize in favor of independence. It pretty much violated the First Amendment and was in effect for nearly a decade, until it was repealed in 1957. It essentially empowered authorities to criminalize Puerto Ricans just for being Puerto Rican. I mean, what we're doing now, having this conversation, in 1956 would have been illegal, and I would have been imprisoned.

CHANG: It's just incredible. The idea of statehood has gained traction among many politicians in the U.S. But you speak of independence. What is the central difference to you?

DIAZ: I think, in part, independence would mean that Puerto Ricans would get to create this government and focus on the needs and priorities of the Puerto Rican people. I - and I also think that self-determination for Puerto Ricans should not just be a process of cutting them loose but also restoring what was stolen from the people and otherwise making amends. Like, independence would also have to come with extensive reparations that begin to address the most immediate concerns.

CHANG: But how popular is this idea of independence among Puerto Ricans, do you think, currently?

DIAZ: Currently, I think support for independence is growing, especially amongst young Puerto Ricans. Ten years ago, I don't think that we saw the support that we're seeing today. In the 2020 gubernatorial election, for example, there were two parties that were campaigning and pushing for self-determination. Those two parties combined, and Puerto Rico garnered more than a quarter of the vote.

CHANG: Finally, Jaquira, I want to go back to the passage that we opened with, about your dream to come back home. Do you think it actually is possible for the Puerto Rican diaspora to come back home? Like, does home even exist anymore for your community?

DIAZ: It absolutely exists, and I do think it's possible. There's a growing number of people, Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, who want to come home and haven't been able to because they - there's no way for them to make a living in Puerto Rico. I think, first, we would have to create opportunities for the people who are in Puerto Rico, for those who left during Maria to return. And it does require sacrifice and hard work, but some of us are already working to try to get there. I know I certainly am.

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CHANG: Jaquira Diaz is the author of "Ordinary Girls: A Memoir". Her piece in The Atlantic is titled "Let Puerto Rico Be Free".

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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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