OPINION

Opinion: We, the people of Puerto Rico, continue to live in a state of subordination

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 27:  Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder holds a Puerto Rican flag as she listens to Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speak after he was endorsed by the National Hispanic Leadership Network at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa on January 27, 2012 in Miami, Florida. Gingrich is campaigning ahead of Florida's January 31, primary.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 27: Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder holds a Puerto Rican flag as she listens to Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speak after he was endorsed by the National Hispanic Leadership Network at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa on January 27, 2012 in Miami, Florida. Gingrich is campaigning ahead of Florida's January 31, primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)  (2012 Getty Images)

In remarks following the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision on marriage, President Obama said, “When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.” The president went on to recognize that “progress on this journey often comes in small increments, two steps forward, one step back, compelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens. And then sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”

President Obama has said America is a place where you can write your own destiny. Yet, that opportunity has not been fully extended to Puerto Ricans, even after voters rejected the current territorial status in 2012 and voted in favor of statehood.

- Zoé Laboy

We, the people of Puerto Rico, are American citizens, and have been proud to be citizens for nearly a century. We celebrate the legitimate civil rights victories the Nation’s Constitution enables, even if they sometimes come, as President Obama observed, in small increments. And yet we, the American citizens of Puerto Rico, continue to live in a state of indefinite political subordination. 

Due to Puerto Rico’s subordinate status as a territory, the public corporations of the Government of Puerto Rico cannot legally restructure their debt through a state-enacted bankruptcy code, nor through Chapter 9 of the federal Bankruptcy Code. So far, the island has been left to its own devices to address its tens of billions of dollars of public debt (43 percent of which corresponds to public corporations and municipalities). 

Similarly, while the states have seen increases in federal funds for Medicare Advantage, Puerto Rico’s funds were slashed by 11 percent. This comes at a time when the only growing segment of the island’s population is seniors. Not only can the people of Puerto Rico not vote for our nation’s commander in chief, who sends our sons and daughters to fight shoulder to shoulder with their stateside brethren, but they still have no voting representation in Congress. 

Still, the people of Puerto Rico continue to pay federal payroll taxes, social security taxes, Medicare taxes and income tax on U.S. mainland source income. In fact, Puerto Rico currently accounts for the payment of more federal taxes than six states. This, too, constitutes taxation without representation. 

President Obama has said America is a place where you can write your own destiny. Yet, that opportunity has not been fully extended to Puerto Ricans, even after voters rejected the current territorial status in 2012 and voted in favor of statehood. 

How can it be that even after expressing our will, Congress is still silent? The answer is simple: territorial status inherently breeds neglect from the Federal Government. That is why, at this historic juncture, I am issuing this call to President Obama to defend the civil rights of the 3.5 million American citizens in Puerto Rico whom he pledged to defend when he campaigned for the presidency in 2008 and 2012, as well as to the Congress to act on H.R. 727, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Process Act, and to the people of Puerto Rico, both on the island and those who live on the U.S. mainland, and all our fellow citizens who see the righteousness of our cause, to join forces in demanding change. 

This is a call to rise from inequality with the same zeal and persistence that led to all the other stunning advances in civil and human rights that have been achieved under the American flag. Ours is yet another unfinished chapter in the long story of American democracy. Justice and equality for Puerto Rico must also arrive like a thunderbolt.

Zoé Laboy, a former attorney with the United States Department of Justice, is a candidate for Puerto Rico's sole non-voting seat in the United States Congress.

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