Puerto Rico remains completely wrecked in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Power, cell phone, and water service remain out for most of the island. Its farms have been flattened. And it's also suffering an unseasonable heat wave. Initial rescue efforts are ongoing, but much, much more will be needed.
As my colleague Jeff Spross notes, what Puerto Rico needs in the short term is obvious enough: a big rescue package. But over the long term, it is increasingly undeniable that Puerto Rico needs to become a full American state.
The first step, of course, is that the U.S. territory would have to vote to become a state. Puerto Rico's last couple referendums on this question have returned positive but ambiguous results — the first had a change-of-status prefigurative question, while the second was boycotted by a big fraction of the population for unclear reasons.
At this point, however, I think it's probably obvious enough to most Puerto Ricans that the status quo is simply not working anymore. As I have written in the past, even before this devastating hurricane, Puerto Rico was under the thumb of an unelected dictatorship, imposed by Congress and President Obama in 2016, which forced through a gigantic austerity package mostly so as to appease bondholders who own billions of dollars of Puerto Rican debt — and doomed the island to a decade (at least) of depression and high unemployment.
The status quo is untenable. The only viable options, then, are statehood or independence.
But independence would be a highly risky prospect. An independent Puerto Rico would no longer have easy access to the U.S. mainland, it would get its partial social benefits removed, and worst of all, it would be nearly defenseless before predatory international capital. It's quite possible that an independent (and still highly indebted) Puerto Rico would be flayed to the bone by financial gangsters, enter a protracted economic death spiral, hemorrhage half or more of its population, and end up a desperately poor basketcase akin to Haiti — which suffered the same fate at the hands of France many years ago.
Conversely, statehood would provide large and immediate benefits. In the short term, Puerto Rico would be on a much stronger legal footing, able to contest its abuse at the hands of Obama's Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) dictatorship. It would get full access to federal benefits (amounting to some $20 billion per year), like any American state.
But most importantly, it would have political representation, a lack of which is a big part of why the island is in such poor shape in the first place. If Puerto Rico had senators and representatives in D.C. pressing their case and using their votes, they would almost certainly never have been forced under PROMESA. Indeed, they probably never would have gotten into debt trouble in the first place. If there's one constant in the history of Puerto Rican troubles, it's Congress fiddling around with their policies and institutions for reasons often having little to do with the island's residents, then forgetting all about it for decades until disaster strikes.
Democracy works because the people have a voice in their own governance. It's why when American territories became states, they generally experienced a sharp jump in growth — and it's why colonialism was almost invariably a hellish nightmare of exploitation and death.
Congressional representation would put Puerto Rico on a path not just to fix the hurricane damage, but to undergo the badly needed total overhaul of their infrastructure and institutions to help them close the large economic gap with the mainland.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed a big investment and upgrade package to do just that during the 2016 presidential campaign. And doing so would unquestionably be a net positive for the United States as a whole, over the long run. Bleeding Puerto Rico for a decade to appease a bunch of hedge fund goons will only harm the island's productive capacity — and conversely, bringing Puerto Rican development up to the American average will mean more wealth and more tax revenue eventually.
Washington, D.C., like Puerto Rico, has no voting representation in Congress. But luckily for D.C., we are geographically and socially ensconced enough in the American mainland to avoid utter neglect (though D.C.'s past history of colonial subjugation is dark needed). But that is not true for Puerto Rico, which is over 1,000 miles from the shores of Florida.
So how does statehood work? Congress controls the process. In the past, it has usually passed an enabling act directing a territory to propose a state constitution, and if that is acceptable, it passes a law admitting the new state. However, it has not always done this, and given the fact that Puerto Rico already has a constitution, which would probably serve just fine after replacing "commonwealth" with "state" in the text, Puerto Rico could just as easily just be voted in directly.
Of course, the GOP-held Congress is certain to block any statehood efforts, despite the fact that the party's 2016 platform endorses statehood, since it's highly likely most Puerto Ricans would vote for Democrats. Republican politicians support democratic rights if and only if they are used to support Republicans.
But that is no reason at all to continue Puerto Rico's colonial subjugation. To restore prosperity and protect from future tyrannical abuses, it must become a state, with all speed.