There's a historic bill before Congress right now that would allow Puerto Rico to vote on whether to stay a US territory, become a state, or become independent.

What’s holding up such a momentous occasion? A source closely tracking the bill confirms that New York City Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a significant source of delay. The Democrat has remained cagey about her stance on Puerto Rican statehood, choosing to instead complain about American colonialism and imperialism.

“I think one thing that’s important to highlight is just the injustice of that we are in now,” she recently...

There’s a historic bill before Congress right now that would allow Puerto Rico to vote on whether to stay a US territory, become a state, or become independent.

What’s holding up such a momentous occasion? A source closely tracking the bill confirms that New York City Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a significant source of delay. The Democrat has remained cagey about her stance on Puerto Rican statehood, choosing to instead complain about American colonialism and imperialism.

“I think one thing that’s important to highlight is just the injustice of that we are in now,” she recently told El Nuevo Dia, a bilingual Puerto Rico-based newspaper. Ocasio-Cortez also skirted whether she’d previously supported statehood.

Instead Ocasio-Cortez prefers to portray her position as acceptance of whatever Puerto Rican citizens decide once a statehood referendum appears on the ballot. What’s interesting is that pro-statehood Puerto Ricans see Ocasio-Cortez as the colonialist.

“Who is she to impose her values on us?” scoffed Luis Fortuño, a former Puerto Rico governor and US House shadow member, to me over the phone (he didn’t mention Ocasio-Cortez by name because he didn’t want to make the debate personal). “And why is her calculation from the ivory tower of Congress or New York City better than determinations made by the voters in Puerto Rico? Let the voters decide and that’s what Congress ought to do. And imposing anyone’s beliefs from Washington on 3.3 [million] American citizens residing in Puerto Rico — that is colonialism. That is what she is describing as wrong if Puerto Rico is not granted independence.”

Puerto Ricans voted 52.5 percent to 47.4 percent in favor of statehood in 2020. It’s the third election in a row where statehood has won outright over other options. (The 2017 election was boycotted by Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party with former governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá suggesting that meant the boycott won over statehood.) Previous statehood referenda have split almost down the middle, with None of the Above winning 50 to 46 percent in 1998 while Commonwealth won 48 to 46 percent in 1993.

It’s important to note that the Puerto Rico independence movement remains relatively small compared to the statehood and commonwealth sects. The highest vote that group ever received was 5.49 percent in 2012. This means that Ocasio-Cortez, if she’s indeed an independence supporter, is in the minority of the minority.

Fortuño believes some of the Republican opposition to Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state is due to misinformation about island politics. “I guess because of West Side Story and some of the Democrats getting elected in New York City that are of Puerto Rican descent, some people in DC assume that voters in Puerto Rico are as liberal as those that get elected in New York City,” posited Fortuño. “I remember having a conversation with [Republican pollster] Frank Luntz. …He told me that after running some numbers in Puerto Rico on some social issues he had to send back to the field his team because he could not believe the results he was getting back. And essentially it was because it was so heavily pro-life.”

Fortuño added, “To assume that voters in PR are going to vote for the Democratic Party is simply wrong.”

There’s plenty of evidence backing up Fortuño’s position. A March 2022 Puerto Rico Statehood Council survey of 1,000 Puerto Ricans living in the US found that 48 percent of participants were Republicans and 31 percent Democrat. Over half of the survey voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Former Bush administration official Alfonso Aguilar, a native Puerto Rican, wrote in the Miami Herald that Puerto Ricans trust Republicans more on the issue of statehood in 2018 than Democrats.

The situation with Puerto Rico is complicated. Those who like to compare it to the Scottish independence push fail to distinguish the differences. Puerto Rico, unlike Scotland, has never been its own nation. It’s always been a commonwealth of either the United States or Spain. It’s enjoyed a tiny bit of autonomy from Washington, but not much. It uses the American dollar as its currency and the US military provides for its defense. The American government provides Puerto Rico with some funding and oversees its budget. Scotland, on the other hand, was its own country until 1707 when the Act of Union, which joined it with England, became law. However, prior to that, Scottish King James VI became British King James I after Queen Elizabeth I’s death in 1603. The differences could not be more distinct!

True equality between the United States and Puerto Rico would mean statehood. This would put it on the same footing as the other 50 states. Statehood would give Puerto Rico a voice in Congress, allow it a real say in presidential elections, and dissolve its budget oversight board. It would likely bring more economic liberalism to the island, with government-owned corporations privatized or sold off.

The downside would be that Puerto Ricans would have to pay US income tax, though congressional representation might provide more of a chance that the federal income tax gets lowered. Puerto Rico statehood thus might be the best option for everyone. Just don’t tell AOC.