Puerto Rico: Taxation without Representation?

Puerto Rico is a beautiful island in the Caribbean and maybe the place for your next vacation. The isle measures about 9’000km2 (between the size of Delaware and Connecticut), is home to over three million people, and has a nominal GDP slightly above Hawaii’s. When it comes to its legal status however, things get a little more complicated. According to US law, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory without free association.[1]But what does this mean exactly?

Puerto Rico’s current legal status

The native people of Puerto Rico call themselves boricua. They inhabited the island for about a millennium before it fell under Spanish colonial rule in 1493. After the Spanish-American war in 1898, the Spanish had to concede the island to the US. Ever since then, Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the United States. 

Nowadays, the people of the island are simultaneously Americans and Puerto Ricans. On one hand, they do have US citizenship, they pay (some) federal taxes such as social security taxes or commodity taxes, and in case of a draft they would have to serve in the US military. On the other hand, they are not allowed to vote in the presidential elections (except for the primaries), they do not have any senators and their one delegate in the House of Representatives can speak but does not have a vote. 

Thus, a quarter of a millennium after the no-taxation-without-representation movement, Puerto Rico is still not represented adequately. But in the last few decades, there have been more and more signs that this may change soon. How will the future of Puerto Rico’s legal status look like? There are three main possibilities: remain in its current status, gain US statehood, or gain independence.

Statehood 

Puerto Rico could become the 51st state of the United States of America (or 52nd if the Washington DC statehood campaign is successful). In many areas, Puerto Rico would not be an outlier, for example it would neither be the smallest (Rhode Island) nor the only non-continental state (Hawaii). While Spanish is also spoken in other states, it is the predominant language in Puerto Rico. Yet, the idea of the US as a melting pot is based on the integration of multicultural communities.

Plans of statehood also face institutional obstacles. As with any change in Puerto Rico’s legal status, the US Congress has to vote on plans for statehood. Today, in the very polarized environment of US politics, this poses a rather big hurdle for the admission of more states into the Union. Due to the filibuster, an institutional mechanism in the US Senate that asks for a qualified majority of 60 out of 100 votes, any efforts for Puerto Rico statehood need bipartisan support.[2] In comparison to DC statehood, this may not be as challenging in the case of the Caribbean island. Since Puerto Rico would be considered a purple state, meaning neither Democrats nor Republicans have a clear majority, the two additional Senate seats as well as the added seats in the House of Representatives would be up for grabs. Currently, there is a bill in its early stages in the House (H.R.1522) that could bring Puerto Rico closer to statehood.[3] Of course, another hurdle for Puerto Rican statehood would be to find enough room on the US flag to add another star.

Independence

In contrast to this, the movement for independence wants Puerto Rico to become an independent country. Other movements for regional independence exist globally, for example in Spain (Catalonia) or in the United Kingdom (Scotland). In the case of the Caribbean island though, this would be less of a cession of a consolidated state and more of a commonwealth attaining independence. The way of implementing this independence differs within the movement. While some voices in the movement unequivocally want the unincorporated territory to become an autonomous country, others also see a possibility in Puerto Rico being a freely associated state. This would give the island more autonomy without making it an independent country.

For the Puerto Ricans that are working towards independence, the House bill (H.R.2070) presents an opening. [4] This bill was introduced as a response to H.R.1522 to not only offer statehood but more diverse possibilities. So far, the exact wording of the bill does not yet exist, but its goal is to establish a number of options for the island’s future, including independence. In a second step, the Puerto Ricans would vote on what path they want.[5]

Public Will of Puerto Ricans

There is one hurdle that precedes all the challenges the aforementioned paths pose: deciphering the will of Puerto Ricans. Several plebiscites have been made but so far, there have been no conclusive results. The last one was a non-binding vote on 3rd November 2020. While other US citizens were voting in the presidential elections, 55% of registered Puerto Rican voters turned out to voice their opinion. The result was 52.5% for and 47.5% against statehood – ambiguous.[6] Past plebiscites were confronted with similar problems such as boycotts that made decisive results impossible. However, without a democratic legitimate expression of the public will, Puerto Rico will continue to remain at odds with its legal status.


[1] “United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act”, U.S. Government Publishing Office, 26th July 1996. 

[2] “House passes DC statehood bill that faces long odds in the Senate”, CNBC, 22nd April 2021.

[3] “H.R.1522 – To provide for the admission of the State of Puerto Rico into the Union”, Congress.gov, 9th May 2021. 

[4] “H.R.2070 – To recognize the right of the People of Puerto Rico to call a status convention through which the people would exercise their natural right to self-determination, and to establish a mechanism for congressional consideration of such decision, and for other purposes”, Congress.gov, 9th May 2021. 

[5] “House Hearing on Puerto Rico”, PR51st, 14th April 2021. 

[6] “Plebiscite Island Wide Results”, CEE, 12th March 2021. 

The tropical Trump without Trump: the future of Brazilian president Bolsonaro

Brazil and the United States have always maintained a close relationship, but during the presidency of Bolsonaro (also known as the tropical Trump) in Brazil and Trump in the US, the two countries collaborated even more intensively. For this reason, with Trump losing the election in November 2020, Brazilian president Bolsonaro has surely lost a key partner in the international scenario. However, the stability of his presidency seems to be unaffected by this event. 

An ability to overshadow criticism 

Over the last years, all sorts of scandals have been related to Bolsonaro and his way of doing politics. Controversial decisions and positions on many topics provoked criticism and protests from a varied mix of internal and external groups: from defenders of human and women’s rights, anti-racism associations to environmental organizations and protectors of indigenous societies. Bolsonaro’s presidency has faced so many challenges that it is practically impossible to record everything it went through. 

Nevertheless, each dispute involving Bolsonaro shares a common aspect: the ability of the president to largely overshadow criticisms. Brazil’s current president has manged to effectively avoid being truly confronted with issues that are likely to be problematic for his campaign. Did human and women’s rights in Brazil experience a true discussion? Did racism and the defense of indigenous groups in Brazil receive a deep analysis? Did a real debate regarding the protection of Brazilian nature rise? Bolsonaro and his strong, aggressive attitude guarantee that these kinds of topics are treated only superficially.

The focus is set on success instead 

On the other hand, each opportunity is deemed to be the right one to discuss success. Bolsonaro is perfectly conscious of this idea and thus, there is no situation where he does not underline some kind of victory. To support this argument, there is the very recent example of the government handouts given to the population in the north-east of Brazil in order to overshadow the crisis provoked by Covid-19. This manoeuvre received an enormous media coverage and the president became very popular in a region once opposed to him. 

However, this is not everything about this story. Bolsonaro also used the occasion to announce the promise of finishing the government’s infrastructural interventions in the region to counter water shortages. The statement was celebrated by the entire country, despite the fact that nothing has been completed regarding this required work. Bolsonaro could eventually gain even more supporters amid the Covid-19 crisis because of his great ability to keep the attention of the population on issues that benefit his campaign.

The future of the political career of Bolsonaro

Taking everything into account, the political future of Bolsonaro seems positive. Even though the politics of the tropical Trump resembled those of Trump himself (and we all know how this story ended), Bolsonaro is apparently far from losing the presidential office. Speculating about the future is, however, always a very difficult and to some extent useless task. Nevertheless, it is necessary to admit that the successful strategy adopted by Bolsonaro against those who oppose him is a real and strong fact supporting the possibility of a new Bolsonaro mandate in 2022. 


“Covid makes Brazil’s president Bolsonaro a hero to some”, BBC, 30th November 2020.

Uruguay – good things come in small packages

Throughout the entire geopolitical context of Latin America, democracy represents more of a theoretical concept rather than a real system. The ongoing socio-economic crisis, which has plagued the region since the ’60s, has tended to favor elements such as corruption and violence instead of modernization. In this scheme, however, Uruguay is the exception that confirms the rule. The country is known as the “Switzerland of Latin America”, firstly because of its particular banking regulations, but also due to its outstanding democratic circumstances. 

The democratic success of Uruguay is often explained by its size (176.2 km2). Surrounded by giant neighbors such as Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is by far the smallest country of South America and one of the smallest countries of the entire Latin American region, where few cases present similar conditions. 

But why should the small area of Uruguay be favorable for democracy? The answer is to be found in Ancient Greece, where small communities of humans known as polis emerged and formed the first prototypes of a democratic society. The reduced dimensions of the polis made sure that everyone was close to each other and thus, more participative and accountable in the political debate. Nowadays Uruguay is much bigger than an Ancient Greek polis, but the principle is the same. In the country politicians and people are an indivisible unit and polity, politics, and policy are done by the people, and for the people. 

In the Uruguayan democracy, there is little room left for corruption and violence, whereas the focus is on modernization and anticipating the future needs dictated by the continuous evolution of society. Uruguay’s excellent management of the crisis provoked by Covid-19 represents a perfect example of this attitude. Immediately after the outbreak, the Uruguayan society moved unified into one precise direction and provided each inhabitant with flu vaccines, protective masks, and clear rules to follow.

The case of Uruguay should inspire extensive reflection and reactions from other Latin America’s contexts and further. In a world dominated by a desire for expansion and global domination, the democratic success of Uruguay effectively distorts this paradigm. 


Uruguay Country Profile, World Bank, 14 September 2020. 

The Divided States of America

“I will work to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify.” Joe Biden’s statement in his first speech as president-elect sets the agenda for his upcoming term in the White House: Unification. It seems like the United States of America has never been so divided as in 2020. But in 244 years of history, it has never really been united either.

The establishment of the United States is unique and remarkable. In eight territorial acquisitions between 1783 and 1867, the US-territory we know today was assembled either by war or acquisition from the British Empire, Spain, Mexico, and Russia. The country was populated through big waves of immigration, first by Europeans, then by Asians and Latin Americans. The transport of nearly 600’000 slaves from Africa completed this cultural fusion of the American population.

The Civil War (1861-1865) between the progressive Union States in the North and the conservative Confederate States in the South proved for the first time how difficult it is for a country this large to live peacefully and harmoniously. The reconstruction, an effort to reintegrate Southern states and the newly-freed slaves into the United States by President Lincoln, was followed by his assassination and the so-called Jim Crow laws. These laws were implemented by the defeated states in the South and enforced racial segregation. The war between the North and the South was over, but the division remained.

A bipolar party-system represents a bipolar society

Fast advancing industrialization, globalization, and later on digitalization have divided the country even more. Urban areas have become more educated, industrialized, digitalized, and more racially diverse than rural areas, which has resulted in a liberal and conservative society. In America, there is no gray area, no in-between, which is most clearly symbolized by the bipolar party-system. 

According to the cleavage-theory by political scientists Lipset and Rokkan, political parties result from conflicts between capital and labor, state and church, urban and rural as well as center and periphery. These conflicts (cleavages) were mainly caused by industrialization in the early 19th century and still exist today. While almost every liberal democracy in the world has a multi-party system which provides voters with different political options to choose from, in the United States the choice is either blue or red: The Democratic Party represents capital, state, urban and center while the Republican party stands for labor, church, rural and periphery.

Imagine the political party-system as a gastronomic world: There are only two restaurants in your hometown. If you are happy with one of the two because it serves exactly the food you like at a price that fits for you, that is great because the choice is easy and there is no need to change restaurants. But imagine one day, you get food poisoning from your favorite restaurant, or they took your favorite dish off the menu, and the other restaurant serves food you are allergic to – what do you do? No wonder a new chef in one of those restaurants, a famous but inexperienced extrovert with crazy ideas and even weirder hair, was very popular and attracted a lot of new customers. But the food he cooked made a lot of people vomit and the service was a disgrace. After four long years with countless complaints, the chef was fired, which made him very angry. After all, firing people was his favorite activity.

One flag, different meanings

Bipolar party-systems increase polarization and may therefore catalyze radicalization. This has automatically resulted in a divided media landscape, an effect that worsened in the last four years. If you compare the reporting of the liberal media such as the New York Times and NBC with Breitbart and Fox News, it is not surprising that issues like health care, gun control, or immigration are perceived completely differently by American citizens. If even the sources of information are divided, how can a highly heterogeneous society become united?

The one thing Americans have always been united by is their love for their country and their flag. However, what the American flag represents has a rather different meaning for someone in Boston than someone in Alabama. It is president-elect Joe Biden’s mission to provide American society with an America everyone can agree to. Of course, this is easier written than done. 

Chile’s interminable journey towards democracy

In the last years, Chile was largely thought of as one of the most democratic and safe countries of the entire Latin American region. These important considerations had both been proven empirically and by research. Therefore, it was commonly understood that Chile had reached a sort of democratic stability and would no longer subjected to extreme changes.  

However, what happened approximately one year ago is common knowledge: Chile was overcome by an overwhelming wave of violent protests. These circumstances immediately provoked chaos and disruption in society and ultimately led to the end of the country’s democratic project and the worst socio-political crisis since the end of the Chilean military dictatorship in 1990. 

The main reasons behind the protests were the fight against injustice and inequality (unfortunately two always flourishing concepts in many Latin American countries, also in systems deemed to be democratically advanced). Nevertheless, these motives alone failed to fully explain the ferocity of the demonstrations as they could not completely answer the question as to what the Chilean people wanted to effectively achieve with these actions. 

After many months of violence and suffering, however, it looks like the ultimate goal of the protests is finally clear: Chile is searching for a complete separation from its difficult, dictatorial past. This is strongly illustrated by the impressive number of voters who support a new Chilean constitution. The latter is to be completely detached from the present document, which was approved during and by the military dictatorship.

The formulation of a new constitution is to be interpreted as the first step into a new era for Chile, where democracy is constructed on a solid base and not the result of a difficult transition from a military dictatorship. In these terms, the fact that this new democracy is deeply wanted by the people is a good sign for the Chilean project. 

Taking everything into account, the future finally seems bright for Chile. Therefore, it is even more important that no one takes democracy for granted. In the context of Latin America, this is an extremely fragile principle that needs meticulous and continuous attention.


Informes, Corporación Latinobarómetro, 25 October 2020. 

Quality of Democracy, Democracy Barometer, 27 October 2020. 

Black lives mattered, matter, and will always matter

It seems like a long time ago when people gathered on the streets, Instagram feeds were covered in black squares and the issue of racial inequality was a frequent topic of conversation. Nowadays, world affairs are so busy and fast-paced that they give the impression, they can only be devoted to a specific topic for a short amount of time. It is therefore all the more crucial in such a loud environment, that the moving and powerful outcry of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) continues to be heard and paid attention to.

If we consider the emergence of the BLM movement as the result of an acute social problem, this is not entirely correct. It is a mistake to believe that this is a new struggle. Especially when we look into our past, we become aware of how long there has been worldwide injustice in our society and that it is far from over. If we think of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, Pan-Africanism, and the civil rights movement, we see countless figures who fought and began to pave the way for us to continue. While the US has been the main stage for these movements, a global perspective and investigation are required. Since injustice and racism are global issues, it is imperative to come to terms with our past, including the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. 

From addressing the problem to solving it

With that, I would like to raise the question: What can I, as a white person, do now? Protests and actions on social media platforms have given us the basis to address and raise awareness for this issue. What is missing are solutions to the problem of injustice and racism that bring long-term social change. To be anti-racist and support the equality of people of color not only requires empathy, but also the understanding that being white still comes with privileges many people are unaware of. It is this insight that we should keep in mind as we go about our daily actions.  

This privilege must no longer be denied, and it is imperative to accept that our self-image in society is distorted. However, this privilege can and must be used to weaken existing structural injustices. This means making people more aware of how certain actions contribute to an unjust and unequal system and not being afraid to speak up when something is wrong.  

Since this is a socio-political issue, the responsibility not only lies on politicians but on each one of us. Thanks to globalization and technology, the images of the protests spread at a rapid pace around the world. The difficulty, however, lies in the contrast between ideals and real life. Although the movement is rapid, the goal of equality requires time, and it may take a while to achieve real structural change. That is why constant engagement, education, and awareness of the issue of justice for people of color and the abolition of racism are necessary.

As moving and important as the outcry of the BLM movement is, it is all the more important not to let it fall silent.