On Monday, October 12, President Donald Trump told a rally in Sanford, Florida, “I’m just about the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico. You better vote for me, Puerto Rico. You better vote for me.”
The problem with that? Puerto Ricans living on the island can’t cast a ballot in the general election.
Because of their country’s unique status, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but can only vote for a presidential nominee in the primaries — unless they hold residency in one of the 50 states. This has many feeling angry and frustrated.
“We have no real say in the decisions that Washington makes over us,” says Marysol Diaz, a 67-year-old retired clergywoman. “I believe that it’s not fair that we do not get to vote for the president in the long run. The president can make final decisions over our identity as a territory.”
Diaz, whose father fought in the Vietnam war, points to the island’s long and turbulent history since its acquisition by the United States in 1898. Having citizenship — which was granted on March 2, 1917, exactly one month before America’s entry into World War I — makes Puerto Ricans eligible for the draft, meaning they have been fighting on behalf of the United States ever since then.
“If our men can be drafted in the Army and be obligated to go to Vietnam like my father and fight for the liberty of the United States, yet we don’t get to have the same rights as the people in the United States, that’s a contradiction,” she says.
As it stands, the island’s sole representation in Congress comes in the form of a residential commissioner who does not get to vote on anything, even though Congress governs the territory under the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950. Because Puerto Ricans pay most federal taxes, this is quite literally taxation without representation.
“In the current state of Puerto Rico’s colonial status, I think it’s unfair that we can’t vote,” says Jorge Villanueva, a 24-year-old construction worker. “As long as the U.S. government’s decisions affect us in such important ways, I think it is unfair that we don’t have a say in who leads.”
For many, the lack of representation at a national scale goes hand-in-hand with people’s misconceptions about the island’s political status. In 2017, the New York Times reported that half of Americans don’t know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens.
“What is permeating nowadays in North American politics in reference to Puerto Ricans, is ignorance,” says Raul Laureano, a 59-year-old government employee. “That’s what bothers me as a North American citizen without voting rights. It’s a question of educating them, and how do we do that? By being participatory in politics.”
Though Laureano agrees it’s unfair that people on his island can’t vote, he does not see the possibility of voting without statehood. However, it seems unlikely the island’s political status will change anytime soon.
Since 1967, there have been five status plebiscites. The options have been independence, statehood or the status quo. In 2012, statehood won by 61.3%. A sixth referendum on this year’s local election ballot will require Puerto Ricans to give a straight yes or no answer on statehood. But even if statehood wins, it is unlikely this will yield any movement in Washington.
“Every time there is a plebiscite here in Puerto Rico, politicians talk a good deal about what the people want, and in the United States, they do the same thing,” says Laureano. “I’ve been hearing this for 40 years—the same politicians giving the same discourse as always about Puerto Ricans wanting statehood. They never grant it because they don’t want to.”
According to Laureano, the unwillingness to grant Puerto Rico statehood is rooted in both prejudice against the island’s Latino population and partisan politics.
“The majority of North Americans in Congress—but especially Republicans—don’t want Puerto Rico to become a state, because if Puerto Rico was a state, it would be Democratic,” he explains.
Puerto Ricans are not crazy about Donald Trump, and those living on the island would likely vote him out if they could. Back in 2016, he received only 13.29% in the primary. He took all 23 delegates this past spring, but the race was uncontested.
Their low enthusiasm for Trump and Republicans, in general, will likely reflect in Florida’s vote come November 3 because thousands of Puerto Ricans fled after Hurricane Maria in 2017, assuming the sizable Puerto Rican population takes to the ballot box.
The President’s most recent blunder regarding the island came three years after he infamously threw paper towels at a crowd of displaced victims during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Since then, he has gotten into rows with the island’s political leaders, blocked $13 billion in aid to rebuild its broken schools and electric grid, and, according to a former White House staffer, discussed trading Puerto Rico to Denmark for Greenland.
“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know we can’t vote,” says Villanueva. “Considering his track record, I doubt he even knows.”